Tea is one of the most versatile beverages out there. You can drink it, hot, iced, sweetened, or unsweetened, in flavors ranging from butterfly pea to ginger to masala chai.
A particularly fun option is boba tea, also referred to as bubble tea, pearl milk tea, or simply boba. The Taiwanese drink has become incredibly popular throughout the U.S., with cities such as New York frequently opening new boba shops. And as with any other buzzy food-related topic, bubble tea has also found its way onto TikTok. There’s even a boba tea challenge, where users try to insert boba straws into their cups without looking, that took off on the app back in March.
Tea is generally regarded as a healthy drink, but in light of the add-ons in bubble tea, you may be wondering, “Are boba teas healthy?” Ahead, learn more about boba tea, including its nutritional benefits and potential drawbacks.
What is boba tea?
Boba tea is a tea drink that’s typically iced and contains chewy tapioca balls also referred to as boba. The tapioca balls are derived from cassava, a starchy root vegetable. “Boba was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s and made its way to America in the early 1990s,” explains Diana Ark Chen, founder of BUBLUV Bubble Tea. “Traditionally, the process usually starts with tea, milk, ice, syrup flavorings or sugar, and then the boba is added to the base of the drink last.” Boba teas come in a variety of fruity and sweet flavors.
Are boba drinks healthy?
If you’ve noticed boba tea popping up on your “For You” page or at your local coffee shops, you may be wondering if the beverage has any health benefits.
In a viral TikTok video from last year, Chen speaks on the topic, sharing her experiences drinking boba and realizing that one 16-ounce boba drink is similar in calories to three cans of Coke. “I fell in love with boba tea in college and used to drink it literally every week,” she says in the video. “But then I found out how bad it can be for you.”
In the video, she also points out that boba drinks are high in sugar. A 16-ounce drink contains around 38 grams of sugar, which is more than the limits of 25 grams for adult women and 36 grams for adult men set forth by the American Heart Association. (Related: 5 Lessons I Learned from Doing a Sugar-Free Diet for 10 Days)
Even if you customize your boba drink and ask for less syrup or sugar, which Chen says she’s done, the tapioca pearls themselves offer very little nutrients. “Tapioca pearls are made from cassava root and while it contains some nutrition, it’s mostly destroyed in the cooking process, so that’s why the tapioca isn’t rich in nutrients,” explains Laura Iu, R.D., C.D.N., C.N.S.C., R.Y.T., a registered dietitian nutritionist based in New York. Because of this processing, tapioca flour is considered a refined carb.
One cup of tapioca pearls, which is about double the amount that’s added to a traditional 16-ounce cup of tea, contains 544 calories, mostly coming from carbs. While carbohydrates are a necessary part of your diet, not all types of carbs are created equal. Refined carbs (as opposed to carbs from whole grains) can cause quick spikes in blood sugar levels, followed by sudden crashes that lead to hunger, and food cravings. That’s why consuming refined carbs as your main source of carbohydrates is associated with diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, according to the Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association. (Related: How Many Carbs Should You Eat Per Day?)
That said, boba tea isn’t completely devoid of health benefits, says Iu. “The base of boba tea is most commonly green tea or black tea,” she says.”Non-herbal teas like green and black tea are rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, which are both linked to reducing inflammation and fighting cancer.”
Ultimately though, the addition of milk, syrups, sugar, and tapioca pearls offer more nutritional disadvantages than advantages, says Chen.
Are there alternatives for boba tea?
Rest assured that if you still want to drink the sweet treat without worrying about excess sugar intake, alternatives exist. For example, Chen’s BUBLUV Bubble Tea, which she says she created so she wouldn’t have to “choose between my cravings and my overall health and wellness,” is a boba alternative with 20 to 50 calories and one gram or less of sugar per bottle.
It’s available in three flavors, including black milk tea, matcha soy latte, and passionfruit oolong guava, which all contain tapioca pearls made of tapioca starch and konjac, a root vegetable, which cuts back on the carbs in the finished product. Rather than sugar, they’re sweetened with monk fruit and erythritol. (Related: The Misappropriation of Asian Culture In Wellness and Food Is Doing More Harm Than You May Realize)
You can also try making your boba tea at home or customizing your order at your local boba shop, says Iu. “What people don’t realize is that boba tea can be brewed using fresh ingredients and is often customizable,” she says. “Boba tea is prepared in three ways. The base can be plain [black] tea, milk tea, or fruity tea. You can then opt to have it with or without milk. You can also choose full sugar, half sugar, or no sugar, and select as many or few toppings as you’d like.”
Bubble tea may not fit the popular definition of “health food,” but if drinking them sparks joy, go for it. If you prefer to stick to a lower-calorie option or custom make your drink, you can do that too.