What Is Boba? Everything You Need to Know About Bubble Tea

Including if the trendy beverage is healthy or not

what-is-boba-is-boba-healthya hand holding a boba tea.
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Boba tea—a Taiwanese drink that consists of milk, tea and balls of tapioca—is all the rage right now. And yes, it is texturally exciting and downright delicious…but what is boba, exactly? And is boba tea healthy? As much as we hate to be a buzzkill, the fact is that boba tea is decidedly not so good for you. Don’t get us wrong—you don’t have to stop drinking the stuff, but don’t be fooled into thinking this sweet, refreshing milk tea has any real health benefits. We spoke to two registered dietitians to get the good, the bad and the ugly on boba tea. Read on for everything you need to know. (Spoiler: Like all super sugary drinks, boba tea is best enjoyed in moderation.)

Meet the Experts

  • Alyssa Wilson, RD is a registered and licensed dietitian. She holds a Masters of Science in Nutrition from Georgia State University, and a Bachelors of Science in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of Georgia. Alyssa has experience working as a nutrition coach at a major gym, leading nutrition programs in corporate wellness, and currently works as a metabolic success coach at Signos. Alyssa is passionate about bringing a holistic and integrative approach to wellness that combines evidence-based nutrition knowledge along with personalized lifestyle counseling to help clients live a healthy lifestyle and feel their best.
  • Emily Iuzzulino, MS, RD is a registered dietitian and nutrition expert for FlexIt and the owner of East Coast Nutrition & Wellness, where she provides counseling and meal planning to individuals and families/groups.

What Is Boba Tea?

As previously mentioned, boba tea—sometimes called bubble tea—is a popular beverage that originated in Taiwan and has since caught on stateside. As the name suggests, this sweet and refreshing concoction starts with a tea base (either black, white or green) that is then sweetened before being mixed with generous amounts of milk (or a non-dairy alternative) and chewy, sweet pearls of tapioca. Not all boba teas are created equal, though: some use natural sweeteners, while others use refined sugar. (Fruit syrups are also common.) There are even some bubble tea imposters that don’t even use any tea at all. Regardless, you can expect a sugary drink when you order boba tea—a fact that offsets any potential benefits of the tea base itself.

What Toppings Go in Boba Tea

Tapioca pearls known as boba are the quintessential topping for boba tea (hence the name) and they are made from starch derived from the cassava plant. “Water [and brown sugar] is added to the starch and then it’s kneaded like bread to create the balls,” explains Wilson. That said, other toppings are available, too, the most common of which are described below.

Grass Jelly

Grass jelly might sound pretty weird, but it’s actually a popular dessert in South and East Asian countries and it has nothing to do with grass. In fact, “grass jelly is made from the Mesona plant, which is a medicinal (and edible) plant from China. [And] while it is fat free and low in calories, it’s low in vitamins and other nutrients,” says Wilson. Per the expert, an eight-ounce serving has 60 calories and 13 grams of sugar and is considered to be one of the healthier boba toppings available because of its low calorie content.


The pudding used in boba tea isn’t the eat-it-with-a-spoon kind; it’s mixed with extra gelatin to achieve a firmer pudding that holds its form and has a slightly chewy texture and creamy mouthfeel when added to milk tea. It is often available in different flavors, like taro and mango.

Fruit Jelly

The fruit jelly toppings used in boba tea are made from fruit juice concentrate and added sugar. Common fruit jelly flavors for boba tea include strawberry, lychee, mango and peach. A one-ounce serving of fruit jelly is only 20 to 60 calories, but most of the calories are from sugar, says Wilson. “While not a great choice nutritionally, it is typically used sparingly as a topping and so it’s fine as an occasional treat.”

Aloe Vera

This boba tea topping is a clear and firm cube of jelly that is made with extracts from the aloe vera plant and soaked in syrup for a mildly sweet, herbaceous flavor. Aloe vera topping tends to be fairly neutral, so it harmonizes well with bold citrus and tropical flavored boba teas. It’s also one of the healthier toppings you can get for boba tea, as research (like this 2013 study published in Organic and Medicinal Chemistry Letters) has found it to have powerful antioxidant and antibacterial properties.

Red Bean

If you are familiar with Chinese cuisine, you will probably recognize red beans as a common feature of the dessert menu. “Red bean paste is a sweetened paste made of red beans, also known as adzuki beans and sugar. It is popular in China and the added sweetness makes it an ideal topping for boba tea. And while there is a lot of added sugar, the actual red beans are a great source of fiber and protein,” says Wilson. (A half-cup serving of red beans has 8 grams of fiber and 6 grams of fiber.)

Mung Bean

Mung beans are an edible seed grown widely throughout Asia. They are green in color and have a slightly sweet and nutty flavor profile. One cup of mung beans provides 10 grams of fiber, 14 grams of protein and 80 percent of the recommended daily intake of folate, which is important for pregnant and breastfeeding women. That said, Wilson notes that pregnant women should avoid raw mung beans due to possible bacteria.

Is Boba Tea Healthy?

Given the description of the ingredients, it’s pretty clear that boba tea is not particularly healthy. Per Iuzzolino, “boba tea is not the beneficial drink that everyone assumes it to be,” namely because the tapioca balls in the beverage, sweet and chewy though they may be, have no nutritional value, and are basically just empty calories, carbs and sugar: “Lacking any vitamins or minerals, as well as having zero fiber, tapioca balls bring the nutritional value of any tea drink way down,” explains Iuzzolino. In fact, one serving of boba tea can contain as many as 500 (empty) calories and a whopping 50 grams of sugar, which is more than twice the recommended daily amount for women, notes Wilson. (Yikes.) Needless to say, that combination of carbs and simple sugars will give you a nice, albeit short-lived, energy boost—but know that you’re not doing your body any favors in the long run.

If you’ve got a hankering for bubble tea, it’s OK to indulge once in a while. However, to make boba tea healthier, it’s best to “choose an unsweetened milk and ask for chia seeds and aloe vera for your toppings,” says Wilson, adding that “chia seeds are protein rich and fiberful, which will help you feel full for longer.” Wilson also recommends avoiding sugar-laden syrups when choosing your flavor and opting for a natural sweetener like Stevia instead.

The Takeaway

Boba tea is tasty, fun and novel. It’s nice to drink something cold and sweet through an extra wide straw, while having something to chew on with every sip. The not-so-fun facts? Boba tea is a sugar bomb that might add to your waistline and mess with your overall health if you indulge in it on the regular. In other words, think of boba tea as you would a Frappuccino. Sure, it has caffeine (sometimes), but the sugar content and empty calories make it a poor replacement for coffee or plain old tea. Bottom line: Feel free to enjoy boba tea in moderation, but definitely keep in mind that it does not meet the criteria for a healthy, daily pick-me-up.

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