Originating from Taiwan, bubble tea (珍珠奶茶 zhēn zhū nǎi chá) is a milk tea drink with chewy, sweet tapioca balls. It is often served with a thick straw so that you can get to the tapioca balls as you drink the milk tea.

Bubble Tea Components

Bubble tea brands have their own styles and varieties of drinks, but there’s one thing that they can agree on: what constitutes a classic cup of bubble tea. When you look at the menu at virtually all the stores, you’d notice that the drink “bubble tea” almost universally contain these four ingredients:

Black tea

Picture of black tea.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Black tea (also known to the Chinese as red tea) is used to make classic bubble tea. Ceylon and Assam teas are commonly used, although Earl Grey has gained popularity and is offered as an alternative.

The better bubble tea brands would use whole black tea leaves for their fresh, rich, complex flavours. However, many other brands have resorted to powders to save money and time.

Milk powder/creamer

Milk powder or creamer are often used for their convenience and relatively lower price. While both add a creamy mouthfeel to the drink, milk powder lends a lot more flavour to the end product.

Picture of milk powder.
Credit: Zvoimpex.sk

Although non-dairy creamer has been the subject of public health scrutiny, many brands have not stopped using them in their drinks. Many creamers contain unhealthy ingredients that can have a lasting impact on your health.

Tapioca balls

The black “pearls” that you see in the drink is made of tapioca flour. The flour is formed into tiny balls, boiled in sugar syrup and set aside to be used as a topping.

Picture of tapioca balls.
Credit: Bossenstore.com

Needless to say, tapioca balls are packed with carbohydrates and sugar.

Sugar syrup

Picture of sugar syrup.
Credit: momcandothis.com

Sugar syrup is traditionally used as a sweetener, although the type of sweetener varies from brand to brand. Some may even use corn syrup, which contains high levels of fructose and may increase the risk of diabetes, heart diseases and stroke.

Is bubble tea unhealthy?

Yes, in a way, because bubble tea is a high-calorie, high-sugar drink. An average 16-fluid-ounces cup of bubble tea has 263 calories and 38 grams of sugar, which makes up the bulk of the World Health Organization’s recommended daily free sugar intake of less than 10% of a person’s total energy intake, or about 50 grams of free sugar for an average adult. Studies have shown that high-calorie, high-sugar diets can lead to a whole host of health problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

Graphic showing18.5 teaspoons of sugar in a bubble tea.
Credit: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/

In other words, take away the toppings and sugar and you’ll have a much healthier drink. But is bubble tea still bubble tea without the bubbles and flavour?

As consumers become more health and quality conscious yet still want the same good bubble tea experience, brands have been evolving to keep up with the demands as well.

Innovation in the bubble tea industry

The industry is a competitive one. Every day, almost as many new stores open as some close worldwide, so brands have to continually explore other ways to set themselves apart.

Tea options

Many brands include other kinds of tea to accommodate more discerning tastebuds.

  • Oolong tea
  • Green tea
  • Matcha
  • Thai tea
  • White tea
  • Fruit tea
  • Premium and exotic Chinese tea

Milk options

Dairy and non-dairy milk options have become rather mainstream. Many brands also experimented with milk byproducts too.

  • Fresh milk
  • Condensed milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Probiotic milk
  • Soy milk

The more recent development is to remove tea entirely from the bubble tea, leaving just the milk component, toppings and sweetener.

Sweetener

Consumers want sweetness without the calories, so brands have also look for the least of the evils to give their customers more control over their sugar intake.

  • Brown sugar
  • Honey
  • Agave
  • Aspartame
  • Stevia
  • Sucralose
  • Gula Melaka (palm sugar)

Toppings

Here’s where the core differentiation battleground lies. Brands try to outshine each other with unique toppings and flavours that have not been seen in the market.

  • Flavoured tapioca balls
  • Tapioca noodles
  • Sweet potato balls
  • Taro balls
  • Aloe vera
  • Nata de Coco
  • Egg pudding
  • Herbal jelly
  • Other flavoured jellies (such as coconut, coffee)
  • Wild basil seeds (also known as “frog eggs”)
  • Red bean
  • Rehydrated longan
  • Lychee
  • Other rehydrated or fresh fruits
  • Chocolate
  • and the list goes on…

Sugar level

Thankfully, bubble tea brands are recognising the increasing awareness of sugar overconsumption and many of them offer customisable sugar levels, including a no-added-sugar option.

Sugar level chart at a bubble tea shop.
Credit: http://roadlesstravelledct.blogspot.com

Drink bubble tea responsibly

It’s easy to get addicted to bubble tea when it’s so accessible and enjoyable to consume. It’s also easy to blame the drink for all the health risks involved.

The bottom line is this: Your choices, not the drink, are going to determine your health. Choose healthier ingredients whenever you can and limit how frequently you drink it.

Cartoon guy drinking bubble tea.