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Is Boba Bad for You?

By Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC

Even if you’re not sure what boba is, chances are that your kids are well aware. With an oddly addictive texture and vibrant colors that challenge the Unicorn Frappucino, bubble teas are popping up on menus everywhere. Here’s what you want to know about the star ingredient—boba.

What Is Boba?

Boba are small circular tapioca pearls, and there are two popular varieties. The more traditional types are made predominately of tapioca starch, a plant-based substance that is extremely high in carbohydrate.

The small spheres come dried in large bags and are prepared by being soaked, boiled, and drained. Once cooked they take on a softer and almost slippery texture that is then added to drinks and other sweet treats. Cooked boba are pleasantly chewy texture and slightly sweet on their own and are often spiked with additional sweeteners like honey or sugar syrups. The second option is called "popping" or "bursting" boba. These are tiny, edible, liquid filled sacks of fruity, sugary syrup. These pliable pearls come packed in a watery solution and are ready to eat. They are designed to be chewed for a quick burst of juicy sweetness.

Boba are most commonly served in a hot and cold beverages called bubble teas. These bevvies were made popular in Taiwan in the 1980s. Since then, boba and bubble tea have spread to coffee shops, juice bars and restaurants around the globe. Bubble tea is also known as boba teaboba milk teaboba juice and a variety of similar names.

The colorful concoction is made from a few basic ingredients. Boba balls are tossed into brewed green or black tea that has been spiked with fruit, fruit juice and some form of added sweetener such as honey, maple syrup, or other flavored syrup.

The boba settle to the bottom of the drink like a pile of marbles peeking through the liquid—an obvious visual cue that it is bubble tea.

In some cases, milk or nondairy beverages like soy, almond or coconut milk are added along with a hefty dose of syrupy flavorings. Some versions include a frosty blended element making for a milkshake-like drink. Some recipes call for whole food ingredients like avocado, carrot, berries, or banana. A must-have accessory for bubble tea is a wide gauge straw, used to ensure you can slurp up the boba as you sip away.

Where to Find Boba

The most common place to find boba is at a restaurant or coffee shop, but you may also see these glossy, marble sized balls as a topping choice at your local ice cream shop or frozen yogurt bar. The bursting boba are especially popular as a topping choice. Bubble tea baristas are trained experts but DIY bubble tea kits and economy packs of both types of boba can be purchased online. Bursting varieties come in a wide range of colors and flavors including mango, kiwi, pomegranate, passion fruit, and strawberry. They are typically sold in 16-ounce containers for an average price of 7 to 8 dollars each.

You can also find tapioca boba in 8-ounce bags that cost 4 to 6 dollars each. The basic tea making process is somewhat simple and there are several online videos to walk you through making homemade drinks.

A homemade version does allow for better control of the quality of the ingredients and may help keep the added sugar in check. But since you can't make bubble without boba, the high-carb, low-nutrient calories are essentially unavoidable.

Nutrition Facts

Traditional tapioca boba contains 63 calories per ounce with 15g of carbs and plenty of added preservatives and artificial colors. One ounce of bursting boba contains 25 calories, pretty much all from sugar (6 grams of total carbs and 5 gram of sugar) Some flavors do contain a trace amount of fruit juice as well as tapioca starch, seaweed extract, and various preservatives; both kinds have a trace amount of sodium.

When you put is all together, prepared 16 fluid ounce servings of bubble tea can easily stack up to sugary 500 calories.

Does It Pass the Healthy Test?

There seems to be no shortage of fun and whimsy to boba or a tall glass of bubble tea, but when it comes to nutrition, boba is a big fat fail. Ultimately, it's really just candy drowned in heavily sugared liquids. The tea contained in these beverages may be the only redeeming quality these high calorie drinks can offer.