Bubble tea, a trendy Taiwanese drink, is all over the U.S. Should your kids sip away—or steer clear?

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
July 09, 2019
TaPhotograph/Getty Images

Bubble teashops are fun and trendy right now, especially among kids and teens. But a viral news story may leave you wondering whether your children should avoid the drink entirely.

It was reported recently that a 14-year-old Chinese teenager, suffering stomach pain and constipation, was found to have more than 100 undigested tapioca "pearls" in her belly from drinking bubble tea.

If you aren't familiar with it yet, bubble tea typically consists of a scoop of "pearls"—black chewy blobs made from the starchy cassava root—at the bottom of a cup. Cold tea is poured on top and mixed with things like fruit, milk, chocolate, and other flavorings. It's served with a wide straw so you can suck up the pearls (and chew them) while drinking the tea. It comes in dozens of bright colors and fun flavors, ranging from passion fruit to peanut butter and has legions of devoted fans.

It's not that the bubble tea "pearls" themselves are harmful. It's most likely that the girl in the news story was drinking large amounts of bubble tea (way more than the occasional cup) and the starchy pearls may be constipating. And in case you've read about rumors that the pearls contain cancer-causing substances, be aware that the University of California Berkeley says this is not the case.

But here's something to consider: The pearls may be a choking hazard for small kids. Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Management warns that the pearls could be aspirated—accidentally inhaled into the lungs—especially by children under four years old. Sucking up the pearls through a straw increases this risk because of the added pressure.

If your (older) kids like bubble tea or want to try it, an occasional cup is fine. But keep a few things in mind. First, bubble tea may contain caffeine, since it's made with black or green tea and is served in hefty portions. One source claims a 13-ounce cup of bubble tea has 130mg of caffeine, which isn't much less than the same amount of coffee. (read: Should Kids Consume Caffeine?) It's also more of a dessert than a healthy cup of tea, akin to a coffee shop's whipped-cream-topped concoctions. Bubble tea can also pack a lot of added sugar, and it's not uncommon for the biggest size to clock in at more than 500 calories, about a third of what a young child needs in a day.

So if your stop into a bubble tea shop, ask for a lower level of sweetness (they usually have a range to choose from) and the smallest size (which is usually still pretty big!). If you're concerned about the pearls, you can ask to go "light on the pearls" or just skip them entirely.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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