What Is Bubble Tea, Exactly? (2023)

Here's everything you ever wanted to know about boba, the fun and customizable Taiwanese bubble tea.

When bubble tea was first introduced to the West, you could get it only in cheery mom-and-pop shops in big-city Chinatowns and Koreatowns. And while Asians and Asian Americans have been drinking bubble tea (aka boba) for decades, this beloved Taiwanese drink has been steadily garnering global popularity. A bit of food facts trivia: The bubble tea market was valued at just over $2 billion in 2019 and is estimated to surpass $3 or $4 billion by 2027. But what is bubble tea? (You know, aside from your soon-to-be-favorite drink.)

Classic bubble tea is black tea brewed with milk and sugar, then poured over ice and tapioca balls. But it can come in an array of other delicious flavors, using a base of everything from green tea, chai teaor other loose-leaf teas, to fresh fruit juice, and featuring fun toppings like mochi.

With the added fun of slurping up sweet and chewy tapioca balls through a colorful fat straw, bubble tea is like a beverage and dessert combined into one aesthetically pleasing treat. For those who haven’t been inducted into the bubble tea fan club yet, it’s an absolute must-try.

When was bubble tea created?

Invented in the tea houses of Taiwan in the ’80s, bubble tea has had a comparatively short history when you consider the centuries of tea drinking in Asia. You’ll find it under a few names: bubble tea, boba, boba naicha, and milk tea.

Since then, bubble tea has come a long way in terms of variety, creativity, and availability. (Case in point: It even appeared on Dunkin’s summer 2021 menu.) As more and more bubble tea shops pop up, we’re seeing innovative flavor combinations, tasty toppings, and vegan-friendly and organic options. Even if you can’t travel all the way to Taipei to go on a bubble tea crawl (add it to your travel bucket list!), you can get fresh bubble tea delivered right to your doorstep in many major cities. You can even buy DIY bubble tea kits, the perfect gift for tea lovers and boba fanatics.

What is bubble tea, and why is it so popular?

Boba begins with a tea base—black, green, matcha, or some other pick—that’s then combined with milk and sweetener. Ingredients differ from one restaurant to the next, but many offer bubble tea made with plant-based milks like almond and coconut.

(Video) What Does Bubble Tea Do To Your Body? The 30-Day Drinking Test

The drink is crafted by ladling tapioca balls (more on those in a minute) into a cup and pouring the sweet, milky tea over the top. Some shops use a machine to seal the cup with heated cellophane so that it’s easy to tote around without spillage. When you’re ready to sip, simply stick the oversized straw through the cellophane “lid.”

Drinking bubble tea is an experience. As the tea flavors dance along your tongue, you can chew the sweet tapioca pearls. When you do, you’ll instantly understand why so many people love the drink: It’s a super-fun and addictive combination, with the bouncy, springy texture reminiscent of mochi or candied jellies.

Most bubble tea shops allow you to customize ice levels and sugar levels. If you want more bang for your buck, you can request less ice, but it may not be as refreshing. And while boba is typically served as a cold beverage, you can also choose to order it piping hot to warm your bones on cold days.

What are bubble tea balls?

A sign of a good bubble tea is the quality of its tapioca balls, which are also known as tapioca pearls, bubbles, or boba. Made from tapioca starch extracted from cassava root, these marble-sized balls are naturally gluten free. The traditional black pearls you suck up with your jumbo straw are boiled and caramelized, but they start white and relatively flavorless. They get their beautiful dark color from soaking in a caramelized brown sugar syrup.

Bubble tea balls have to be timed perfectly in order to get the right consistency and freshness. Boil the tapioca too long, and they become mushy and shapeless. Leave them sitting out for too long, and theyget hard and impossible to chew. If you’d like to try making your own bubble tea at home, you can buy pre-made tapioca pearls from an Asian grocery store or even make your own from scratch using tapioca starch.

A word to the wise: Be careful to not sip too hard. You could suck the tapioca pearls directly into your throat. It can be a bit of a choking hazard for the uninitiated, as proven by many TikTok videos of Westerners trying boba for the first time. While bubble tea is a safe and a fun treat for kids, be sure to supervise your little ones while drinking.

What does bubble tea taste like?

Bubble teas can come in many different flavors, but the classic flavor combines the robust complexity of black tea with the creamy richness of milk and the sweetness of brown sugar tapioca. Of course, the drink will taste slightly different if you order yours made with green, Earl Grey, jasmine, chai, or oolong teas.

(Video) What is Boba Tea Made Of ?

On most bubble tea menus, you’ll also find refreshing, caffeine-free fruit-flavored options. Try some of the flavors beloved in Asia, like lychee, white peach, yuzu, and yakult. Also worth a sip is sweet taro, which has a lovely purple shade and a nutty, vanilla flavor.

If you’re a slow drinker and prefer to savor your beverages, ask for less ice so it doesn’t dilute the flavor of your boba as it melts. And if you’re sensitive to texture, and chewy foods are not really for you, don’t worry! These days, you can top your tea with all sorts of different toppings—flavored jellies, sweet adzuki beans, fresh fruit, ice cream, rich custard pudding, and more.

What is the best bubble tea flavor?

So, you have the answer to “What is bubble tea?” You’re ready to order. And you have no idea which option to pick. Your best bet is to go with your gut—or at least the tea flavor you most adore.

Classic milk tea is the most traditional and a go-to for a reason; lots of people consider it the best bubble tea flavor. But other fan favorites include Thai tea, which uses sweetened condensed milk; sweet taro; matcha; and refreshing honeydew. You can even choose different coffee flavors to get that fix somewhere other than your morning macchiato.

If you’re feeling adventurous, check out different combinations like strawberry matcha, or floral flavors like rose. Or go wild experimenting with different combinations of teas, toppings, ice, and sugar to find your flavor preference.

Is bubble tea unhealthy?

Like any food, the healthfulness of bubble tea depends on what you put in it. Most bubble tea shops offer different sugar levels, such as zero, 25, 50, 75, and 100 percent of the traditional sugar content. If you’re looking to cut processed sugar from your diet, the healthiest option would be to select a loose leaf tea with no sugar at all, and to swap the sweet tapioca pearls for a different topping, such as fresh fruit.

It’s also worth mentioning that tapioca starch is high in carbohydrates, and there are about 12o calories in a cup of bubble tea alone.

(Video) NEVER Drink Bubble Tea!

There’s also been some confusion surrounding tapioca pearls. Some news outlets have cited a 2012 German study that claimed tapioca balls were toxic and contained carcinogens. But the study was never published, peer reviewed (the gold standard for quality of research), or reproduced. Also, the study misidentified some of the compounds found in tapioca pearls. There is no scientific evidence linking bubble tea to cancer, and tapioca balls are absolutely Food and Drug Administration approved and safe to consume.

While bubble tea, with all of the bells and whistles, is more of a delicious indulgence than an everyday drink, you can customize it to be healthier. Start with 50 percent of the sugar level, try a plant-based milk like oat or almond, and adjust it to your liking. After all, you’ll definitely be coming back for more.

So what is bubble tea? Aside from a refreshing and irresistible drink, it’s a unique way to expand your palate and experience different flavors and textures. Try it out, and support your local Asian American–owned businesses while you’re at it.

Want to learn more about other Asian food favorites? Find out what sashimi is and where wasabi comes from.


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What exactly is bubble tea? ›

Bubble tea is a Taiwanese recipe made by blending tea with milk, fruit and fruit juices, then adding tasty tapioca pearls and shaking vigorously. All the rage over here in the UK, bubble tea has actually been a hot (or cold!) favourite in countries like China since the 1980s.

Can a 9 year old have boba? ›

The short answer is yes. Bubble tea is safe for consumption if enjoyed in moderation, so an occasional cup is fine for kids and teens.

Can I swallow boba without chewing? ›

Boba is made from tapioca. Due to the tapioca ingredient, it means the "pearls" or "bubbles" don't dissolve quickly when expanded to their fullest. Hence, if you eat them without chewing, it can be hazardous.

What does the bubble in bubble tea mean? ›

TL/DR: The bubbles in bubble tea are Tapioca Pearls. Tapioca is a starch extracted from the cassava plant. Tapioca bubbles (a.k.a pearls) found in bubble tea are thick and chewy. They also take on the flavor of the syrup they are in. Looking to learn more about the bubbles in bubble tea?

Are boba bubbles healthy? ›

Unfortunately, boba itself provides very few health benefits, though its calories and carbohydrates can provide you with a boost in energy. In most cases, boba tea contains high levels of sugar, which is linked to long-term health conditions like diabetes and obesity.

Is bubble tea just cold tea? ›

Bubble tea is a versatile non-alcoholic beverage that is available in both hot and cold varieties, although bubble tea is mostly known for being refreshingly cold with fruity tastes, modifications are common.

What flavor boba tea is kid friendly? ›

Any fruit flavored boba teas are the best for kids. This includes strawberry boba tea, mango, peach and dragon fruit. If they're not into fruit, then brown sugar or salted caramel are also great boba tea flavors for children!

Is popping boba safe for kids? ›

While less of a problem with popping boba, the choking hazard posed by tapioca pearls should not be ignored. These small pearls should be chewed before swallowing and if you are sharing a bubble tea with someone new to the drink or a young child you should be sure to remind them to chew before they swallow!

How much boba is safe? ›

"One to two cups a day should be fine, but you shouldn't consume anything in excess," advised Dr. Kushnir. "If you're drinking five or six cups a day, and you're noticing a change in your bowels, it could be a sign that you need to cut back or drink more water."

Are boba balls edible? ›

The tapioca pearls in bubble tea, also known as bubbles or boba, have a jelly-like texture and are made with tapioca starch, making it completely safe for human consumption. On the other hand, popping bubbles are made from water, fruit juice, sugar, and plant-based Alginic acid, which also makes them safe to eat.

Can you drink boba while pregnant? ›

Like regular tea, boba tea contains caffeine, so you've probably wondered whether or not it's safe to drink when you're pregnant. Boba tea is safe for pregnant women provided it is made with pasteurized milk and heated or cooked toppings/additives.

What does boba taste like? ›

The taste of boba can vary depending on the type of boba and the ingredients used to make it. Regular boba has a slightly sweet, chewy texture and a neutral taste. Some people enjoy the chewy texture and find it to be a fun addition to the drink, while others may find it unappealing.

What does black boba taste like? ›

As Food Network reports, these little dark delights also come from the cassava root but have been soaked in brown sugar or caramel coloring, giving them a distinctive taste. The outlet notes black boba pearls' "almost licorice flavor" and their signature color.

What is boba slang for in Chinese? ›

The tea became known as boba because the term is slang for breasts in Chinese (a reference the spherical shape of the tapioca balls).

Who invented popping boba? ›

Bubble Tea or Boba Tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s when a tea stand owner started adding flavourings to her tea. But it was Liu Han-Chieh who introduced Taiwan to tapioca pearls in 1983.

Is boba or soda worse for you? ›

Brown sugar milk tea with boba has been found as the unhealthiest option with 18.5 teaspoons of sugar. For an easy reference, a can of regular coke contains 7 teaspoons of sugar; a cup of brown sugar milk tea with pearl is equivalent to 2.6 cans of coke.

Is bubble tea Chinese or Japanese? ›

Bubble Tea (also known as pearl milk tea, boba milk tea, or simply boba) is a Taiwanese drink that was invented in Taichung in the 1980s. The tea is mixed with milk or fruits and topped off with chewy tapioca pearls. By the early '90s, bubble tea became prevalent in Japan and Hong Kong.

What is the most unhealthy boba? ›

It also displayed the different sugar levels in seven types of bubble tea orders, all 500 ml. Brown sugar milk tea with boba pearls ranked the highest at 18.5 teaspoons of sugar. The drink with the lowest amount of sugar was the avocado tea with boba pearls with 7.5 teaspoons of sugar.

Is boba made of hamster eyes? ›

So what exactly is it made of? Boba pearls are made of tapioca starch that comes from the cassava root, so compassionate customers can rest easy knowing that gelatin is not used in the making of these tiny balls of deliciousness.

What is bubble tea without milk called? ›

Fruit bubble tea usually has fruit, tea, and boba pearls—all plant-based ingredients. Unlike many boba recipes, fruit bubble tea doesn't include milk (dairy or non-dairy).

What's the difference between Boba drink and bubble tea? ›

Boba tea is simply another name for bubble tea. The term is derived from the Chinese word "bōbà," which denotes chewy tapioca balls. So, to be clear, bubble tea and boba tea are completely synonymous terms that refer to the same type of drink.

Can a 10 year old drink tea? ›

Many teas — particularly black and green leaf varieties — contain caffeine. (That's why us tired parents love 'em for ourselves, right?) Caffeine, a stimulant, isn't recommended in any amount for children under age 12.

What age group drinks bubble tea? ›

While it's true that many teenagers and college students enjoy the drink, research shows that adults of all ages also enjoy bubble tea.

Is boba caffeinated? ›

TLDR: Boba tea has an average of 50 mg of caffeine per cup. Typically you can expect 20 to 80 mg per drink, depending on the type of tea. Caffeine-free options like Taro are also available. Are you a boba tea addict?

Can a 10 year old drink boba? ›

If you're uncomfortable with your child consuming any caffeine then you shouldn't give your child bubble tea. However, as highlighted, bubble tea does contain a small amount of caffeine which could be acceptable and safe for your child to drink.

Can 10 year olds drink prime? ›

This is stated on the Prime website: 'PRIME Energy contains 140mg of caffeine, per 12 oz. can. PRIME Energy is not recommended for children under the age of 16, women who are pregnant or nursing or individuals who are sensitive to caffeine.'

Is popping boba plastic? ›

Popping boba is manufactured from seaweed extract that contains fruit juice flavouring inside. Using the process called spherification, you create the little juice spheres with an outer gel layer. The spherification process is a chemical reaction between sodium alginate and calcium chloride.

Can you eat boba with braces? ›

The answer to this question is yes, it's perfectly safe for you to drink bubble tea with braces. However, as bubble tea can be high in sugar, it's best to consider bubble tea as an occasional treat, as you would with any other sugary drink when you've got braces.

Is boba vegan? ›

The boba in bubble tea is often vegan, as tapioca pearls are completely plant-based, and popping pearls are usually made of nothing more than water, sugar, fruit juice and Alginic acid (found in algae), again, making it plant-based. Once again though, you should always ask to make sure.

Is it OK to have boba once a week? ›

However, many do not realise that it is considered a sugar-sweetened beverage and should be consumed in moderation, preferably limiting intake to once a week or less.

What is the brown boba called? ›

Also known as Mudflip or tiger milk tea, this brown sugar boba drink and its variations are a cult favourite. It is one of the most ordered drinks along with taro fresh milk and the original flavour.

Does boba make you gassy? ›

Three common side effects of consuming too many tapioca pearls include: Constipation. Bloating. Stomach pain.

Does boba have liquid inside? ›

Popping boba has a thin, gel-like skin with juice inside that bursts when squeezed. The ingredients for popping boba generally consist of water, sugar, fruit juice or other flavors, and the ingredients required for spherification.

Can babies have popping boba? ›

Boba pearls and jellies present a choking hazard and should not be served to children under 5 years of age.

What is in Taro milk tea? ›

The taro pearl milk tea itself is a mixture of taro powder, green tea, milk creamer and tapioca pearls. One of its characteristics is its light purple color.

How much does boba cost? ›

The average cost for a boba milk tea in the United States is $5.84. That's based on a study of 100 random boba shops in the 10 largest US cities using DoorDash data.

What is the most popular boba flavor? ›

What is the flavour is black pearl boba? The most popular flavour of bubble tea, black pearl is also known as boba or tapioca pearls. They have a neutral taste that allows them to absorb the flavour of the tea or milk they are paired with.

Does Starbucks have boba? ›

Yes! The company recently launched Starbucks boba coffee popping pearls in the United States. The treats are reminiscent of tapioca balls, and they're filled with Brazilian coffee.

What is rainbow jelly in bubble tea? ›

What is Rainbow Jelly Boba Made Of? This rainbow jelly topping recipe is made from coconut jelly chunks and fruit juices for colouring and flavour. For example, juices may include mango, orange, or any other fruit you enjoy. The different colours of the rainbow jelly are made from different fruit combinations.

Why are boba balls chewy? ›

In Taiwan, the texture of tapioca boba pearls is referred to as Q or QQ. The term itself is hard to translate. However, it attempts to describe the mouthfeels of the soft yet resilient or bouncy texture. The high percentage of starch in cassava root is the reason behind this chewy texture.

Is popping boba better than tapioca? ›

If you want to gain weight, you might want to use tapioca pearls as it has more carbohydrates than popping boba. That's not even the end of it as boba pearls provide more health benefits which include: More iron.

What is boba girl? ›

A teenage girl addicted to bubble tea was in a coma for five days after she had two cups a day for a month and failed to control her sugar intake. The 18 year old has been given the nickname 'Bubble Tea Girl' after her doctor revealed she recorded blood sugar levels roughly 25 times higher than normal.

Do Asians call it bubble tea or boba? ›

Within the Asian American community, bubble tea is commonly known under its colloquial term "boba". As the beverage gained popularity in the US, it gradually became more than a drink, but a cultural identity for Asian Americans.

What is boba called in Japan? ›

Commonly referred to simply as “tapioca” in Japanese, this drink comes in an assortment of flavors!

What's the difference between popping boba and boba pearls? ›

Ever wondered what's the difference between Tapioca Pearls & Popping Boba? Here's the answer; Derived from the cassava tree, when cooked, tapioca turns into a sweet, chewy pearl with a similar texture to gummy bears. Popping Boba is filled with fruit juice and when bitten into, 'pops' in your mouth.

What is the boba shell made of? ›

Traditional boba is tapioca based, but popping boba is made from juice. The little juice spheres have an outer gel layer that is created in a process called spherification.

What is boba skin made of? ›

The main ingredient is the seaweed extract, which is considered to be the outer shell of the Popping Boba.

What are the boba balls made of? ›

A tapioca pearl, also known as tapioca ball, is an edible translucent spheres produced from tapioca, a starch made from the cassava root. They originated as a cheaper alternative to sago in Southeast Asian cuisine. When used as an ingredient in bubble tea, they are most commonly referred to as pearls or boba.

What is bubble tea balls made of? ›

The pearls in bubble tea, also known as tapioca pearls, are made from tapioca starch, an extract of the South American cassava plant. To make the pearls, boiling water is added to the starch and kneaded to form a dough-like texture.

What is bubble tea and why is it so popular? ›

Bubble tea is a cold drink typically made with black tea, milk, some type of sweetener like sugar, ice and the famous "bubbles", which are tapioca pearls. These pearls, which are also known as boba, are small, chewy and made from a starchy substance called tapioca which comes from the cassava plant.

Is tapioca pearls healthy? ›

Tapioca starch contains no fat or cholesterol, which makes it a healthy choice for those watching their dietary cholesterol and saturated fat intake. Tapioca is also very low in sodium. One serving contains 20mg of calcium and 1.6mg of iron.

Are boba made of plastic? ›

So what exactly is it made of? Boba pearls are made of tapioca starch that comes from the cassava root, so compassionate customers can rest easy knowing that gelatin is not used in the making of these tiny balls of deliciousness.

Is boba Vegan? ›

The boba in bubble tea is often vegan, as tapioca pearls are completely plant-based, and popping pearls are usually made of nothing more than water, sugar, fruit juice and Alginic acid (found in algae), again, making it plant-based. Once again though, you should always ask to make sure.

Is boba fish eggs? ›

The boba itself in boba tea, also known as bubble or tapioca balls, are usually made out cassava starch. These pearls can be made out of a lot of other foods, some shops make there boba from scratch to ensure freshness. People say they are made out of fish eggs, but that is a total lie.

How is boba really made? ›

When making boba balls, you take tapioca starch, add boiling water, and knead them until they reach a dough-like consistency. Once the tapioca is shaped into little balls, it is added into boiling water (with brown sugar added to it), and cooked for ~30 minutes until it's ready.

What is the most common bubble tea flavor? ›

The most popular bubble tea flavour is probably milk tea, which is simply black tea with milk, sugar and tapioca pearls. Other types of tea you could use include green tea, oolong tea, herbal tea, white tea and fruit teas.

Why is bubble tea so addictive? ›

But if you love drinking bubble tea, you are actually addicted to its sugar. Did you know? Sugar is as addictive as cocaine! However, it is widely used as a 'legal drug' worldwide, as it causes addiction in the brain.

Is boba Korean or Japanese? ›

WHAT IS BUBBLE TEA (BOBA)? Bubble Tea (also known as pearl milk tea, boba milk tea, or simply boba) is a Taiwanese drink that was invented in Taichung in the 1980s. The tea is mixed with milk or fruits and topped off with chewy tapioca pearls. By the early '90s, bubble tea became prevalent in Japan and Hong Kong.

Which bubble tea flavor is the best? ›

10 best & most popular boba tea flavors of 2022 ranked
  • Strawberry. Strawberry bubble tea is a favorite among kids and adults alike. ...
  • Mango. Mangos are rich in Vitamin C, fiber, iron, and potassium. ...
  • Chocolate. ...
  • Vanilla Bean. ...
  • Lemon. ...
  • Apple. ...
  • Matcha. ...
  • Coffee.
Jan 3, 2023

Is boba more unhealthy than soda? ›

Brown sugar milk tea with boba has been found as the unhealthiest option with 18.5 teaspoons of sugar. For an easy reference, a can of regular coke contains 7 teaspoons of sugar; a cup of brown sugar milk tea with pearl is equivalent to 2.6 cans of coke.

Is Starbucks boba a thing? ›

Yes! The company recently launched Starbucks boba coffee popping pearls in the United States. The treats are reminiscent of tapioca balls, and they're filled with Brazilian coffee.


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