First came the slushy bars with barrel-like cups of sugary, lurid, brightly colored crushed ice that froze your esophagus and stained your kids’ teeth.
Then came the juice and smoothie bars for “clean eaters” and vegans, with cloudy-looking fruit and vegetable concoctions that labeled themselves “healthy” but often loaded with hidden calories.
And then, from the East, came bubble tea.
For the uninitiated, this drink consists of the most basic form of black or green tea, milk, ice, and small, chewy balls of tapioca dough – shaken together like a cocktail and served through a wide straw so you can enjoy that greasy and shimmering tapioca. aspirate pearls from the bottom of the cup.
Sheila Dillon examines whether bubble tea can be considered healthy as the drinks grow in popularity with nearly 250 shops selling bubble tea in the UK (file image)
The bubble tea ‘cafes’ and bars that offer a dazzling array of creations originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and have been found on the UK’s high streets and shopping centers since the early 2010s and are a fashionable meeting place become for teenagers.
But lately, they’ve been experiencing a stratospheric growth — at an extraordinarily rapid rate, all thanks to massive popularity on social media platforms like TikTok, where these drinks have become a new viral trend.
Millions of young people — mostly under the age of 25 — now follow bubble tea influencers as they “taste” various brews in front of the camera, even making their own concoctions in every flavor and hue.
It’s becoming a cultural phenomenon, with videos on TikTok alone featuring the “BubbleTea” hashtag currently garnering nearly three billion views.
It’s all bizarrely voyeuristic. People post videos of themselves piercing the foil or plastic lids of the drink with a straw (to a satisfying ‘pop’), before slurping the pearls, or ‘boba’ as they’re known. (Actually the Chinese slang for “chest,” referring to their shape.)
So then – all a bit of fun? And much safer for our teens than cider or vodka in the back of bike sheds?
Well, maybe not. While green and black teas are famous for their detoxifying properties, these “teas” are far from healthy.
Only this week it was revealed that some bubble teas, packed with different fruit syrups and with endless toppings such as jelly, whipped cream and ice creams, can contain as much as 800 calories.
It was reported last week that childhood obesity in England has reached an all-time high – with a shocking 2.5 million children now overweight or obese (file image)
That’s the same as 50 sugar cubes and eclipses even a 550-calorie McDonald’s Big Mac.
Today Britain has nearly 250 shops selling bubble tea, with the main market being teenage girls, lured by the flashy branding (to match the dazzlingly sweet drinks) and enjoying the ‘likes’ they get for it on social media.
Bubbleology is the UK’s largest chain, with 40 stores across Europe, including 17 in the UK. Thanks to this bubble boom, another 70 will open before the end of the year.
And all this when it was reported last week that childhood obesity in England has reached an all-time high – with a shocking 2.5 million children now overweight or obese – due in part to recent increased sedentity during prolonged lockdowns.
And 56 percent of UK diets now consist of ‘ultra-processed’ foods.
And yet legions of young people now seem addicted to so-called ‘meal-in-a-tea’ drinks.
So for my job as the presenter of the BBC’s The Food Programme, and to keep up to date with the latest culinary trends, this week I went to my local branch of Bubbleology in north London to find out more about these drinks that both captivate and perhaps endanger our youth in equal measure.
Sheila visited her local Bubbleology branch in North London, where she learned that the low-calorie option still has 200 calories (file image)
I chose my size (a ‘regular’ 500ml for £3.59 or a ‘supreme’ for £4.59), my taste, then specified how sweet and milky I wanted it.
And then came the performance. The ‘boba barista’ scoops the tapioca balls into it, pours the creamy tea over it, then the ice cream and then the toppings.
I must confess that I was not quite looking forward to the taste. I remember tapioca milk pudding — or fish eyes as my friends and I called it — all too well from my school days.
But this is a completely different field. And I immediately understood the call.
First I ordered a pomegranate fruit tea, the low calorie option and still got 200 calories in (the milk tea starts at a heavier 350 calories) plus the extra 94 calories with the boba.
It tasted intensely like pomegranate. And while it was quite unique to suck balls of pomegranate-impregnated tapioca in my mouth, I can report that they are soft, a little chewy – and really quite tasty! Certainly a long way from fish-eye pudding.
Encouraged, I moved on to other flavors: passion fruit, honeydew, and vanilla chai.
In the name of research, of course, I also tasted mango and lychee bobas: the possibilities were endless.
My boba barista told me I could have strawberries with cream, Oreo, or even banoffee pie.
Shelia said you can easily find yourself guzzling heaps of sugar in an instant — far more than the 30 grams the government says adults should limit themselves in a day (file image)
And it doesn’t stop there: there are popping variants—with balls of seaweed that burst in your mouth like popping candy, a wild creation Willy Wonka would be proud of, though perhaps one that could easily end up in a milk-splattering disaster.
There’s even an iced version of the drink (which replaces the milk base).
Again, for research purposes, I tried the ‘taro ice cream’, made from taro root – a purple vegetable no different from a sweet potato or a yam – and it was quite tasty too.
But above all, my favorite variety was hot balls of molasses with cold milk poured on top to create a delicious, dark brown swirling concoction.
So yes, in conclusion: all quite tasty, and certainly a treat for when nothing but the sickest sweet stuff hits the spot.
But of course you can’t escape that they are packed with calories.
If you’re not careful, you can easily gobble up piles of sugar in the blink of an eye — far more than the 30 ounces the government says adults should limit themselves to in a day.
Of course our social media crazy kids don’t care.
Shelia said the teens she spoke to were concerned about the nutritional value of the drinks, but see bubble tea as a treat (file image)
None of the teens I spoke to during my exploration were concerned about the nutritional content of the drinks.
They see them as a treat – as well as a trendy Instagram or TikTok opportunity.
And if they can’t go out and buy them, there are tons of home brew recipes too.
When I returned, perhaps already on a sugar coating, I immediately turned to TikTok, where I found plenty of enthusiasts making their own versions.
Of course, the milk and the toppings are pretty simple. But to make the tapioca dough, they need to be cooked to perfection (30 minutes, then another half hour to cool). If you cook too long they will be too soft and stick together, if you cook too little they will be too hard to chew. A fine science.
So will the bubble tea bubble burst? And are they just milkshakes on steroids?
Well, the argument that they will stick around for a long time is that they have tapped into a large and growing percentage of young people who don’t want to drink alcohol, but do want to go out for a ‘drink’ together.
But they’re also, I admit, incredibly unhealthy and probably only add to the sugar-filled diets of our woefully overweight children — and yet another black spot on the list of social media’s harmful effects.
They are deceptively more and can easily lead to dangerous over-indulgence.
Something I discovered for myself when I got home and wondered. . . what kind of tea is there?