A native Taiwanese drink, boba has become increasingly popular around the world. Despite this, its creation and contents are still shrouded in mystery. The word “boba” is also used interchangeably to refer to both the food itself and the bubble tea—also called pearl tea or tapioca tea—it’s typically included in.
As a result, few consumers know what they’re actually drinking and eating with this milk tea. Those with dietary requirements or allergies, or just curious beverage connoisseurs, may want to know. So let’s find out what boba is made from.
What Is Boba?
Boba tea, also known as bubble tea and bubble milk tea, is a Taiwanese drink that uses milk, fruits, and tapioca starch, among other ingredients, to give it its distinct taste. The drink is referred to by different names, depending on who you ask, with Chinese consumers calling it by a variation of “pearl ball milk tea.”
What Is Boba Made Of?
To create bubble tea, tapioca pearls—often referred to as bobas—are added to a base, usually tea, but not always, and shaken in to create bubbles. These “boba” are small pearls that sit on the bottom of a drink once it’s made and can be chewed on while drinking the liquid. It’s referred to as a “bubble tea” both because of the pearls themselves and the bubbles they create when the drink is shaken.
Boba is made from tapioca starch, also called cassava starch because it’s extracted from the cassava root, a starchy tuber native to South America. This origin explains why they’re often called “tapioca pearls.”
Boiling water is added to this tapioca starch before it’s kneaded to give it a dough-like consistency. That dough is then cut up and rolled into boba’s standard round shape—the above-mentioned tapioca pearls—and then boiled in a water and brown sugar syrup mixture.
The tea itself, typically a green or black tea, is brewed before the boba and any other ingredients are added. After the boba is added the tea is shaken up, creating the bubbles that help give bubble tea its name.
The tea-making process itself is customizable and depends on a drinker’s personal preferences, with boba being used alongside various flavors and types of green tea. That usually involves the addition of flavors and syrups, such as strawberry, brown sugar, and others.
Though “boba” is used interchangeably with bubble tea, it refers to the balls contained in the drink and typically mixed with various base drinks. Green or black tea are the most common, with lychee, strawberry, or peach syrups, among others, used to add more flavor. Alternatively, fresh milk is often added to create a milk tea. Boba milk tea has a creamier texture than its fruity alternatives.
Some options stray a bit further from the conventional path, however. Fruit teas containing fresh slices of the fruit itself are also a popular choice. Tropical tarot roots can also be used instead of coffee beans or tea leaves. Matcha and oolong teas are the most common types of tea used to make boba tea.
Teas aren’t the only base drinks that can be paired with boba, however. Slushies have become increasingly popular. Like their non-boba counterparts, these are made by mixing milk, ice, tea, and syrups to make a frosty treat—always with the tapioca starch balls added at the end.
Finally, boba can also come as vegan milk teas, such as soy, oat, and almond milk, as well as lactose-free milk, so that vegans or people with lactose intolerance are also able to enjoy boba.
Origins of Boba
The origins of boba are surprisingly unclear and debatable, although most agree it can be traced back to 1980s Taiwan and Liu Han Chieh, who appears to have invented the drink. It’s claimed that Chieh combined milk and black tapioca balls and made a drink that proved popular among local students, who would have it as either a snack or part of their breakfast.
Liu Han Chieh doesn’t have the only claim to inventing or popularizing bubble tea, though. A man called Tu Tsong-he also has an apparent stake in this as well. As the owner of the Hanlin Tea Room in Taiwan’s Tainan City, Tsong-he claims he was inspired to create the drink in 1986 after finding some tapioca balls for sale. Inspired by the find, he believed that mixing it with a green or black tea, or something similar, could prove popular among local customers.
Regardless of which entrepreneur truly invented it, the drink exploded in popularity across Asia during the 1990s before subsequently making its way to Europe and beyond. Bubble tea’s popularity has been driven by the various drinks boba can be mixed with, as well as the multiple flavor options. Add in the chewy nature of boba and the bubbles it helps create, and consumers also see it as a more interesting and fun alternative to traditional beverages.
How Is Boba Used?
Boba is typically used in bubble tea, which is why many people use the term “boba” interchangeably when referring to both the drink and the pearls found at the bottom of it. The drinks are usually made by layering the tapioca pearls at the bottom before green or black tea is poured in, although it’s not uncommon for these to be added last before the drink is shaken. Additional ingredients such as fruit, sweeteners, milk, and cream are also used in the drinks, depending on the bubble tea shop.
Bubble tea isn’t the only use for boba, however. It’s also found in coffees, smoothies, and slushies. The ingredient can be found in Taiwanese bubble tea shops and Asian markets worldwide, although it’s also possible to make it at home. Boba is also a popular topping found in self-serve yogurt shops, provided alongside more traditional dessert toppings such as cookies and sprinkles.
What Does Boba Taste Like?
Boba itself doesn’t have much of a flavor, although bubble tea is sweet and typically comes in fruity flavors. The taste itself comes from the liquid that the boba is added to by bubble tea shops, usually either a green or black tea. In addition to the standard green or black tea flavor, bubble tea comes in a range of other flavors:
Boba has a gelatinous texture, soft and chewy, regardless of what kind of drink it comes in. The tea it’s usually mixed with, however, is creamy and frothy and has been described as a “melted milkshake.”
While the nutritional information for boba drinks vary, here is the nutritional information for 76g of dried boba:
- 272 calories
- 0g fat
- 0.8mg of sodium
- 67.5g of carbohydrates
- 0.7g of fiber
- 2.5g of sugar
- 0.1g of protein
These may not match up precisely with a serving of bubble tea, however, because serving sizes and additional ingredients play a significant role in each drink’s nutritional information. There are also micro-ingredients to consider. While making up a minor part of boba, these include calcium, iron, potassium, and phosphorus. Given the trace amounts of these, however, they don’t typically factor into someone’s daily recommended intake.
Is Boba Vegan Friendly?
It depends. There are quite a few vegan-friendly boba options on the market, although consumers must be on the lookout for particular ingredients, especially milk. But customers can easily substitute almond or oat milk to make it vegan friendly.
Boba itself also meets vegan-friendly standards, as it’s completely plant-based and made from fruit juice, sugar, water, and alginic acid, which comes from algae.
Potential Health Benefits of Boba Tea
Though boba doesn’t seem to offer many health benefits, the ingredients it’s often mixed with can, especially carbohydrates and calories, in appropriate doses. Despite this, some studies show what appear to be health benefits associated with the tea in boba tea. Non-dairy milks, fruit juices, and coffee also offer health benefits that drinkers of boba tea may benefit from.
Lower blood pressure
A study focused on green tea, which is often used as a base for boba tea, shows that it can lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Both of these have been linked to heart attacks, strokes, and other forms of heart disease, all of which can prove fatal.
Decreased cancer risks
Green teas, such as those that include boba, are known to have higher levels of antioxidants than comparable drinks, which are known to have an impact on the development of certain cancers, particularly prostate, breast, colorectal, and liver cancer. They can slow damage from oxygen deprivation to human cells, a process that increases the likelihood of cancer development, and may even prevent this completely.
Not all boba teas contain green tea and antioxidants, however, meaning that not all the drinks offer such health benefits. It’s also been claimed that boba pearls themselves increase the likelihood of some cancers.
Health Risks Associated With Boba
Though boba potentially offers some health benefits, it also comes with its risks, with boba tea being known for its high sugar content. When mixed with more sugar, which is common among boba tea drinkers, it poses potential health risks.
High amounts of sugar, found in many boba tea products, are linked to increased risks of obesity, which can lead to multiple other diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. Such sugar levels have also been linked to cognitive decline and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, the latter of which can be life threatening.
As with many delicious beverages you can get while you’re out and about, boba varieties come with a high sugar content. Sugar can be particularly dangerous for people with diabetes, a condition in which the body is not able to regulate blood sugar.
Boba tapioca balls, among other forms of the food, contain cassava, which is often the main ingredient and sets off reactions in people allergic to root vegetables. It’s also known to cause allergic reactions to people with latex allergies, making it an unsuitable choice.
Alternatives to Boba Tea
Although bubble tea can offer several health benefits, it also comes with its risks, which could lead to consumers wanting to avoid it and opt for healthy alternatives. Choose boba tea flavors with less sugar to avoid the many potential risks associated with it. Also, where possible, substitute sweeteners like honey, which comes with fewer health risks than sugar. The same can also be said for switching out the milk for healthier alternatives, such as coconut milk, soy milk, and almond milk, especially for those with dairy allergies.
While it boasts several health benefits, it also comes with its risks, especially for people with dietary restrictions. To avoid these risks you can substitute healthier ingredients and choose varieties with less sugar.
In moderation, boba can be a fun and interesting beverage enjoyed by people all over the world.