I’ll always remember this blissful period in high school where I would indulge in a cup of bubble tea after my Wednesday tuition class. There was no Chatime or Gong Cha in existence then. Instead of the glitzy chain stores, I got my bubble tea fix at a pasar malam stall. The auntie would mix together some flavoured powder, milk tea, sugar and ice in a stainless steel shaker and vigorously try to obliterate the ice cubes before pouring it into a plastic cup pre-filled with tapioca pearls for me.
As I stepped into the working world, I forgot about my regular Wednesday bubble tea. Well, at least until Chatime appeared out of nowhere, revamping everything we remembered about old school bubble tea. Suddenly, bubble tea was popular all over again. And I was all over it again. Who could resist them? The black, chewy tapioca balls complemented milk tea like a match made in heaven. Our entire office would do Chatime sprees where we’d force someone to order 50 cups and bring the sweet, milky goodness back to us.
Chatime brought with it plenty of new technology, from machine-sealed cups to order stickers, and a party of new exciting flavours. But the essence of a good bubble tea still remains. You still needed the few key ingredients to keep bubble tea a crowd favourite, and these are unfortunately, not so great for our health.
According to the Department of Dietetics at Singapore General Hospital, these are the few ingredients we have to watch out for:
1. Non-Dairy Creamer
Most of the time, this is the ingredient used to make your bubble tea milky. It may taste good but it’s packed with hydrogenated vegetable-based fats (read: trans fats, which clogs your arteries, raises your bad cholesterol levels and lowers your good cholesterol levels). Obviously, you don’t want to be slurping up too much of this.
What to ask for: Go for bubble tea shops which use fresh milk. If you’re unsure if they do, just ask them!
2. Flavoured, Sweetened Syrups
What makes your passion fruit smoothie with pearls so lip-smackingly good? The sugar, of course. To make the myriad of drinks on the menu, bubble tea shops use an assortment of flavoured syrups, sweeteners, and sweetened fruit purees. Fresh fruits are great, but fruits infused with sugar? Not so much.
A cup of your regular bubble tea usually comes with about 6 teaspoons of sugar, which already makes up half of your daily sugar intake limit. What about all the food you’ll be eating and the other drinks you’ll be sipping?
Continual over-consumption of sugar takes you closer and closer to obesity, and with that comes loads of unwanted problems like diabetes, cancer, and other not very fun problems.
What to ask for: Instead of drinking your way towards obesity, how about asking for 30% sugar or even better, no sugar in your drinks? Most modern bubble tea shops accommodate this request, although you have to be careful with smoothies and such as they’re mostly made from already sweetened fruit purees. Beware the tapioca pearls or other toppings as well, as they might have been cooked / soaked in sugar already.
[See also: 10 Super Simple Ways to Eat Less Sugar Now]
3. Tapioca Pearls
There are about a gazillion toppings to choose from these days, but we’ll just zoom in on the most popular of them all — the infamous black pearl. These are made from tapioca starch, which is a simple carb that breaks down easily and cause your blood sugar to spike. Just two tablespoons of these chewy babies will load you up with 100 calories, and you’re definitely not just getting two tablespoons in your cup.
Let’s not forget the scare we got last year when we discovered that some pearls made in Taiwan contained maleic acid (a harmful additive which could lead to kidney cancer if consumed over time). While all of the major bubble tea chains have conducted tests and declared their tapioca pearls free of maleic acid, there are still small stalls selling pearls of unknown origin.
What to ask for: Instead of always opting for the pearls, ask for a topping that hasn’t been infused in sugar, or better still, just have your tea. You can still indulge in tapioca pearls once in a while, but it’s not recommended for regular consumption.
Okay, you’ll have realised by now that we’re telling you to cut the sugar and fake milk, and stay away from the pearls, which kind of makes it seem like you’re drinking regular brewed tea. Not to burst your bubble, but yeah, a cuppa plain green tea is much better for you than the matcha smoothie calorie bomb you’re thinking about. Health is a choice, after all.