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If you haven’t yet discovered boba tea, expect to do so soon at a teashop near you.
A typical boba drink combines 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.”
This wildly popular beverage was first offered in 1980s Taiwan. It became popular across Asia in the 1990s, and in recent years teashops have popped up all over Europe and the United States.
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.
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
- sweeteners, such as flavored syrups
- 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!
There are also jellies and other “floaters” that can be added to give a fun texture. Some shops also serve boba iced coffee drinks, fruit shakes, and smoothies.
You’ve probably heard people refer to tea as a healthy drink. Tea by itself is calorie-free. It contains caffeine, but in smaller amounts than coffee.
Both green tea and black tea are believed to protect against heart disease. Antioxidant plant compounds in tea called polyphenols could be responsible for these benefits.
While milk is healthy for most people, research on tea with milk added is mixed. It’s currently not clear whether combining tea and milk improves on tea’s health benefits, or lessens them.
Milk tea isn’t exactly the same thing as “tea with milk.” It’s a sweetened tea drink that’s offered at boba teashops. You can also find bottled versions in stores that stock Asian soft drinks. Milk tea typically contains sugar and other ingredients to enhance the flavor and texture of the drink.
Let’s compare plain black tea with a 350 mL (11.8 ounce) bottle of ready-to-drink black milk tea:
|Plain black tea||Black milk tea|
|Carbs||0 grams||30 grams|
|Protein||0 grams||2 grams|
|Fat||0 grams||1 gram|
|Calcium||0% of the DV||6% of the DV|
|Sodium||0% of the DV||5% of the DV|
|Potassium||0% of the DV||4% of the DV|
Other than the caffeine and plant micronutrients discussed earlier, a serving of plain, unsweetened black tea is nutritionally similar to plain water.
On the other hand, the bottled milk tea has milk powder added to make it creamy. And added sugar increases the carbs and calories. Some salt has also been added, to help the flavors pop.
Overall, the nutritional profile of plain black tea is pretty different from a prepared milk tea.
Also, there’s no evidence to say whether the tea drinks offered by a boba shop have the same antioxidant benefits offered by plain tea.
Because you have so many options with boba tea, the nutritional value of your drink can vary. We’ve covered milk tea above, but a boba drink often contains other ingredients too. Let’s look at some of these.
Boba pearls themselves come in many varieties, but standard boba pearls are made from tapioca starch. The starch comes from the root of the cassava plant. Other ingredients are often added to the tapioca to give the boba color, flavor, or sweetness.
A 10 gram serving of plain tapioca pearls offers 35 calories and 9 grams of carbs. The small amount of tapioca in your drink probably won’t provide much of any other nutrients. But keep in mind that teamakers often sweeten the pearls with sugar, which increases the calories and carbs.
Boba teas are usually flavored with sugar-based syrups. Your options include a variety of fruity and sweet flavors. Along with a pleasing taste, these syrups will add sugar and calories to your drink, but probably not much of any other nutrients.
To look at an example, one 490mL (16.5 ounce) serving of brown sugar with tapioca pearls bubble tea contains the following:
- Calories: 270
- Carbs: 45 grams
- Protein: 6 grams
- Fiber: 0 grams
- Fat: 7 grams
Milk powder in this boba tea drink is responsible for the protein content, and some of the fat and calories. Additional fat comes from non-dairy creamer, which also contains carbs and raises the calorie count. A large portion of the carbs and calories in this drink come from the brown sugar that gives it a sweet taste.
This drink contains 15 percent of the DV for calcium and 7 percent for potassium. However, it also contains a surprising 9 percent of the DV for sodium. That’s 211 mg of salt.
In general, boba tea is probably best enjoyed as a sweet treat. There’s currently no evidence that it has particular health benefits. But enjoy it for its sweet flavor and the chewy tapioca bubbles.
You can also try asking for a less-sweet version of the drink, for example by skipping the syrups.
If you have an allergy or intolerance to a boba drink ingredient such as milk, you’ll want to steer clear of certain drink options.
It’s not common to be allergic to tapioca, but it is possible.
One 2021 study says that people with a latex allergy may have a higher chance of being allergic to cassava. Cassava is the root vegetable that tapioca starch is made from. So if you are allergic to latex, you might want to be extra cautious about tapioca.
Boba, boba milk tea, bubble tea, pearl milk tea: Call it what you will, this sweet drink is tasty and entertaining.
Just keep in mind, it doesn’t offer much in the way of nutritional benefits.
Indulge in moderation when you feel like a treat and if you don’t have any allergies or intolerances to the ingredients.
If you’re looking for something with proven health benefits, drink a cup of green or black tea. And consider enjoying real fresh fruit, not fruity drinks flavored with syrup.
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