If you haven’t yet discovered boba tea, expect to do so soon at a teashop near you. This wildly popular sweetened drink originated in Asia. It is a combination of sweetened tea, natural or artificial flavors, and a layer of tapioca “pearls” that bob around at the bottom of the cup. The tapioca look like bubbles as they come up through the straw, thus the derivation “boba.”

Other names for boba include bubble tea, pearl milk tea, tapioca tea, ball drink, and pearl shake. The drink is usually served cold, with an extra-wide straw for sucking up the chewy boba along with your drink. Boba tea is usually available in teashops offering extensive menus of flavors and preparations.

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What’s in boba tea?

The term boba tea covers a broad range of sweet, noncarbonated, nonalcoholic drinks. Most varieties include:

  • brewed tea or tea made from concentrate
  • milk or a nondairy additive to make the drink creamy
  • plenty of sweetener
  • tapioca balls

Black, jasmine, and green teas are commonly used as a base. Many fruit flavors are popular, including mango, kiwi, strawberry, honeydew, and passion fruit.

While there’s really no “traditional” boba tea recipe, the simplest variety is a sweetened green or black tea with tapioca balls — but you can even get boba tea without the actual boba! Some shops serve boba iced coffee drinks, fruit shakes, and smoothies.

Is it nutritious?

As a source of nutrition, tapioca is a nonstarter. Though it is a staple in some native subsistence diets, its only contribution is as a carbohydrate for quick energy. The vitamin and mineral content is very low, and the lack of fiber is so notable that even if you could consume enough tapioca to get some small nutritional benefit, you’d likely become very constipated.

The tapioca balls are made from tapioca starch or flour, which is extracted from the cassava root, grown primarily in Nigeria and Thailand.

Enjoy boba tea for its sweet, exotic flavor and the chewy tapioca, not because it’s good for you.

The effects of phenols and polyphenols present in tea have been extensively studied and have shown promise against cardiovascular conditions and obesity. But the amount of sugar you’d consume drinking enough boba tea to get those benefits would not be worth it. Also, you wouldn’t consume enough fruit in the average boba drink to get the benefit of that either. And many teashops use fake fruit flavors or sugary fruit concentrates.

You can get artificially sweetened or unsweetened boba tea, although the latter is only available in a few shops and hasn’t really caught on.

Serving size: 16 fl. oz.Bubble tea (green or black, with fructose)Boba milk teaBoba fruit-flavored slushy
Calories231.5317.5264
Total fat (g)010.60
Saturated fat (g)000
Trans fat (g)000
Cholesterol (g)000
Sodium (g)00310
Total carbohydrates (g)545666
Fiber (g)001
Sugar (g)543665
Protein (g)01.80

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Additive scares

In the last few years, scandals concerning chemicals added to boba tea mixes by a few manufacturers and imported to the United States have been reported. There have been reports that DEHP, also known as bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate, is sometimes used as an additive for tea flavorings. DEHP is a chemical used to soften plastics. It was added to flavorings and mixes to enhance color and texture in place of the more expensive palm oil. Animal studies have suggested DEHP causes decreased fertility and growth development issues.

Caution

While an allergy to tapioca is rare, intolerances to the ingredient have been reported, primarily among those who have celiac disease or other digestive diseases. The cassava root is a major source of carbohydrates in certain parts of the world, but improper preparation of the cassava root can result in significant health symptoms when ingested. For example, inadequate cooking, soaking, or fermenting of the cassava root or the cassava peel may result in cyanide poisoning, neurological effects, and goiters.

Some tapioca flours may also contain added sulfite, so boba tea may not be your best friend if you have a sulfite intolerance.

The boba bottom line

Boba, boba milk tea, bubble tea, pearl milk tea: Call it what you will, this sweet drink is more entertainment than nutrients. Indulge in moderation when you feel like a treat and if you don’t have any of the intolerances mentioned above. Drink a cup of green or black tea for their unique benefits, and enjoy real fresh fruit, not sweetened fruit flavors.

NOTE: The nutrition information for beverages is based on Chopstix recipes.