Matcha, and Embracing Tea’s Bitterness

Living in a country where “matcha” too often means sweetened matcha lattes, how amazing to read about a place in Japan that offers matcha gelato—in seven levels of bitterness!

If it weren’t for Japan being a pricy 13+ hour journey from Michigan, I’d be sampling gelato today! Because matcha gelato is really fantastic.

matcha truffles and gelato
Matcha truffles atop matcha gelato, made by TeaHaus

Actually, matcha anything is really fantastic!

matcha kettlecorn-web
Matcha kettle corn, made by TeaHaus

Although there is that bitterness factor—which partly explains why I’m unlikely to find matcha gelato with bitterness options here in the sugar-loving U.S.

As illustrated in Per Oscar Brekell’s The Book of Japanese Tea (2018:29), when looking at taste elements, you can see how matcha can tip into any of the possibilities, including bitterness.matcha graphic
Brekell (2018:83) explains that “the taste and flavor changes [sic] depending on the amount of tea, type of Matcha, temperature, and of course the tea bowl and how the tea is whisked,” and that with careful whisking, we can maximize umami and astringency.

set up-web

And although many of us have learned to savor those seven matcha bitterness levels (which, I need to point out, are undoubtedly from the more bitter culinary matcha rather than from the higher-quality ceremonial grade matcha that we drink as tea), overall it’s very safe to say that we humans don’t like bitter. 

Researchers Adam Drewnowski and Carmen Gomez-Carneros point out that:

this instinctive rejection of bitter taste may be immutable because it has long been crucial to survival. (2000:1424)

This is actually a bit of a problem because we’re supposed to eat vegetables and fruits for their health benefits—but the parts of the plant that contain those desired antioxidant and anticarcinogenic properties, the phenols and flavonoids, among others, are the same things that are bitter or astringent!

In terms of health benefits, the higher the concentration of phenols, the better. Think citrus, endive, cabbage, kale, turnips, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli.

In terms of palatability, well, Drewnowki and Gomez-Carneros (2000:1424) point out that:

many people do not like to eat vegetables—and the feeling is mutual. Plants protect themselves against being eaten by secreting natural pesticides and other toxins. . . . Plant-based phenols, [and] flavonoids, . . . are almost always bitter, acrid, or astringent. . . . [and] may provide a defense against predators [us!] by making the plant unpalatable.

We humans are also very skilled at detecting bitterness, which allows us to, ideally, reject a toxic food before we ingest enough to kill us.

For example, we can pick up bitter quinine at only 25 µmol/L but we don’t detect sucrose until we’re at 10,000 µmol/L (Drewnowski and Gomez-Carneros 2000:1425)!

The food industry spends a lot of energy to reduce bitterness in our food, viewing it as “a sensory defect with a major economic effect” (Drewnowski and Gomez-Carneros 2000:1430) (which is one way to put it!).

Selective breeding for vegetable and fruit strains that are naturally less bitter is one avenue.

Bitter compounds can sometimes be removed from food. Or they might be masked, such as with additives that react with the bitter elements, by pickling, or through cooking. Or, by covering the bitterness with the much-less-healthy addition of sugar, fat, or salt! And considering the relatively high threshold for sucrose detection, how much sugar is needed to mask a food’s bitterness?

matcha brew-web

If we consider tea, it contains different types of phenols:

  • some of them bitter,
  • others bitter and astringent, and
  • still others bitter with a sweet aftertaste

It turns out that compared to black and oolong teas, Japanese green tea contains the highest levels of the bitter phenols (Drewnowski and Gomez-Carneros 2000:1426). And to compound the situation, caffeine itself is also bitter.

So why drink something that is bitter? And think about it—wine, beer, coffee, cocoa, and tea are all bitter beverages!


What’s the reward? Why do we do it? Because, seriously, when we reach for that morning cuppa, we really aren’t thinking phenols and antioxidants.

Nah. It’s the alcohol and the caffeine! 

Plus, in the case of matcha, your stress level may just go down a notch. Reason enough to whisk up a cup, even if it skews a tad bitter.

And, now I’m wondering whether having a scoop of matcha gelato on the high end of bitter, which presumably is not being masked with a boatload of sugar, would have a high enough concentration of phenols that tonight’s broccoli might be safely skipped!

brew close up-web

Related posts: the stress-reducing qualities of matcha, both as a beverage and in food; what ceremonial grade matcha really is and how it’s produced; are humans genetically prone to drinking coffee vs tea?

–Brekell, Per Oscar, The Book of Japanese Tea, Tankosha Publishing Co., 2018.
–Drewnowski, Adam, and Carmen Gomez-Carneros, “Bitter taste, phytonutrients, and the consumer: a review,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 72(6):1424–1435, Dec. 2000.
–”Why the world loves matcha – just not in cups of tea,” Asia One, 9/8/19.

Ceremonial grade matcha available at TeaHaus.


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