The bubble tea fad fist hit the United Kingdom in 2011 and it has showed no sign of slowing down. Adopted from a Taiwanese drink that was commercialised in the 1980s, it’s a curious mixture of sweet, slimy, and chewy, but it’s delicious, and it has been winning fans in the UK drinks’ market since Bubbleology opened their first store in Soho, London.
What is Bubble Tea?
It has been called “surprisingly addictive”, “sickly sweet”, and pretty much everything in between. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea (pun intended), but it’s something that all tea drinkers need to try.
There are many different types of bubble tea and it goes by several different names, including pearl tea. It is often made by adding balls of sweet starch to a cold tea mixture. The tea mixture is normally made with black or green tea (oolong tea can also be used) to which fresh or condensed milk is added before the famous “pearls” are dropped in.
The pearls are usually made from tapioca starch that has been flavoured with fruit juice concentrates, but they can also be made from jelly or something known as popping boba—little balls of fruit juice with thin shells that “pop” in your mouth.
Where Did it Come From?
Believe it or not, bubble tea, which is also known as pearl tea, does not get its name from these small balls of starch. It is believed to be derived from the bubbles that form on the top of the drink when it is shaken and it’s a term that has been used to refer to many other types of tea in the past.
There are a few different origin stories concerning the creation of bubble tea, and the only thing we can say with relative certainty is that it was created in Taiwan between 1986 and 1988. In these early years, it was primarily sold through Taiwanese night markets, where powdered milk and condensed milk were used due to the lack of refrigeration required to keep fresh milk cold.
It spread through Taiwan, China, and Japan in the 1990s and then reached North America. Despite North America’s obsession with coffee, bubble tea’s expansion was rapid in many multicultural cities like New York, and it was actually there, in a New York location, that the owner of Britain’s Bubbleology was said to have sampled his first sip.
Bubble tea is still growing in the United States and now Bubbleology have set up shop there, earning their slice of this ever-growing pie and fighting against America’s coffee culture one milk tea at a time.
Is Bubble Tea Good for You?
There are many different flavours of bubble tea and most of them are not healthy. Far from it. They are full of fat and sugar, loaded with everything from refined sugars to cream, fruit concentrates, and sweet toppings. It’s a dessert in a drink and is as healthy as it sounds.
It’s still tea, of course, so that’s something… but it’s certainly not the best way to get your daily dose of antioxidants.
This is one of the reasons bubble tea has struggled to gain traction in many areas of UK—that and the fact that cold, milky tea with balls of starch bobbing around in it is somewhat of an alien concept to many British tea drinkers.
The bubble tea purveyors that seem to be growing the fastest are the ones who have adapted to the rapidly changing consumer marketplace, reducing the fat and the sugar and offering something that is considerably healthier but equally addictive.
Each of these provides their own unique twist on the classic calorie-dense drink.
How Many Calories are in Bubble Tea?
Your bubble tea is as unhealthy as you make it. It starts with a good base in the form of black tea or green tea, and while it usually goes downhill from there, you can make it what you want.
A bubble tea that is made using brown sugar, condensed milk, and fruit concentrates could pack over 400 calories per serving. One that is made using fresh milk (or a milk alternative) and very little sugar may be closer to 200 calories per cup.
Once you add toppings, that calorie count climbs. Take Bubbleology as an example: their most calorific bubble tea is the Taro, which contains 409 calories for a regular, with that calorie count jumping to over 450 once you add some tapioca. Of course, you can opt for fruit teas or lighter milk teas instead, reducing the sugar content and the toppings and getting something that has half the calories.
Every tearoom is required to display nutritional information so the calories, the sugar content, and the fat content are available if you look for them. And if you can’t find them on the website or in the store, just ask.
Bubble Tea versus Iced Tea
Iced tea, like bubble tea, is not the best way to get your tea fix. It’s an unhealthy way to drink a very healthy product. In many cases, iced tea may actually be worse, because nearly all of the bottled teas you find on the shelves contain an infinitesimal amount of tea (in the form of an extract) along with heaps of refined sugar.
They are basically tea-flavoured sugar water. At least with bubble tea you’re getting something that has been brewed fresh, something that can provide you with some protein and calcium from the fresh milk and some minor nutrients from the fruit concentrates. With iced tea, there is none of this, but you still get all the sugar.
It’s a different story with freshly brewed iced tea, of course, and there are ways to make this a relatively healthy drink. That’s pretty much the moral of the story here—both of these drinks can be very unhealthy, but there are ways to make them healthier. At the end of the day, the onus is on you, the consumer, to make the right choice. And if your chosen tearoom doesn’t stock a healthier alternative to bubble tea or even iced tea, then vote with your feet and find a tearoom that does.