What is Boba? The Comprehensive Guide to Bubble Tea

Hand holding Xin Fu Tang boba cup

You’ve passed by these shops all the time. Shops with names like Kung Fu Tea, Ten Rens, or even Boba Guys. Shops that your Asian friends come out of all the time holding these brown drinks with fat straws. But have you ever wondered “What is Boba?” 

In this post, we’ll break down what boba tea is, its elaborate history as well as any other questions that might pop up. 

What is Boba?

What is Boba - Boba Guys Boba Cups

Boba otherwise known as “tapioca”, “bubble tea”, or “pearls” can refer either to the round dessert topping made from cassava starch or the tea-based drink. 

The round desert pearls are usually boiled in warm syrup and served warm at the bottom of a cup of milk tea (usually a green or black tea mixed with condensed milk). 

Boba drinkers describe boba as being very sweet and chewy and an interesting contrast to the smoothness of milk tea.

The term “boba” encompasses a wide variety of beverages including milk teas, fruit teas, black teas, smoothies and slushies. 

After its invention in Taiwan in the late ’80s, boba slowly became a hit sensation to the point where there are now thousands of boba shops around the globe. 

This sweet treat first hit the United States in the early 2000s with shops like Lollicup and Tapioca Express. While early drinks were made with mostly powders, today's new wave boba shops mostly use all-natural drinks and fresher tapioca balls. 

In the early 2000s, boba used to be an in-the-know drink popular with Asian Americans, but today boba is embraced by all cultures. In early 2018, food Instagrammers across the US went into a frenzy over a hoax that claimed Starbucks was rumored to be testing out boba at its Houston locations

Today boba has expanded beyond its roots as a delicious drink. You can now find boba on shaved ice, ice cream bars, macarons, lava cakes and even as part of hot pot! 

History of Boba 

While there are many competing stories about how boba tea was invented, it is safe to say that boba was invented in Taiwan sometime in the late ’80s. 

While tapioca pearls existed as a separate delicacy, the drink itself did not. One common thread that all these stories have is that the purported founders supposedly created boba by mixing tapioca pearls into a beverage. 

Is Boba Tea Healthy? 

One question we often get asked is if boba tea is healthy. The short answer is no. The longer answer is that it depends. 

 A traditional boba milk tea with pearls, 100% sweet contains roughly 36 grams of sugar. In comparison, a 12 oz can of coke contains 39 grams of sugar. According to the American Heart Association, men should consume no more than 36 grams of sugar a day while women should consume no more than 32 grams. 

But while boba definitely isn’t healthy, it can still be consumed in moderation. 

It’s important to note that the 36 grams of sugar in a typical boba only applies to an average drink. Large drinks will have more sugar while smaller drinks have less. 

How Can You Make Boba Healthier? 

Although a typical boba drink isn’t what you might call healthy, there are certain ways you can customize it to make it healthier. 

Some shops like Boba Guys provide smaller cups. Most shops also enable you to customize your boba to your desired sweetness level. You can ask for a drink with 0% sweetness, 25% sweetness, 50% sweetness, 75% sweetness, or 100% sweetness (regular). 

Rather than the typical pairing of boba with milk tea, you can also pair boba with regular green tea or fruit teas like the ones offered by Mr. Wish. 

What Type of Boba Toppings Are There?

In today’s world of new wave boba shops, there are dozens of new toppings in a dizzying amount of flavors. However, most shops will carry some if not all of these toppings. 

What is Boba - A cup of Thai Tea being poured into a cup with boba on the side

Black Boba Pearls

Sweet, chewy and a little dense. Black boba pearls are one of the most popular toppings for milk tea and made from the cassava root.

Mini Boba Pearls 

Sweet, chewy and smaller than regular boba. Mini boba pearls are just a smaller version of regular boba. However, its smaller size makes it even easier to chew and swallow.

Herbal Jelly 

With overtones of herbal earthiness, herbal jelly is an Asian delicacy that’s on the healthier side for boba. It’s recommended if you like your toppings not too sweet but still want a little texture in your drink. 

Popping Boba 

Popping boba is completely different than regular boba. While boba is typically made from cassava and cooked slowly in syrup, popping boba uses a gel-like skin with juice inside so that when you bite into it, juice pops out!

Cheese Foam 

One of the more recent inventions to come out of the boba world, cheese foam is essentially cream cheese, whipped cream, and sweetened condensed milk mixed together with a bit of salt. It has a salty, sweet, milky taste. 

Not recommended if you’re lactose intolerant. But then again, if you’re drinking boba and do have lactose intolerance then you probably don’t mind.  

Commonly Asked Boba Questions 

How Much is Boba Tea?

The price range for boba varies depending on what part of the country you’re in and the quality of boba you’re getting. That’s not to say that you won’t find some cheap gems, but that some places are more expensive than others. 

Smaller mom and pop stores will charge $3 - $4 for a 16 oz of bubble tea, while boba at some higher-end shops can go for $4 - $5. Although many boba shops are there to serve boba, it’s not an uncommon practice to charge .50 cents extra for boba. 

Is Boba Vegan? 

The good news is that because boba is made from the cassava root, it is considered vegan. 

However, it should be noted that depending on the creamer or condensed milk used, milk tea may or may not be vegan. 

Is Boba Halal? 

One question we sometimes get asked by people is if boba is halal. Halal is an Arabic term that means “permissible or lawful” and is often used to refer to foods that Muslims are permitted to take part in. 

Halal foods are certified by Islamic Certification agencies. Halal certification, as it relates to boba, would refer to the safety in the manufacturing process. 

Boba as a drink is not designated as halal, but that does not mean that it is not safe for Muslims to drink. Xing Fu Tang in Malaysia for example is certified as Halal meaning that there are no contaminants in the manufacturing process.

Is Boba Gluten-Free? 

Cassava Root - What is Boba

Since Boba is made from cassava, it is considered gluten-free. Gluten is what makes bread stretchy and can be found in wheat and wheat brand. Since bubble tea is most fruit-based or sugar-based, it is gluten-free. 

Is Boba Bad for You? 

At 20 – 36 grams of sugar per cup, boba certainly shouldn’t be a daily refreshment. However, boba should be fine in moderation. 

Where Can You Get Boba Tea? 

If you google boba tea, you can find boba shops near you that serve it. In addition, many Asian markets such as 99 Ranch or 168 Market have small delis or bakeries that serve boba tea. You can also find boba served as a side at some Chinese, Korean barbeque, sushi and hot pot restaurants among others. 

Looking for more pieces of bubble tea inspiration? With legendary pieces like our UC Boba shirt or our Boba Daddy sweater, our streetwear meets drinkwear line is one of the hottest pieces of boba merch on the internet today. Click here to learn more