It’s hard to say exactly when bubble tea took over the world, but you’ve probably noticed that boba went from being an unheard-of to a ubiquity in the past decade. Big towns and small alike are now littered with brightly colored bubble tea cafes, serving sweet, milky concoctions of tapioca pearls, grass jelly, and other gelatinous additions to a loosely defined definition of “tea.” Sometimes it comes from a powder, sometimes it comes from a massive steel pot. But it’s cheap, it’s tasty, and it’s certainly texturally interesting.
Boba tea (also called pearl tea, or bubble tea) is a sweet drink that combines milk, flavored tea and tapioca pearls that are sucked up through an extra large straw and chewed. The boba drink pearls have a soft, chewy consistency similar to that of gummy candy. Boba tea was introduced in Taiwan in the 1980s, quickly spread through Southeast Asia and more recently has become very popular among young people in the U.S. and in Europe. The tapioca pearls usually are black and are made from cassava starch, sweet potato and brown sugar. Sometimes, white tapioca pearls are used – these are made from cassava starch, caramel and chamomile root and have a different flavor, but a recent investigative report in China found allegations that some of the country’s boba may contain leather and rubber.
In package for lifestyle program “Life Help,” a reporter in Qingdao drinks a pearl milk tea from a local shop and then goes a nearby hospital to undergo a CT scan. The scan showed a stomachful of undigested tapioca pearls.
At Qingdao University’s Chemical Experimentation Center, scientists were baffled by the substance. Although they were unable to confirm what the pearls were made of, they described the material as “highly adhesive.”
On October 19, a Chinese patient who had recently consumed bubble tea at a shop in Shangdong Province underwent a CT scan and noticed some strange white dots in the image of their stomach—as did their doctor, who identified the dots as abnormal since tapioca balls are primarily just starch, which is typically fairly easily digested. (The patient’s gender wasn’t specified.) A reporter caught wind of the incident and visited the same bubble tea shop, then returned for a CT scan of her own. Ditto: weird little white spots showed up in the image of her abdomen where there should have been a whole lot of nothing.
Undercover interviews with local boba tea shop managers found that they also seemed unsure of the pearls’ actual ingredients. One manager, however, made a stunning accusation that would mean illegality committed on the part of the boba manufacturer if true: “They’re all made at chemical plants. To put it bluntly, they’re made from the soles of leather shoes and old tires.”
While boba tea has seen heavy popularity growth stateside over the last decade, the Taiwanese-born drinks have also seen their fair share of controversy. In addition to several scandals in the Philippines and Taiwan over unapproved and toxic additives in tapioca pearls over the last several years, a 2012 German study found that some boba contained carcinogenic “PCB-like” substances.
Although the Shandong Television report could not conclusively prove that the pearls were indeed made from shoes or tires, this latest raft of bad publicity is likely to spell more bad news for the beleaguered bubble tea industry.