What Is Bubble Tea?
In the mid-to-late-90s, as a high school student, my friend called me and asked if I wanted to go get a bubble tea. The drink was taking his neighborhood by storm and a few locations had popped up. Fast forward 20 years, and bubble tea, also called pearl tea or boba tea, shops are everywhere.
Bubble tea is usually a sweetened tea, with natural or artificial flavors, containing a layer of tapioca balls, or pearls, generally sitting at the bottom. They come up when you sip through a large straw, making them look like bubbles, or “boba.”
Originating in Taiwan, the popular drink was reportedly created by Lin Hsiu Hui, product manager at the Chun Shui Tang Teahouse. The teahouse was already serving cold tea, but in 1988, she decided to try adding small tapioca balls into her ice tea. The idea was based on a common Taiwanese dessert called fen yuan (a sweetened tapioca pudding). It was an instant success.
But is bubble tea healthy? Let’s find out.
Bubble Tea Ingredients
The ingredients in bubble tea can vary, but mainstays are typically green or black tea and tapioca. Unless specified upon ordering, virtually all teas are heavily sweetened with a form of sweetener such as cane sugar or fructose, as well as a milk or non-dairy additive to make it creamy.
Boba tea is also typically flavored, either naturally or artificially, with various fruits, chocolate, taro root, and more. Popular flavors are chocolate and fruit-based options like mango, kiwi, or strawberry.
Do all these ingredients add up to a health drink?
Tea is well-studied and has shown plenty of promise when it comes to human health. Green tea has the edge when it comes to health benefits because of its high concentration of the powerful catechin polyphenol epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG.
EGCG is a plant compound with antioxidant effects that is associated with improved cardiovascular health, lower inflammation, and a lower risk of diabetes and other chronic illness. It is also in black tea, just not with the same high concentration as green varieties.
Tapioca is a high-carbohydrate, starchy product that comes from cassava, which is a root vegetable that bears a similar appearance to the yam. Tapioca is available in a variety of forms, and pearls are one of them.
From a nutritional standpoint, tapioca supplies a load of quick and easily digestible carbohydrates. It is very low in vitamins in minerals—particularly in the serving you’d get in bubble tea—and is virtually free of fiber. Its biggest benefit is that it’s potentially easy to digest for people with irritable bowel diseases or gluten sensitivities, but on the flipside, it should be avoided by those looking to control sugar intake.
Milk and alternative non-dairy products (oat milk, almond milk, etc.) are also added to bubble tea. Cow’s milk is a rich source of calcium, B vitamins, iodine, potassium, and more. Non-dairy alternatives are usually fortified, but can feature added sugars if flavored. Specify what you’d like while ordering and be aware that sweetened alternatives add calories to the drink.
Flavors can come from natural sources or syrups. Syrups will have no nutrition and just add to the calorie and sugar counts of your bubble tea. If there is solid or blended fruit in the drink, you will get a small serving of the nutrients it contains.
Sweeteners will be high-calorie, high-sugar, and can contribute to weight gain and other chronic conditions if consumed regularly.
Is Bubble Tea Healthy?
Unfortunately, green tea can’t even save this drink. Essentially, it is a calorically dense liquid dessert. Any benefit from the tea is quickly eliminated by the massive sugar and caloric loads these drinks offer.
One study looking at different boba drinks found that, on average, a small 16-ounce (oz.) (473 ml) drink with milk tea and tapioca balls contained 299 calories and 38 grams of sugar.
Some variations of bubble tea feature jelly and egg puddings, and when they do, calorie and sugar counts get even higher. A large 32-oz. (946 ml) serving of a bubble tea with these ingredients supplies more than 250% and 384% of the daily recommended intake of sugar for men and women, respectively, and exceeds 500 calories.
Of course, the latter example is probably a worst-case scenario. But that doesn’t mean the best-case scenario is particularly good. A small bubble tea, even if it contains slightly less sugar, still has more calories than the same serving size of a sugar-sweetened soda.
Can you make bubble tea healthier? You can certainly shave off a few calories by electing to go the unsweetened route, but the tapioca will still offer some added sugar.
The bottom line is that bubble tea is a sweet treat and those who consume it need not concern themselves with its potential benefits. The other ingredients will likely cancel out any health benefits derived from the tea; it’s a dessert beverage, so enjoy only occasionally and accordingly.
If it’s the texture of the drink you’re after, it’s possible to make a somewhat healthy version. By eliminating sweeteners and additional flavors, you can knock off calories with non-nutritive sweeteners and a rather bare bones approach.
A Healthy(-ier) Bubble Tea Recipe
This basic bubble tea recipe will come in at about 150 calories per serving and can easily be made at home for a cheaper and potentially healthier alternative. To make one serving, you’ll need:
- 1 tbsp matcha powder
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
- 1/2 cup ice cubes
- 10 drops liquid stevia (optional)
- 1/4 cup boba balls
Simply blend the matcha, almond milk, ice cubes, and stevia, if using, together until smooth. Boil the boba balls for about three minutes in a half cup of water, then strain and put in a cup. Pour the blended liquid over it and enjoy.
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