Can White People Please Stop Demonising Bubble Tea?

We don't see health warnings about unicorn lattes or rocky road ice cream, yet bubble tea remains the subject of incessant fear-mongering.

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Jun 26 2017, 11:00am

Photo: Getty Images

Yet another scare-mongering article just came out about the supposed dangers of bubble tea. This particular one is fixated on the tapioca balls, which it describes as "little balls of starch" while describing their potentially devastating health consequences, and warns that just 16 ounces of tea can have as many as 440 calories. "Don't let the word tea fool you," the piece reads. "These drinks provide practically no nutritional value like vitamins or minerals."

Bubble tea is my favourite dessert, but it's rare that I see it featured in the many stylised food videos in my Facebook feed. And whenever it does make an appearance, it's in an article about how bubble tea is an evil product of the East that I should no longer consume if I care about my health. My friend Yasmin and I have discussed a familiar shared annoyance among second generation Asian-Americans: that our favourite foods—like bibimbap and xiao long bao—must meet white critics' standards before they're deemed safe for the masses. Western skepticism about boba's health risks is brought up so often that it holds its own section on the official English "bubble tea" Wikipedia page—but that skepticism has never once dampened my milk tea cravings.

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We've heard all the warnings: Bubble tea can give you cancer; bubble tea is illegal in some countries; bubble tea might contain rubber; bubble tea can make you choke.

The message is that if you drink bubble tea, you could die. I'm not a doctor, and I also don't think that all of the information being published is entirely untrue. Bubble tea can be packed with sugar, and certainly is not very good for you, but the verbiage and the frequency with which these articles surface make me feel like the motive behind them goes beyond just warranted concern. I'm sure white people food like popcorn is just as easy to choke on as tapioca, but I've never once seen a disclaimer. (How irresponsible, Orville Redenbacher!) Of course, I agree that one shouldn't drink bubble tea every day—but that's because it's a dessert, not because it's toxic.

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Perhaps some of America's anxieties about bubble tea can be better justified (or at least explained) by its shared attributes with coffee; both are caffeinated, often sweetened, and customisable with different syrups. For that reason, some seem to think that it should be consumed with the same frequency and in the same contexts as coffee. "America is a coffee country—does bubble tea stand a chance?" asks one Quartz article from last year.

But ultimately, the two are not interchangeable at all. Bubble tea is sweet, creamy, sometimes fruit-flavoured—much more similar to ice cream than an Americano. And like ice cream, bubble tea is not meant to be consumed at 9 AM before a long day at work. Ice cream does not cause the public anxiety, or result in dozens of articles about its dangers, so why does bubble tea? Some things are not meant to be healthy: potato chips, milkshakes, gummy bears, banana splits, lollipops, and yes, bubble tea can all "lead to obesity and diabetes" if consumed irresponsibly. Still, not a single health warning accompanied the unicorn Frappucino craze this past spring—even though a 16-ounce Grande packs 410 calories and 59 grams of sugar.

Health trends target and vilify all kinds of foods, but there are more insidious implications with the discourse surrounding this Taiwanese drink. Scaring people out of supporting products made by and for people of colour contributes to the systemic ways in which people of colour are seen as outsiders. Paradoxically, when foreign food does go mainstream, immigrant-run businesses struggle to stay afloat next to newer, shinier venues where these foods are appropriated by Western entrepreneurs. The middle ground between the fear of our foods and the proprietary holds on them seems very small.

The same "health experts" who criticise bubble tea are oddly silent about other decadent, Instagram-friendly foods. When chocolate peanut butter pizzas and doughnut cones are trending, they don't come with disclaimers about their calorie counts or (lack of) nutritional value. Bubble tea has now been popular in the US for well over a decade—the popular bubble tea chain Chatime opened its first store in the US in 2006—but is still reported about like vodka eyeballing and vape pens: as a dangerous new trend that could harm your children. White authors write about boba's history and unusual flavours as if it's just emerged in the food world, despite its prevalence in Taiwan that dates back to the 1980s.

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The bottom line is that it's just a drink, not some ancient Asian secret. If health is really a concern when treating oneself to a taro slushie on a Friday, most bubble tea shops will actually allow you choose how much sugar you want in your drink—though that's rarely touched upon in public warnings about the drinks. Perhaps if the authors of these boba-fear-mongering articles about the "popular Asian drink" ever visited bubble tea shops in real life, they might know that—but maybe the risk is just too great.

If white writers who are concerned about health need more clickbait content, I suggest that they look up the latest viral recipe for bacon-wrapped meatballs or chocolate-covered cookie dough cheesecake. Even better, they could always just drink a glass of water and leave me and my half-sweet, no-ice, pearl milk tea alone.