Bubble tea, also known as boba tea, is a sweet tea drink. It's usually made with tea, milk and white or black tapioca pearls. Both the tea itself and the tapioca pearls contain added sugars, which are what gives bubble tea its calories.
There are about 299 calories in a 16-ounce serving of tapioca bubble tea. However, bubble tea’s calories may be as few as 240 or as many as 450, per 16 ounces.
Tapioca Pearls' Nutrition Facts
Tapioca pearls are one of the main components used in bubble tea. There are two main types of tapioca pearls: black pearls and white pearls. These pearls have a different appearance and a distinctly different flavor. However, both are primarily made using tapioca, which is the starch that comes from the cassava (also known as yuca) plant.
Black tapioca pearls are made from cassava starch, sweet potato and brown sugar. White tapioca pearls are made from cassava starch, caramel and chamomile root. You can also sometimes find fruit-flavored tapioca pearls in flavors like lychee, honey and mango.
According to a January 2017 study in the Food Science and Nutrition, a typical serving of tapioca pearls is about 60 grams, the amount usually used in a 16-ounce (473 milliliter) bubble tea. If your bubble tea is smaller or larger than this, you may have more or less tapioca in it.
According to the same study, a serving (around 60 grams) of dry tapioca pearls typically has 77.9 calories. However, the USDA reports a different amount: that a 56 gram-serving of dry tapioca pearls is equivalent to 200 calories. Tapioca balls' calories can vary depending on their ingredients, particularly the amount of sugar in them. Sugar content typically ranges from 1.9 grams to 6.5 grams per serving.
Tapioca pearls' nutrition is essentially all carbohydrates, as this product is primarily made from starch. The USDA reports that a serving is equivalent to 49.5 grams of carbohydrates and contains 5 percent of the daily value for calcium. Otherwise, tapioca balls are mainly just empty calories. They contain trace amounts (between 1 and 4 percent of the DV) of fiber, B-complex vitamins and minerals like calcium, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium, but no other major nutrients.
Bubble Tea's Calories and Nutrition
Bubble tea is a fairly recent creation that originated in the 1980s in Taiwan. It's essentially sweetened tea and milk, but may have a range of other ingredients, like coffee, fruit, syrup, egg pudding, jelly or tapioca pearls. The Food Science and Nutrition study reported that bubble teas typically have 200 to 450 calories per 16-ounce (473 milliliters) serving. These calories tend to come from a mixture of sugar, starch and fat.
Both the Food Science and Nutrition study and the USDA list a 16-ounce serving of bubble tea with tapioca as having fewer than 300 calories. The USDA listing reports that this amount of green tea, adding lychee tapioca pearls' calories, is 240 per serving.
In contrast, the study reports that milk-based bubble tea has 263 calories per serving on its own. With tapioca pearls added, this number goes up to 299 calories. Both of these drinks contain about the same amount of sugar (38 to 40 grams per serving).
You've probably noticed an inconsistency in the Food Science and Nutrition results. If a 16-ounce serving of milk tea has 263 calories and a 60-gram serving of tapioca balls' calories is about 80, the total value should be 343 calories per 16-ounce serving.
The number of calories in 16 ounces of tapioca bubble tea is less than you might think because it's calculated with a reduced amount of liquid per serving. This accounts for the tapioca pearls, which swell and absorb liquid. Otherwise, you'd end up with a larger serving size and a more calorific beverage. This shows that the more calorific component of bubble tea is by far the sweetened milk tea itself, rather than the tapioca.
Bubble Tea Versus Other Drinks
Bubble tea has a lot of sugar. In fact, a standard serving has too much sugar, with or without tapioca pearls, reports Food Science and Nutrition. The Food and Drug Administration recommends that people consume 10 percent of their daily calories or less from added sugars, while the American Heart Association specifies a maximum of 36 grams (150 calories) for men or 25 grams (100 calories) for women. That's less than the amount of sugar in a single cup of bubble tea.
If the only sweetened product you consume each day is bubble tea, you might be making a reasonably healthy choice, especially if you're a man or your beverage is under 16 ounces. This is because many same-sized servings of other sweetened drinks have more sugar even than bubble tea.
For example, the Food Science and Nutrition study states that sweetened iced tea has 44 grams of sugar per 16-ounce serving, while orange soda has 62 grams of sugar per 16-ounce serving. However, if you consume bubble tea and just one other sweetened product in a day, like a cookie, energy drink or candy bar, you'd be well over the recommended daily intake for sugar.
Keep in mind that tea on its own isn't unhealthy. In fact, according to the USDA, it has no calories or carbohydrates. The calories and carbohydrates come from the milk and added sugars that are used to make bubble tea.
If you love drinking tea but prefer it sweetened, you might be better off adding alternative sweeteners like erythritol, stevia or xylitol to your drinks. In fact, you could even make your own bubble tea with these low-calorie sweeteners and then add premade tapioca balls. While the tapioca pearls would still include sugar, this strategy would allow you to enjoy bubble tea while consuming a healthy amount of added sugars.
- USDA: "Nutrition Comparison of Whole Milk and Black Tea"
- Mayo Clinic: "Added Sugars: Don't Get Sabotaged by Sweeteners"
- American Heart Association: "Added Sugars"
- FDA: "Sugars"
- USDA: "Nutrition Facts for Tapioca Pearl Dry"
- Journal of Food Science and Nutrition: "Calories and Sugars in Boba Milk Tea: Implications for Obesity Risk in Asian Pacific Islanders"