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Inside Our Food

What is Bubble Tea? | Insider Secrets on Bubble Tea

Despite the name, there are no actual "bubbles" in bubble tea. There isn't always tea, either. So, what is bubble tea? As a previous Boba Barista, here are some insider secrets to help break down everything you've ever wanted to know about it.

What Is bubble tea?

Bubble tea is a tea drink that originated from Taiwan. Debates continue about when it was created and who created this type of tea. However, it is generally believed that Ms Liu Han-Chieh of Chun Shui Tang tea shop in Taichung, Taiwan, first came up with the drink.1 Regardless, this drink has increased in popularity around the world. 

Bubble tea is often created with a base tea. The common base teas are black tea, green tea, and oolong tea. The drinks are then mixed with milk or fruit flavours (i.e., mango, lychee, grapefruit, etc.). Lastly, comes the add-ins like boba, aloe vera, chia seeds, or egg pudding to name a few.

The drink is also well known by other names, including boba tea, tapioca tea, and pearl tea.

What are the bubbles in bubble tea? 

The bubbles are made with tapioca flour (starch), water, and brown sugar. Unlike wheat flour, tapioca only contains starch. They are refined starch of the cassava plant, a starchy root like taro.2 Starch particles are created when a large number of glucose (forms of sugar) join together. When these particles are mixed with cold water, they will disperse and float.3 

The real magic begins when you add heat. In heated environments, the starch particles will enlarge and break apart. The smaller pieces will then form a sticky substance that can hold water. This is known as starch gelatinisation (similar to the process of making Jell-O). 

Types of bubble tea

Though there are a variety of bubble teas, here is a list of the classic types:

Boba Milk Tea (zhen zhu nai cha): This is a milky tea commonly known in the West as “bubble tea”. Originally, the size of the tapioca balls is what differentiated this type of milk tea from the others. Most bubble tea shops will use ¼ inch tapioca balls which are known as the pearls.4 The tea base for this Boba milk tea is black tea. 

Boba Green Milk Tea: Basically the same as above but with green tea as a base. 

Green or Black Tea With Boba: Tea makers will first brew the green tea or black tea without sugar but as they make the drinks, they will include syrup to sweeten the tea. 

Tea bases

Most bubble teas are made with black tea, green tea, or oolong tea. 

Black tea (or “Red tea”, known in China and Taiwan) is by far the most popular option for making bubble tea.

Green tea like jasmine green tea is another go-to tea, giving a more refreshing floral taste for the hotter seasons. Nowadays, people will often use matcha instead of green tea.

Oolong tea is also another popular option amongst avid bubble tea drinkers. This type of tea tastes more rich and bitter, giving bubble tea a robust flavour. 

As bubble teas have become more popular, different variations have been created. Some places don’t include tea; instead, they opt to simplify the drink into juice. Bubble tea shops even make slushies (a blend of fruit flavours and ice) and include the infamous Boba. 

High sugar content in bubble tea

Although many of us love bubble tea, it does contain high amounts of sugar. In some studies, researchers attribute Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes in Asians to the sugar content in Boba milk teas.5 The tapioca pearls are often just starch covered in cups of sugar. The drink itself contains high-fructose corn syrup and other sugary fruit concentrates.6 A serving size of 473 mL of Boba milk tea can have around 263 calories (kcal), and 38g of sugar in total.7 The sugar content is comparable to the amount found in a can of soda.

That being said, you can always modify the drinks to have less sugar (I usually order ½ sugar) and limit the intake of the pearls. There are other options, like aloe vera or grass jelly, that have less sugar content. Simply changing one’s purchasing behaviours, like choosing less sugar or avoiding sugary toppings, can really help. 

Making bubble tea more sustainable

Like any drinks you buy outside, you can always opt for more sustainable options. Some places may not let you use your own cups, but you sure can purchase a reusable straw. Keep in mind that you may need a wider straw to enjoy the pearls. There are now amazing varieties like bamboo straws or even simple metal straws. 

Fun Fact: The name “bubble tea” originally came from the bubbles that would rise when the tea was shaken, not the chewy goodness found inside the drinks.8 

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