Is bubble tea healthy?

Bubble tea was first created in Taichung, a special municipality located in Taiwan. Also commonly known as boba tea or pearl milk tea, it is now enjoyed worldwide. Bubble tea is usually served chilled in a plastic cup with a large straw, allowing you to suck up the chewy tapioca pearls (or boba) that settle at the bottom of the drink.

Delicious? There is no doubt about it – people love the taste of bubble tea. But is drinking this beverage considered healthy?

How is bubble tea made?

The most simple form of bubble tea contains black tea, tapioca pearls, milk and a sweetener such as honey or maple syrup. The tapioca pearls are allowed to soak to make them soft, and then cooked in boiling water, after which they are combined with brewed black tea and the other ingredients.

Black tea brings with it a number of health benefits. For example, it is rich in antioxidants that help fight off free radicals caused by oxidation. It has also been associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes and could help prevent cancer.

The milk used in the video above was soy milk, however ordinary milk or nut milks can also be used. Even though all these milks tend to look the same, some are definitely healthier than others. For example regular cow’s milk is high in protein and calcium but it can cause gut problems if you are lactose intolerant and could also result in trouble for your skin.

The type of sweetener used will also determine if it brings any health benefits. Unrefined honey is rich in antioxidants and these are generally associated with better health. However like maple syrup, it is also very high in sugar and should only be consumed in moderation.

Finally, the tapioca pearls. Tapioca is a starch that is obtained from the root of cassava, a woody shrub that is native to South America. To make the pearls, tapioca flour is combined with water to give it a dough like consistency – brown sugar is sometimes added for extra sweetness. The dough is then rolled into tiny balls and added to boiling water, after which they are quickly cooled.

Are tapioca pearls healthy?

Tapioca pearls mainly contain carbohydrate; 1 cup (152 g) contains 135 g carbohydrate, 1 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugars, 0 g protein, 0 g fat and 544 calories. The same amount also provides you with 13% of your DV of iron and 8% DV manganese. From a nutritional standpoint, these pearls don’t bring any real benefits with them; if you compare them with other healthy foods, they fall short.

There have also been some health concerns associated with tapioca pearls however the research has not been conclusive.

The first was a 2011 food scandal that broke out in Taiwan. Traces of DEHP (a common chemical plasticizer that is also a carcinogen) was found in drinks. Although it was not directly found in tapioca pearls, there were concerns that bubble tea may have contained DEHP. This caused the FDA to increase its surveillance of Taiwanese food products.

The second was in 2012. Research carried out at University Hospital Aachen in Germany found acetophenone, styrene and brominated substances present in tapioca balls. The main worry was that these brominated substances were identified to belong to a class of compounds known as PCB’s which have been associated with causing cancer.

This lead the Taiwanese government to carry out their own research. They found the pearls to contain no styrene; however they did find acetophenone and brominated biphenyls but the minute quantities meant they were not a health concern. The details of the testing has unfortunately not been made available.

One thing to note is that acetophenone and styrene are both legally allowed to be added to food and are regulated by the FDA. It was the media and investigators who incorrectly identified both substances as being dangerous.

We were unable to find any further studies on tapioca pearls. Keep in mind that the original German study was not conclusive in its reporting and the results were not evaluated by other experts for their accuracy.

The FDA is extremely strict about foods that it allows into the US market and so the consumption of tapioca pearls should not be of concern.

How bubble tea can be unhealthy

The recipe we described at the top of this article is not the only one that is used. Bubble tea has grown in popularity and this has also resulted in a large variety of recipes. In some cases green tea or even coffee is used, in others fruit and flavourings are added. Here are some of the ingredients you need to be wary of:

Type of milk used – bubble tea is sometimes made with condensed milk or non-dairy creamer rather than fresh milk. Both of these ingredients provide little nutritional value as they are low in protein but are high in calories, fat and sugar, making them unhealthy.

Excessive sugar – to make bubble tea more tasty, lots of sugar is usually added. As you may already know, the excessive consumption of sugar is extremely bad for your health – it burdens your liver, causes damage to your teeth, can result in insulin resistance and contributes to obesity.

Flavourings – in place of fresh fruit, artificial fruit flavourings are sometimes added. Fresh fruit is super healthy, it is packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber. The flavourings, not so much – they are usually full of sugar and chemicals, both of which are harmful to your body.

These ingredients together with the tapioca pearls means that bubble tea can sometimes contain more than 300 calories, with very little nutritional value provided. This is bad news for anyone, especially if you are trying to manage your weight.

Additionally, the actual tea may not be brewed from scratch but prepared beforehand in large batches. Also in most cases, very small quantities of tea are used.

Conclusion

Does this mean that all bubble tea has to be unhealthy? Absolutely not. The key is in the ingredients used. Here are some tips to make bubble tea more healthy:

  • Ask for no sugar to be added. Instead ask for a teaspoon of unprocessed honey
  • Use real milk instead of condensed milk or creamers
  • Use real fruit instead of artificial flavourings
  • Limit the number of tapioca pearls that you add if you are watching your calories
  • Use freshly brewed, high quality tea

The best option would be for you to make your own bubble tea at home so that you know exactly what’s in it!