Vietnam Time

5/13/2019 7:54:24 AM

The hidden sugars in bubble tea

Bubble tea is a beverage that remains hugely popular in Singapore and Vietnam, but its potential impact on people's health has largely slipped under the radar.

File photo of bubble tea. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

The sweetest varieties could contain more sugar than some soft drinks, which have frequently come under fire for containing too much sugar.

For instance, a 500ml cup of brown sugar boba milk can contain about 92g of sugar, about three times more than the amount of sugar in a 320ml can of Coca-Cola.

This was one of the findings in an experiment commissioned by Channel NewsAsia and conducted by students enrolled in the Applied Food Science and Nutrition diploma course at Temasek Polytechnic.

Channel NewsAsia went to six popular bubble tea brands and got a variety of drinks. Armed with just a few drops of the drink and a device called a refractometer, which measures the amount of dissolved sugar in liquids, the students were able to detect each beverage's level of sweetness, excluding pearls and toppings.

The experiment did not distinguish between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars.

The results showed that some bubble teas could have a detrimental impact on one's health if consumed too often.

Sugar in bubble tea​​​​.


Experts warned that a lack of knowledge of how much sugar goes into each cup of bubble tea could mislead people into thinking it is healthier compared to soft drinks, experts said.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has started consulting the public on four possible measures that include banning and taxing some pre-packaged sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) like soft drinks. This is to try and cut Singaporeans’ overall sugar intake in an ongoing fight against diabetes. 

However, freshly-prepared drinks are excluded from the public consultation.

“There is a lot of attention given to soft drinks, but it is the unlabelled products that slip under the radar,” said Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach at The Nutrition Clinic Bonnie Rogers.

As bubble tea, like other sweet made-to-order drinks, are liquids, people tend not to think of them as part of their daily consumption and they often get consumed between meals, Rogers added.

Given that the Health Promotion Board (HPB) recommends that a female with a 1,800 kcal daily energy requirement limit sugar calories to no more than 180kcal, equivalent to 45g, one cup of bubble tea could easily account for a whole day’s sugar intake.

Applied Food Science and Nutrition lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic Siti Saifa said even when there are options for the level of sweetness, choosing quarter or half sugar could still be too much sugar in a day.

She also noted that sugar that is contained in the pearls, toppings and even fruits added to the bubble tea were not tested in the experiment.

Both experts said it is worrying that teenagers and younger children are in the lines that form at some bubble tea shops.

“If we look at the addictive nature of sugar it is not surprising that these drinks are popular and a lot of parents see this as a healthy option compared to soft drinks,” Rogers said.

But the reality is that the amount of sugar in one drink is “astounding”, she said.

“When you add other sources of sugar from snacks and even complex sugars from rice and fruit, paired with more inactivity in children and adults in general it paints a scary picture,” she added.


Grab driver Tan Hongming frequently gets his drinks with the full sugar option, especially when he finds that the tea leaves used are bitter.

The 31-year-old drinks bubble tea once a week now, down from his daily habit when bubble tea shops were more accessible to him when he was working in the IT industry at Toa Payoh. But still, he has three cups at a go.

“Most people find it too sweet, but for myself, I find the sweeter, the better,” he said.

The colours and variety are what tempt him to keep buying bubble tea, he said.

“I want to try the different drinks. There are so many different types and toppings,” he said. He added that he tends to consume the drinks when he feels sleepy.


There could be a reason why consumers like Tan may be seeking drinks like bubble tea. These have a rollercoaster effect on the body, said Rogers.

“It picks you up and then drastically lowers your blood sugar making you tired, hungry and in search for your next sugary pick me up,” she said.

In the context of a bigger picture, if a person is not sleeping well, under a lot of stress or eating a high-carbohydrate diet, the body will crave sugar to keep on going.

With options like bubble tea being relatively affordable as well as so easily accessible it is easy to see how they gain popularity, she said.

Bubble tea has become a fashionable drink among the youth in Vietnam. (Source:


Bubble tea, also known as pearl milk tea or boba tea, originated in Taiwan. A typical cup of bubble tea contains a tea base mixed with milk or fruit; chewy tapioca balls called pearls, boba or bubbles; and other toppings such as fruit jelly, pudding or sweetened red beans.

Bubble tea first appeared in Vietnam in 2000s, but the boom has occurred only in the last four years. According to Euromonitor, Vietnam’s bubble tea market is growing by 20 per cent per annum and was valued at USD 300 million two years ago.

Meanwhile, a survey by Lozi conducted in mid-2017 showed that there were 1,500 bubble tea shops from 30 milk tea brands. More than 53 per cent of people said they had bubble tea at least once a week.

Besides the popular names such as Ding Tea, Royaltea, Gong cha and Goky, the bubble tea market in Hanoi has also seen new brands such as The Alley, Sharetea, Ten Ren and KOI.

Though its popularity is undeniable, bubble tea has raised several health concerns.

The price of the drinks ranges from VND 30,000 to 60,000 (USD 1.32 to 2.64), slightly more than a cup of coffee. The relatively high price does not diminish the beverage's popularity with businesswomen and students, however.

Nutrionist Tran Lan Huong worried that the huge amount of sugar in bubble tea might lead to obesity in young people.

Tran Minh Hanh, deputy director of Ho Chi Minh City Nutrition Centre, said that though it was known as “milk tea”, bubble tea has no fresh milk at all. Milk powder, its main ingredient, contains mostly fat and less protein.

“Bubble milk tea is just a tempting drink. It should not been considered as ‘milk’ for daily intake,” she said.

Tran Ngoc Luu Phuong, head of the Digestive Disease Interventions Department under Nguyen Tri Phuong Hospital in HCM City, said that a cup of bubble tea had 500 to 600kg calories, equal to a bowl of rice, meat and vegetables. Despite its high energy, bubble tea provides insufficient amounts of nutrients, protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber.

The high amount of sugar combining with flavors and additives in bubble tea may lead to serious health problems, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

“Bubbles made from tapioca make people feel full and tend to skip meals, leading to an imbalanced diet,” she said./.

[ Back ]

Send comment