Is Boba Vegan? If you are like me, for a long time now you have been walking around seeing people drinking brightly colored liquids with little black balls at the bottom and slurping them up with an oversized straw from a cup sealed with plastic foil. What on earth are these people drinking? That can’t possibly be good for you, right? Those little black balls must be made of gelatin and so can’t be vegan right? Oh, how karma can be a cruel mistress. After reluctantly trying my first Boba Tea I can officially tell you “I am hooked” – my go-to is now Jasmine Oat Milk Boba Tea. LOVE IT. In this article, we are going to break down everything you ever wanted to know about Boba and Boba Tea and most importantly answer that all-important question – Is Boba Vegan?
Is Boba Tea / Bubble Tea Vegan?
As a general rule, pure boba pearls are vegan – their chewiness is not derived from gelatin. Boba pearls’ chewiness is instead derived from tapioca which is extracted from the cassava root. There are, however, a few non-vegan ingredients to watch for when ordering a boba tea drink including boba soaked in honey, dairy milk, honey teas, whey-based creamers, and some of the toppings.
Quick fun fact – for all you Star Wars fans if you google “How Popular is Boba” into Google the third suggested search item after “How popular is boba” and “How popular is boba tea” is “How Popular is Boba Fett”.
Is Boba Vegan – What is it?
Originating from Taiwan in the 1980s, Boba (sometimes called Boba Tea and/or Bubble Tea) is a sweet drink made from boba tea blends (e,g. Black Tea, Green Tea, Oolong Tea, and White Tea), some form of milk, ice, and chewy tapioca starch balls know as the “boba” – hence where the name “boba tea” comes from.
And, yes – most of it will contain caffeine.
No one knows the original story, but the story goes that a tea shop owner mixed some of her Taiwanese tapioca pudding into her ice cream in a moment of boredom. Added it to the menu and the rest, as they say, is history.
The drink has grown hugely in global popularity recently. The current market for Boba Tea is now worth $2 billion and is projected to grow to $3.4 billion by 2027 according to Fortune Business Insights. To put this into some context – the global vegan ice cream market is only expected to reach $805.3 million by 2027.
The drink remains the most popular in South Asia with Thailand taking the top spot for popularity. In Thailand, an average of six cups of Boba Tea is drunk per person per month.
Most Popular Item During COVID-19
Yelp even proclaimed Boba Tea as the most popular delivery item at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic with states such as California, Hawaii, and Michigan all going online to order these drinks. What is even more astonishing is that if you check Yelp’s list Boba Tea (or Bubble Tea as Yelp referred to it) was the only drink item on the list. Every other one of the 47 most popular items was all food-based.
Is It Boba or Boba Tea?
To understand “Boba Tea” I need to distinguish between the “Boba” part and the “Tea” part of the drink.
Boba itself is the balls at the bottom of a boba drink. These are essentially tapioca pearls. They are chewy and almost jelly-like in texture.
Hold on “Jelly-Like” did you say?
Yes, I said “Jelly-Like”. This, of course, raises the question for any vegan as to whether Boba Pearls contain gelatin. The good news is that they do not.
Tapioca is very much vegan. This is because tapioca is simply the starch extract from the cassava root. Tapioca is often used in place of gelatin to vegan-ize foods that need that soft “jelly-like” and “chewy” sensation. For example, another common place where tapioca is used is in vegan marshmallows – it helps give them that soft squish we all love in place of gelatin (by the way if you love Vegan Marshmallows you can check out my favorite brand Dandies on Amazon here).
Boba pearls do not tend to have a strong taste – they add more of a texture experience to your drink. However, there are flavored varieties of Boba you can get added to your drink.
So, Is Boba Vegan?
Yes, tapioca pearls are vegan. However, many Boba Tea Shops will sweeten their boba tapioca pearls with honey or other non-vegan ingredients. The only way to know if the boba at the bottom of your drink is 100% vegan is to ask the server before you order. At most Boba Tea Shops the addition of Boba Pearls is often an added extra charge to the drink. You can get the drink boba free.
Alternatively, you can make your own boba drinks at home using 100% tapioca pearls or bring the boba with you. Yes, it is a little bit more hassle, but if you want to be 100% sure it may be the only way. Here are some of my go-to Boba Pearls you can buy online at Amazon here.
Is Boba Vegan? – The Tea Part
Above we covered the Boba Pearls, now to cover the actual “Tea” part of the drink.
The base for most Boba Teas is some form of tea. The most common is Black or Green Tea, but you can also get Oolong, Matcha, White, and my personal favorite Jasmine. The tea can be in powdered form or brewed from its tea leaf form. The tea can be served hot or cold (although to be honest I am yet to come across hot boba tea). The tea base is mixed with some form of milk, creamer, or alternatively fruit juice.
The final tea is then usually sealed with a plastic heat-sealed lid and a giant straw so you can suck up the boba. These straws are plastic and thicker than normal. I am personally not a fan of all the plastic waste from straws, so I like to use a reusable metal boba straw. If you are looking for one this is one I use and can be easily bought on Amazon here – I also find the bigger size good for thicker smoothies.
Is Boba Vegan? – Ingredient Breakdown
In this section, we will break down and summarize each of the common ingredients in Boba Tea and whether they are vegan or not.
As mentioned above, the first step is to check with the server if the Boba is vegan. The main concern is Boba Pearls which are soaked in honey. If the boba is not vegan then you can still order the drink minus the boba – remember most of the time the boba is an optional charged extra.
Yes, freshly brewed tea is almost always vegan so long as it is not a honey tea. For example, our local Boba Sop has honey lemon black tea and honey lemon green tea on the menu – which is not vegan. If you are then just going for an iced tea, then it will be vegan.
Most Boba Teas on the menu will be some form of milk team i.e. a tea base that has some form of milk option added to it. Obviously, the thing to watch for here is whether dairy milk is being used. Most Boba places will offer a non-dairy alternative such as oat or almond milk. My personal choice is to replace it with oat milk.
It may also be advisable to avoid any caramel milk tea as often caramel unless in syrup form is usually not vegan. Believe it or not the same is true at Starbucks – if you want to learn more you can check out my piece How To Actually Order A Vegan Starbucks Drink.
You should also be aware that some flavored milk tea creamers contain whey. For example, a lot of Taro Milk Teas (and sometimes Lychee Milk Teas) will contain whey. The only way to know is by asking the Boba Tea Shop.
If you are feeling creative and don’t like non-dairy milk you can also try adding some fruit juice to your tea instead.
Toppings / Syrups – Is Boba Jelly Vegan?
Finally, Toppings, Syrups, and Add-ins. Always avoid any Boba Pudding add-in, these will contain eggs. A lot of the jelly toppings do not contain any ingredients derived from animals so they should be okay. However, some sugars are used to sweeten which may have been processed using bone char. I cover this issue in my post: Is Soda Vegan? Revealing What You Need To Know.
There are lots of sugar syrups to choose from which you can add to your drink. Again, if you choose to avoid any sugar processed with bone char then it is best to skip any added syrups.
Is Boba Vegan? – The Final Sip
For me, I just want to know one thing – can I still have my Jasmine Oat Milk Boba? In short, yes. Yes, I can. Depending on the Boba Tea Shop I may or may not have to have it without the Boba Pearls, which you know I am okay with. The Boba just adds a chewy element. I just check with the server and if they are then I get them. If they aren’t then just the sweet, delicious Jasmine tea for me.
Now to summarize that all-important question…
How Do I Order a Vegan Boba?
- Check if the Boba Pearls are vegan
- Pick a straight tea option (i.e. not flavored tea like Taro)
- Substitute any dairy milk for a nut-based milk alternative
- Avoid any additional toppings
Failing that you can always just buy a home boba-making kit from Amazon here (yes, they do exist) and yes it comes with Jasmine so I will most likely be getting this now.
…now you know.
Beverage makers may change ingredients and/or manufacturing processes. Always double-check ingredients before purchasing any beverages.
Like what you are reading
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