All about bubble tea: why its origins are unclear, and how to hit the sweet spot with a recipe for a healthier version

  • The boba drink – which a few Taiwanese shops claim to have invented – can be better for your body if you make a few changes to your order or try the home-made version below
  • Every week, Talking Points gives you a worksheet to practise your reading comprehension with questions and exercises about the story we’ve written
Michelle Lau |

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Bubble tea, also called boba tea, is a popular drink that originated from Taiwan but has since spread around the world. Photo: Shutterstock

In most shopping malls in Hong Kong, there is at least one shop selling a frothy drink with black tapioca pearls swirling within. At these stalls, customers queue patiently, eager to indulge in sweet cold tea while munching on the chewy blobs.

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Does anyone know who invented bubble tea?

Originally from Taiwan, bubble tea, also known as boba tea, has become a phenomenon that has spread around the world. The refreshing beverage grew in popularity in the 1980s, though a few different Taiwanese shops claim to have invented it.

But what most of the alleged origin stories have in common is that the first version of the drink was served without the tapioca pearls it is now known for.

Back then, it was prepared by shaking freshly brewed black or green tea, sugar syrup, milk and ice in a cocktail shaker, which created the drink’s signature foam.

Modern bubble tea varieties include the popular brown sugar milk drink. Photo: Dickson Lee

At the time, the cold drink was a refreshing update to conventional methods of serving tea, and it became a hit.

Later, chewy tapioca balls – a traditional treat in Taiwan and other parts of Asia – were added to create the boba tea we are now familiar with.

What started as a refreshing cup of bubbly milk tea has continued to evolve. Modern versions include brown sugar boba tea with its trademark tiger stripes, and cheese tea with its foamy cap of whipped cream cheese, salt, sugar and milk.

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What’s in a serving of this tasty drink?

While most of us are aware that bubble tea is not exactly the healthiest drink, what exactly goes into it?

A typical 500ml serving of bubble tea contains close to 340 calories – just two cups of it takes up about one-third of the recommended daily calorie intake.

It can also be packed with sugar as there are about 92 grams of it in a typical serving. In comparison, a half-litre bottle of Coca-Cola has 197 calories and 55 grams of sugar. Some boba tea vendors have even started offering a 700ml serving as the standard size.

Tea on its own is a zero-calorie beverage. It contains antioxidants that may help lower the risk of developing heart issues and cancer. The culprits here are the additional ingredients such as sweeteners, as well as toppings like pudding, sweetened fruit and jam, which are packed with sugar and calories.

Tea actually has quite a few health benefits – it’s the other ingredients added to bubble tea that can make it unhealthy. Photo: Bloomberg

On the other hand, tapioca pearls can be a good source of energy. Made of starch extracted from the cassava root native to South America, the chewy treat is rich in carbohydrates.

These days, most bubble tea shops allow you to adjust your drink’s sugar levels, which can make it a bit healthier. Instead of using whole milk, which is high in calories, some stalls might offer options for soy milk, nut milk or even oat milk.

If you are keen to create your own healthy boba drink, here is an easy recipe that can be customised using your favourite tea.

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Easy recipe for healthier bubble tea

Ingredients (serves 1)

  • ¼ cup tapioca pearls

  • 1 tsp honey

  • 1 tea bag of your choice

  • ½ cup low-fat or skimmed milk, or a plant-based option


  1. Add ½ cup of hot water to a mug with the tea bag and honey. Stir, and leave it to cool at room temperature before moving it to the fridge to chill.

  2. Meanwhile, boil four cups of water in a saucepan. Add the tapioca pearls, and stir. Turn the heat off, and cover it for five to seven minutes, or until the pearls float to the top of the water. Drain the pearls, and run them under cold water.

  3. Transfer the tapioca pearls to a glass, and add your chilled tea and some ice. Top it with the milk, and stir to combine. Enjoy your refreshing home-made bubble tea!

Click here to download a printable worksheet with questions and exercises about this story. Answers are on the second page of the document.

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