Whether you call it “boba” or “bubble tea,” the Taiwanese drink has undeniably become a staple in Asian American and other diasporic Asian communities around the world, and you’ve probably seen its rise in popularity on social media. (Lightbulb-shaped drinkware originated from boba trends in East Asia, after all). And while Western countries have just jumped on the bandwagon, Asia has long advanced from your typical boba milk tea, creating food fusions like boba milk crab to bubble tea hot pots and tarts. Because boba is usually consumed through a straw, two Taiwanese designers have even provided a strawless bubble tea cup as an eco-friendly alternative.
A 14-year-old Chinese girl, however, made international headlines on May 28 when doctors found over 100 undigested tapioca pearls clogging her intestines, igniting conversations once again about the potential risks from drinking boba.
History of the tapioca-based drink
While who really created boba is debatable since two rivaling tea shops claim they were the first to invent boba, the drink originated in Taiwan back in the 80s. The drink is described by food network Eater as a drink containing black tea, milk, ice and chewy tapioca pearls “shaken together like a martini and served with that famously fat straw to accommodate the marbles of tapioca that cluster at the bottom of the cup.”
South China Morning Post reports that boba eventually made its way to other Asian countries and communities around the world. Golden Thread further says that the drink has “quite a following” in the United States, in states like California and New York where there’s prominent Taiwanese Amerian populations.
Is boba really bad for you?
Like soda and other sugary drinks, boba has been the target of health experts for years. A quick Google search on whether boba tea is actually bad for you gives you results of multiple articles proving—and debunking—the question at hand.
A study conducted in 2012 by German researchers found that tapioca pearls could have contained cancer-causing chemicals, according to Huffpost. While the study has been refuted by Taiwan’s Central News Agency, news and media organizations associated this particular study with the maleic acid found in tapioca pearls a year later, which prompted Singapore to ban several bubble tea brands.
The Daily Meal, a food website owned by Tribune Publishing, also ran an article back in 2013 with the headline “Bubble Tea Is Really Bad for You.” The article attributes the tapioca pearls as the main culprit for the high sugar levels in the boba tea. However, an experiment in January commissioned by Channel NewsAsia and conducted by students at Singaporean university Temasek Polytechnic found the drink itself contained high levels of sugar, almost three times more than the amount of sugar in a can of Coca Cola.
So while there are legitimate reasons to be worried about the ingredients in boba tea and other Asian-originating drinks we consume, the confusion about boba and the lack of interest in correcting misinformation ultimately eradicates the possibility of having those conversations.
A campaign called “Rethink Your Asian Drink,” however, hopes to change that. The website aims to help consumers understand what’s actually in their drinks (and yes, they said they’re not saying “to never drink your favorite Strawberry Aloe drink or boba ever again”).
The story of the 14-year-old girl may be alarming to hear about, but medical experts like Dr. Ryan Marino, an emergency medicine physician at UPMC in Pittsburgh, told TODAY that it seems “kind of like a sensationalized story.”
“If there is anything to be taken away here it is taking things with a grain of salt and enjoying things in moderation,” Marino said.
Should you stop drinking boba, then? If the health risks of drinking soda doesn’t make you cut soda out of your diet completely, then boba shouldn’t either. Boba may not kill you (though the health risks are definitely still there), but changing the direction we talk about the Taiwanese drink should definitely be the idea floating around.