Monday, 2 April 2018

Matcha Tea

Image result for matchaMatcha is a finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea leaves. It is special in two aspects of farming and processing: the green tea plants for matcha are shade-grown for about three weeks before harvest and the stems and veins are removed in processing. During shaded growth, the plant Camellia sinensis produces more theanine and caffeine.

The powdered form of matcha is consumed differently from tea leaves or tea bags, and is dissolved in a liquid, typically water or milk. The traditional Japanese tea ceremony centres on the preparation, serving, and drinking of matcha as hot tea and embodies a meditative spiritual style. In modern times, matcha also has come to be used to flavor and dye foods such as mochi and soba noodles, green tea ice cream, matcha lattes, and a variety of Japanese wagashi confectionery. Often, the former is referred to as ceremonial-grade matcha, meaning that the matcha powder is good enough for tea ceremony. The latter is referred to as culinary-grade matcha, but there is no standard industry definition or requirements for either.

Blends of matcha are given poetic names known as chamei ("tea names") either by the producing plantation, shop, or creator of the blend, or, by the grand master of a particular tea tradition. When a blend is named by the grand master of a tea ceremony lineage, it becomes known as the master's konomi, or a Butcher block of Leaf.

Related imageIn China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), tea leaves were steamed and formed into tea bricks for storage and trade. The tea was prepared by roasting and pulverizing the tea, and decocting the resulting tea powder in hot water, then adding salt.[2] During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the method of making powdered tea from steam-prepared dried tea leaves, and preparing the beverage by whipping the tea powder and hot water together in a bowl became popular.

Preparation and consumption of powdered tea was formed into a ritual by Chan or Zen Buddhists. The earliest extant Chan monastic code, entitled Chanyuan Qinggui (Rules of Purity for the Chan Monastery, 1103), describes in detail the etiquette for tea ceremonies.

Zen Buddhism and the Chinese methods of preparing powdered tea were brought to Japan in 1191 by the monk Eisai. Although powdered tea has not been popular in China for some time, now there is a global resurgence in Matcha tea consumption, including in China. In Japan it continued to be an important item at Zen monasteries, and became highly appreciated by others in the upper echelons of society during the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries.

Matcha is made from shade-grown tea leaves that also are used to make gyokuro. The preparation of matcha starts several weeks before harvest and may last up to 20 days, when the tea bushes are covered to prevent direct sunlight.

Image result for matcha teaThis slows down growth, stimulates an increase in chlorophyll levels, turns the leaves a darker shade of green, and causes the production of amino acids, in particular theanine. Only the finest tea buds are hand-picked. After harvesting, if the leaves are rolled up before drying as in the production of sencha, the result will be gyokuro (jade dew) tea. If the leaves are laid out flat to dry, however, they will crumble somewhat and become known as tencha (??). Then, tencha may be de-veined, de-stemmed, and stone-ground to the fine, bright green, talc-like powder known as matcha.

Grinding the leaves is a slow process, because the mill stones must not get too warm, lest the aroma of the leaves is altered. It may take up to one hour to grind 30 grams of matcha. The flavour of matcha is dominated by its amino acids. The highest grades of matcha have more intense sweetness and deeper flavour than the standard or coarser grades of tea harvested later in the year.

So what's all the buzz about matcha tea and why is it gaining such popularity? 

Matcha Green Tea has a sweet, grassy taste that makes a delightful cup and is best when mixed with milk or soy milk for an instant green tea beverage. It can also be used as an ingredient in recipes for matcha lattes, smoothies, shakes, ice cream, baking, etc. It consists of crushed up tea leaves that end up in powdered form, so it is not steeped in water like traditional tea. However, that is not the primary reason why it is different. 

Matcha Green Tea production starts about 20-30 days before harvest, when the tea bushes are covered or placed in shade. To compensate for the dark growing conditions, the plant produces increased levels of chlorophyll and amino acids. 

Increased levels may just be an understatement, because some studies have shown that Matcha produces over 20 times more anti-oxidants of regular loose green tea, and surpasses other super foods known for their anti-oxidant properties. 

 Here’s a quick comparison for an idea of the Matcha Green Tea anti-oxidant levels: 

  • 6.2 times that of goji berries
  • 7 times that of dark chocolate
  • 17 times that of wild blueberries
  • 24 times that of acai berries
  • 60.5 times that of spinach 

You can read how tea is made and the differences in the various teas including green tea: 
In addition, some tests have shown that it has cancer preventing properties, anti-ageing properties, lowers LDL cholesterol, aids in weight loss, and increases energy. There are several different grades of Matcha, from an affordable grade for every day drinking, to rare and expensive ceremonial grades. 

The Japanese have been drinking it for centuries and have a ceremony that centers on the preparation, serving, and drinking matcha. Even some westerners have found the preparation ceremony relaxing and enjoyable. Preparation does not have to be elaborate however, it can be as simple as adding a few drops of hot water to the matcha powder to create a paste, then add more water to the mixture and stir. 

Grades Of Matcha
Location on the tea bush

Where leaves destined for tencha are picked on the tea bush (Camellia sinensis) is vital. The very top should have developing leaves that are soft and supple. This gives a finer texture to higher grades of matcha. More-developed leaves are harder, giving lower grades a sandy texture. The better flavour is a result of the plant sending the majority of its nutrients to the growing leaves.

Traditionally, sencha leaves are dried outside in the shade and never areexposed to direct sunlight, however, now drying mostly has moved indoors. Quality matcha is vibrantly green also as a result of this treatment.

Without the correct equipment and technique, matcha can become "burnt" and suffer degraded quality. Typically in Japan matcha is stone-ground to a fine powder through the use of specially designed granite stone mills.

Oxidation is also a factor in determining grade. Matcha exposed to oxygen may easily become compromised. Oxidized matcha has a distinctive hay-like smell and a dull brownish-green colour.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Natural vs Synthetic HRT

If you’ve talked to your doctor about menopause, it’s quite likely you’ve been offered HRT: hormone replacement therapy. This medication provides synthetic versions of the hormones which naturally decline during menopause, usually given in a combined form with oestrogen and progesterone. It’s natural to want to find a solution to the symptoms you’re experiencing, and many in the medical profession see HRT as a solution for all symptoms of menopause. However, HRT does have its pros and cons, and there are natural alternatives to consider.

The pros and cons of HRT
Some women swear by HRT and have found great comfort in relief from their symptoms of night sweats, insomnia, continual hot flushes and vaginal dryness. Unfortunately, when you stop taking HRT, you’ll go through menopause again as your hormones decline.

HRT may also be prescribed if your doctor believes you are at risk of osteoporosis, due to the effects of oestrogen on supporting bone turnover. However, HRT has been shown to increase your risk of ovarian and breast cancer, with a review in the Lancet in 2015 showing that even short term use of HRT could increase ovarian cancer risk by up to 43%.

Natural Alternatives to HRT
Image result for natural HRTVitamin E: Around 75% of menopausal women experience hot flushes, and research has shown a significant reduction in their severity and frequency from taking 400IU of vitamin E per day. The same dose of vitamin E has also been shown to help reduce vaginal dryness. Good food sources include avocados, seed oils, nuts, leafy green vegetables, whole grains and wheat germ. If you opt for a vitamin E supplement, look for one that contains d-alpha-tocopherol, as this is better absorbed.

Omega 3 essential fatty acids: The signs of omega 3 deficiency are similar to many symptoms experienced during menopause: dry skin, fatigue, depression, and aching joints. Omega 3 essential fats also support hormone balance, and have a lubricating effect in the body, so may help with vaginal dryness, and have been linked to a reduction in risk of breast cancer. Good food sources include oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, seafood and fresh tuna), nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables.
Image result for natural HRT
If you don’t like fish, it’s worth supplementing fish oil daily. Look for one with at least 200mg of EPA per daily dose. For vegetarians, include flax and chia seeds in your daily diet, and look for a vegetarian omega 3 supplement.

Black cohosh: This medicinal herb has been used for centuries to support menopausal women, and may help with hot flushes, depression, night sweats and vaginal dryness. Research has shown an improvement in symptoms in up to 80% of women using black cohosh within six to eight weeks.

There’s been a lot of controversy over this herb, with some calling into question the safety of black cohosh on breast tissue. However, most recent research suggests that black cohosh is a selective oestrogen receptor modulator (SERM), which means that it stimulates only certain oestrogen receptors in the body: namely, the bones and the brain, and not womb or breast tissue. The best way to take black cohosh is as a supplement, and some menopause supporting supplements contain this herb. Or you could visit your local medical herbalist who can make you a bespoke tincture containing black cohosh.

Phytoestrogenic foods: Foods rich in phytoestrogens may help to moderate symptoms of menopause due their effect on oestrogen receptors on the cell membrane. In cases where oestrogen levels are low, they lock into receptors and stimulate a mild oestrogenic effect. Where there is an oestrogen excess, the phytoestrogens block cell receptors. Foods rich in phytoestrogens include soya foods such as miso, tempeh and tofu, lentils, linseeds, mungbeans, garlic, fennel, parsley and celery.
Image result for herbs for menopause
Milk thistle: The active ingredient in milk thistle is a bioflavonoid called silymarin, which can help to support hormonal balance through its protective action on the liver. Any excess hormones we have in our body are detoxified and excreted via the liver and gut, which makes milk thistle an excellent herb to help support hormonal balance, and to help protect ourselves against hormone related female cancers.

Related imageVitamin D: Many women are prescribed HRT as a prevention for osteoporosis, particularly if they have gone through an early menopause or have had a full hysterectomy. However, supporting bone density doesn’t rely on just having the right hormones present. There are key nutrients as well, and vitamin D is one of them. Calcium absorption depends on vitamin D, and it’s made through the action of sunlight on the skin. Our ability to absorb it decreases with age, and given the food sources are limited, it’s important to supplement. So alongside sensible sun exposure when the sun is out, supplement around 1000 – 2000 iu per day (25mcg to 50 mcg), of the D3 form, which is better absorbed.

B vitamins: If you’re experiencing stress, panic attacks, anxiety or depression, then B vitamins can be very supportive. Known as the ‘stress nutrients’, B vitamins help to support your nervous system, the production of your feel good neurotransmitter serotonin, and help your adrenal glands to manage stress. As the B vitamins work in harmony, it’s best to choose a B complex that provides a range of B vitamins from B1 to B6, plus B12 and folic acid. Food sources of B vitamins include green leafy vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, dairy and fortified foods.

But how safe is HRT?
Going through the menopause is a natural part of life for most woman and symptoms range in severity from almost none (for the lucky few) to raging hot flushes, pelvic problems, emotional flare-ups and sleepless nights. So how safe and helpful is hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and should we all be taking replacing our hormones to improve our menopausal wellbeing?

What is Hormone Replacement Therapy?
The concept of replacing lost or declining hormones has been around since the late 1800s, but HRT has come on a long way since its original use of bovine ovarian tissue (extracted from cows) and pregnant horse’s urine (popular in America). Today, the vast majority of the commonly prescribed UK and European HRT formulations are plant-derived and come from the oestrogen-rich yam plant. These hormones include oestrogen and progesterone (to boost naturally declining supplies) and occasionally testosterone too (yes, women do produce testosterone and this decreases in later life, alongside oestrogen and progesterone). Not only can replacing these lost hormones improve a range of menopausal symptoms, but HRT has also been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. It’s the most effective, clinically proven treatment there is for relieving symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, joint pains, mood swings and urinary incontinence, and for the vast majority of those under 60 years old, overall the benefits of HRT would definitely seem to outweigh the risks.

Should I be taking Hormone Replacement Therapy?
Image result for herbs for menopauseThe elephant in the room during the menopause is often ‘should I take HRT to help my menopausal symptoms?’. Most symptoms of the menopause are due to fluctuating (and then low, or no) levels of the hormone oestrogen. All types of HRT contain an oestrogen hormone and this is what replaces the body’s natural supplies. Other hormones that may be taken as part of HRT are testosterone and progesterone (in the form of progestogen). The doses and types of hormones very much vary according to your own personal medical history, symptoms and need, so it’s important to discuss your symptoms in detail with your GP and, if necessary, get a second opinion from a doctor who specialises in this area. The good news is that even low levels of HRT taken temporarily can be of significant benefit and may dramatically improve your day-to-day well-being.

What's best for me?
It’s easy to feel confused about the different types of HRT, as well as about the benefits and risks of taking it, so it’s very important that your own individual health is taken into consideration by your doctor here. HRT brings many benefits, including the treatment of vaginal dryness (which can lead to urinary tract infections), depression and loss of libido. Other positives are HRT’s ability to increase bone density and the protection of discs in the spine.

Ways of taking Hormone Replacement Therapy
HRT is taken as tablets, skin patches or gel – or as a combination of these. As the hormones in skin patches and gels are absorbed through the skin, they’re sometimes a better option to pills that are processed via the liver. As the skin is so protective, it’s hard for substances to get through, but HRT skin patches and gels are made in a different way from everyday skincare. The patches work by forming an occlusive sticking plaster-like barrier over the skin, keeping the hormone loaded onto the patch and in direct contact with the skin 24/7. The gels are normally made with the emulsifier triethanolamine, an ingredient unusually compatible with both oils and water, making it more easily absorbed into the body through the skin. One or two pumps of oestrogen-rich gel are usually applied each night. Tablets are relatively straightforward to take and it’s often handier to take the progestogen tablets, such as Utrogestan, last thing at night as they can make you feel slightly sleepy (a helpful side-effect at bedtime!). Your doctor may also suggest having a Mirena coil (IUD) fitted to release small amounts of progesterone internally. This is especially convenient as it stays in place for several years without a further thought.


Sunday, 11 February 2018

Plastics Pollution - the scourge of human existence

Are biologically based plastics a realistic replacement for petrochemical plastics?

As the world wakes up to the environmental scourge of plastic waste and the EU launches its first ever Plastics Strategy, we ask whether there is a role for biologically based plastics in packaging?

For more than 50 years, global production and consumption of plastics have continued to rise. An estimated 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, representing a 4 percent increase over 2012, and confirming and upward trend over the past years.(See: Worldwatch Institute – January 2015). In 2008, our global plastic consumption worldwide has been estimated at 260 million tons, and, according to a 2012 report by Global Industry Analysts, plastic consumption is to reach 297.5 million tons by the end of 2015.

Plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, strong, and relatively inexpensive. Those are the attractive qualities that lead us, around the world, to such a voracious appetite and over-consumption of plastic goods. However, durable and very slow to degrade, plastic materials that are used in the production of so many products all, ultimately, become waste with staying power. Our tremendous attraction to plastic, coupled with an undeniable behavioural propensity of increasingly over-consuming, discarding, littering and thus polluting, has become a combination of lethal nature.

Pollution with plastic waste is not confined to the oceans but poses a growing threat to lakes as well.That is the view of researchers who found significant concentrations of the substance in Italy’s Lake Garda. They say the levels are similar to those found in samples taken from marine beach sediments. They are concerned that these tiny plastic particles are accumulating in freshwater species and are “likely” to get into the food chain. The research is published in the journal, Current Biology.

The problem of large amounts of plastic polluting the world’s oceans has been well documented in recent years. As well as bigger pieces that can choke sea creatures when ingested, there is an equally serious issue with very small fragments called micro-plastics. But research on the problems caused by plastic in lakes has been lacking.

As environmental campaigners highlight the ecological damage caused to fish and birds (and ultimately humans through the food chain) by plastics made from petrochemicals, countries – including Ireland – are rushing to ban microbeads in cosmetics, single-use plastics such as drinking straws, plastic cutlery, plastic-lined coffee cups. There is also a push for deposit refund schemes for recyclable plastic bottles.

I have previously written about microbeads; you can read it here:

But as campaigns to limit single-use plastics grab the headlines, there are high volumes of other plastics in everyday use which remain difficult to recycle or once recycled into something useful like a park bench, remain on this planet forever and a day. So why are we not hearing more about the potential for bioplastics to replace petrochemical plastics? Well, it’s complex. The idea of bioplastics has been around since the 1920s and some have been commercially produced since the 1970s. The difficulty to date is that plastics made from renewable plant-based materials such as starch cost more to produce than oil based plastics in a market driven by a low tech, high volume commodity produced cheaply.

Prof Kevin O’Connor is the director of the Science Foundation Ireland funded Beacon Research Centre at UCD. There, researchers are studying the potential for waste products from marine and food processing industry to be used as feedstocks for bio-based and biodegradable polymers (the chemical structure of plastics). Prof O’Connor believes the potential is huge for bio-based plastics even if they currently represent less than one per cent of the entire global production of plastics. “There are multiple companies producing both bio-based [derived from renewable sources but not necessarily bio-degradable] and bio-based biodegradable plastics [derived from renewable sources and bio-degradable] in the last five years and Ireland has potential to use by-products from the food industry to
make both bio-based and biodegradable plastics.”

He brushes aside any controversy that bio-based plastics could  compete for land used for food production. “If you were to look at the land required to satisfy all the demand for plastic, it would only use 10 per cent of agricultural land and if you consider  the potential to use sidestream or by-products from the food industry, this issue doesn't arise,” says Prof O'Connor.

Niche markets already exist for bio-based and biodegradable  plastics from food and healthcare manufacturers keen to have green credentials. Larger companies such as Ikea and Lego are also  showing interest. For instance, a foam made out of 100 per cent starch is already available for use as an alternative to polystyrene and in 2017, Ikea said it is considering using a fungus based biodegradable packaging instead of polystyrene to package its furniture. The packaging is produced by growing mycelium, the branched roots system of fungi, around clean agricultural waste such as corn stalks or husk an then dried. It has been found to biodegrade in gardens within weeks.

One pan-European project developing a bio-based biodegradable plastic has already caught the attention of Bodyshop. This project, Seabioplas, used sustainably cultivated seaweeds as feedstocks for biodegradable bioplastics from fish farms in Ireland and Portugal. Julie Maguire, a research biologist at the Bantry Marine Research Station in County Cork was part of the two-year study and remains involved in the market development of the bio-based, biodegradable plastic. “We made a few different types of plastic including a poly-lactic-acid (PLA) polymer from kelp. This PLA is a raw material for 3D printing machines. Growing seaweed around fish farms also absorbs carbon which prevents the eutrophication of
waste waters and the left over proteins and lipids were trialled as an additive to animal feed,” explains Maguire. 

The industrial partners of the Seabioplas study are talking to plastic manufacturers about the possible industrial scale development of this bio-based, biodegradable plastic. Companies such as Coca-Cola have already developed bio-based bottles to replace their petrochemical bottles. The latest Coca-Cola “plantbottle” was launched at the World Expo in Milan in 2015. Using patented technologies that converts natural plant sugars into ingredients for making polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, it is derived from 100 renewable sources compared to a 2009 version that used 30 per cent plant-based materials. 

The key point here is that these bio-based plastic bottles can be recycled alongside petrochemical plastics – without the harmful hazing that occurs in recycling facilities when biodegradable bottles are mixed in with recyclable plastics. In Ireland, the UCD spin-out company, Bioplastech, founded in 2009 by Prof Kevin O’Connor with Dr Ramesh Babu from Trinity College Dublin and Italian entrepreneur Enrico Altieri, is currently working with industry on prototypes for biodegradable adhesives for use in packaging.

Meanwhile, the Newtrients project, co-ordinated by the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork
(UCC) is looking at the potential to make a bio-based biodegradable polymer from dairy waste water. “Dairy processors
are under regulatory pressure to carry out costly wastewater treatments to remove high levels of organic and inorganic
constituents from carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous sources,” explains UCC microbiologist Niall O’Leary. “This project can capture and repackage inorganic and organic components in the wastewater to make a biodegradable polymer from bacteria and a high protein plant (duckweed) for use as an animal feed.” Having made the polymer in the laboratory, a pilot project in an industrial setting is imminent.

"The benefit of this process is that it uses a low-cost feedstock to get a low tech, high volume polymer which improves sustainability and competitiveness in the system because it uses up the waste water and provides an animal feed in the process,” says O’Leary. “The difficulty is that any sudden expansion in the production of bio-based biodegradable plastics would require careful consideration of the anticipated waste management route as the new EU Plastics Strategy cautions about their leakage into mechanical recycling plants,” adds O’Leary.

And while the first ever EU strategy on plastic released in January 2018 gives scant mention to bioplastics, an EU meeting with the National Science Foundation of China in 2017 promises Horizons 2020 funding of €5 million for a multi-partner project on the enhanced biodegradation of mixed plastic waste.

More than 300 million tonnes of plastics are produced every year, less than 1 per cent of which are bio-based plastics. One third of plastics produced are used for disposable plastics. Global plastics production consumes 8 per cent of the world oil and gas outputs.
As some consumers turn against petrochemical plastics because of plastic debris, the Berlin-based European Bioplastics Association predicts the use of bio-plastics made from sugar cane, wood and corn will grow by 50 per cent in the next five years.

However, what many consumers don’t realise is that plastics made from renewable plant sources won’t necessarily solve the problem of plastic debris because over 50 per cent of bio-based plastics currently produced aren’t biodegradable and need to be recycled.
For a bioplastic to be less harmful to the environment, it needs to be both bio-based and biodegradable. Even then, it will often only be biodegradable at industrial composting facilities where temperature and humidity levels are high enough to decompose its constituents. If biodegradable plastic (either from petrochemical sources or plant-based sources) is put into recycling, it becomes a contaminant.

Thompson, S "Are biologically based plastics a realistic replacement for petrochemical plastics?" Mon, Jan 29, 2018,  accessed 2 February 2018. 

Plastic Pollution Coalition is a growing global alliance of individuals, organizations, businesses, and policymakers working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals, waterways and oceans, and the environment.