Boba milk tea is more than just a drink — it's an entire subculture. The bubble tea (as it's also called) has evolved since first hitting the scene, but the original is a blend of tea, high-fructose corn syrup, milk and ice, a combo that can make those boba milk tea calories add up pretty quickly.
And since most of the calories in boba milk tea come from sugar, there's not a lot to offer when it comes to boba nutrition. The tea is mostly calories, sugar, carbohydrates and just a small amount of fat, although it does offer a bit of calcium, too.
What is Boba Tea?
Boba milk tea, also called bubble tea or pearl tea, became really popular in Asia in the 1990s and then spread throughout Europe and the United States starting in the early 2000s. According to a report in Food Science and Nutrition in March 2016, boba milk tea actually originated in the 1980s in Taiwan when a shopowner named Liu Han‐Chieh was experimenting with different mixtures of ingredients, including fruit, syrup and tapioca balls.
After his experimentation, Liu Han‐Chieh settled on a combination of "boba" or "pearl" balls, which are made of tapioca or cassava that is boiled to produce a round, chewy ball, and a mixture, in its most basic form, of black tea, high-fructose corn syrup, milk and ice.
Since the original boba milk tea came out, many different variations have hit the market. Some of them use coffee instead of tea, while others add fruit and are blended, more like a smoothie. Others include egg pudding or jelly in their milk tea base.
Boba milk tea is often served with a large straw, so when you sip the tea, the boba balls travel through the straw and you can take a sip of your tea while chewing on the tapioca pearl. No matter what version you get, though, you'll find one thing that's similar across the board — boba milk tea contains a lot of added sugar, and often in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.
Boba Milk Tea Calories
Of course, this added sugar adds calories to the boba milk, although the exact amount differs based on exactly how much sugar and which other ingredients are used. But, in general, a 16-ounce serving of boba milk tea contains from 200 to 450 calories.
Most of these calories come from the added sugar, which leaves something to be desired when it comes to bubble tea nutrition. According to the USDA FoodData Central, a 16-ounce serving of boba milk tea has 40 grams of added sugar, 56 grams of carbohydrate and not much else; although the tea does contain 3 grams of total fat and offers 500 milligrams of calcium.
The March 2016 report in Food Science and Nutrition notes that, because it's made from a lot of sugar, boba milk tea is classified as a "sugar-sweetened beverage" or SSB — the same classification that's given to soda. Aside from the extra boba drink calories, that extra sugar comes with its own health problems.
Read more: The Top 10 Beverages to Avoid
Problems With Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
Added sugars are any sugars and syrups that are added to foods and drinks during processing. Health professionals used to say that added sugars were only a problem because they contributed empty calories, but research has since proven otherwise. Added sugars have been linked to:
- Poor overall nutrition
- Weight gain
- Tooth decay
- Imbalanced blood sugar levels
But added sugars in beverages, and especially high-fructose corn syrup, have been connected to even bigger problems. According to a report that was published in The Journal of Pediatrics in April 2016, drinks that contain fructose can increase insulin resistance, which means that it's harder for your body to use insulin properly.
Sugar can also increase stomach fat, which also increases the risk of metabolic syndrome and increases the amount of uric acid in your blood. Uric acid is a waste product that's connected to the formation of kidney stones and a form of arthritis called gout.
Another report that was published in PLOS One in January 2014 found that increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, especially those that are sweetened with fructose, was associated with a larger waist and hip circumference, an increased body mass index, increased uric acid levels and high triglyceride levels.
Sugar-sweetened beverages also increase the amount of retinol-binding protein 4 (or RBP4) in your blood. RBP4 has been connected to insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
Read more: 15 Reasons to Kick Sugar
Problems With Tapioca Pearls
There is one more concern with boba milk tea that's worth mentioning, although it's not really clear whether this concern was blown out of proportion. In the fall of 2012, researchers from the University Hospital Aachen in Germany published a report saying that tapioca balls that came from one of the major manufacturers contained chemicals called styrene and acetophenone, which belong to a class of substances called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Lots of research has connected exposure to PCBs to different forms of cancer, like liver cancer and melanoma. However, in response to this report, The Consumer Protection Committee in Taiwan did their own round of testing on the tapioca pearls from several different manufacturers.
They reported that none of them contained styrene, although they did find small amounts of brominated biphenyls and acetophenone, but they claimed the amount was too small to cause any health concerns.
It's important to keep in mind that the report out of Germany was never published in a peer-reviewed journal, so it wasn't properly vetted before hitting the mainstream media. Also, although health officials said the amount of chemicals found in the boba balls was too small to cause any health problems, that amount can add up if you're drinking boba milk tea regularly or drinking it in combination with other foods or drinks that also have similar chemicals in them.
- USDA FoodData Central: "Boba, Bubble Tea, Green Tea, Lychee Bobas"
- Food Science & Nutrition: "Calories and Sugars in Boba Milk Tea: Implications for Obesity Risk in Asian Pacific Islanders"
- PLOS One: "Elevated Serum Triglyceride and Retinol-Binding Protein 4 Levels Associated with Fructose-Sweetened Beverages in Adolescents"
- UC Berkeley California Alumni Association: "Will the Bubble Burst? Inside Berkeley’s Boba Tea Craze"
- University of California Berkeley Wellness: "Tapioca Pearl Problems"
- The Journal of Pediatrics: "Fructose-Rich Beverage Intake and Central Adiposity, Uric Acid, and Pediatric Insulin Resistance"
- Mayo Clinic: "Added Sugars: Don't Get Sabotaged by Sweeteners"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Retinol Binding Protein 4 in Relation to Diet, Inflammation, Immunity, and Cardiovascular Diseases"