Is Boba a.k.a. Bubble Tea Vegan?

is boba vegan
Foto: CC0/ Unsplash – Rosalind Chang

Boba, or bubble tea, is a popular drink originating in Taiwan. But is boba vegan? Although some versions can be completely plant-based, there are a few ingredients to watch out for.

Boba, or bubble tea, has grown trendy over the past few years, with fashionable stores and even boba plushies becoming seemingly ubiquitous. There are many different types of bubble tea, which is made with ingredients that may be unfamiliar — including tapioca pearls, grass jelly, and more. Surprisingly, most varieties of boba are vegan, making it a guilt-free treat for anyone trying to cut down on their consumption of animal products. However, there are a few things you should watch out for if you want to ensure that your bubble tea is fully plant-based.

What Is Boba?

Boba, or bubble tea, is a sweet drink that was first created in Taiwan during the 1980s. The word “boba” may refer to either the entire drink, which includes a liquid base and tapioca pearls (which are the “bubbles”) or simply to the tapioca pearls themselves. The most common type of liquid base for bubble tea is, of course, a type of tea, to which some kind of milk is often added. Most stores will also have a juice option.

Is the Drink Base Vegan?

Surprisingly, many boba milk teas can be vegan.
Surprisingly, many boba milk teas can be vegan.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / sti300p)

Black tea or green tea is probably the most common base for bubble tea, but you can usually find fruit teas on the menu as well. Additionally, a creamer is often added to the tea base, creating a milk tea. While milk tea may not sound vegan, most boba chains will offer a plant milk option. In fact, several popular chains like Chatime and 85˚C use dairy-free creamers as a default. This means that vegan milk teas should be available at most boba stores. The only major exception is taro milk tea, which is often not vegan because taro powders usually contain milk.

If no plant-based milk options are available, you can always choose to order a non-milk tea or a fruit-based drink. Additionally, since brown sugar can sometimes be processed using animal products, you should avoid any drinks that advertise using brown sugar.

If you follow this advice, it is very easy to find vegan-friendly drinks at bubble tea stores.

Note: Some bubble tea shops use honey to sweeten their drinks or their pearls, which means that, strictly speaking, their boba is not vegan. Be sure to ask before you order your drink. 

Are the Toppings Vegan?

The classic tapioca pearl is fully plant-based and derived from the cassava plant, pictured above.
The classic tapioca pearl is fully plant-based and derived from the cassava plant, pictured above.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / sarangib)

Vegan versions of boba drink base are easy to find. But what about the toppings? Vegans are also in luck here. Although the jelly-like texture leads some people to believe that bubble tea toppings contain gelatin, they actually do not. The dark brown boba pearls are made of tapioca, a starchy extract from cassava root. Popping pearls, which are similar to regular pearls but contain a syrupy inside, are also made from a plant-based film surrounding the syrupy inside.

Fruit jelly toppings are often vegan as well. They are often made with agar, a seaweed extract that also produces a gelatinous texture while being completely plant-based. However, there is a great deal of variation between manufacturers, and unfortunately, some use gelatin instead. So if you choose to go for a jelly, you should always ask about the ingredients in order to ensure that it is vegan-friendly. Aside from these common toppings, some stores also offer fresh fruit.

In general, it’s usually very easy to find vegan bubble tea. If you see any unfamiliar items on the menu, you can always ask staff about whether they are compatible with a vegan diet. And when in doubt, stick to the safest option — a non-milk-tea base with pearls.

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