Are Milk Tea Pearls Bad for You?

Several years ago, in 2011 specifically, Taiwan was embroiled in a controversy when it was found that its foods and drinks contain a harmful chemical known as DEHP, a significant component in the creation of plastic. Around that time, there had been a growing concern from the rest of the world about the quality of imported products coming from Taiwan.

Taiwan, for everyone’s information, is the birthplace of the trendy “Boba Milk Tea”, also known as the “Bubble Milk Tea”. But this small Asian country did not just create a food fad, it also capitalizes on the production and selling of the tapioca pearls that is hallmark to the tea-based beverage.

Based on the premise, you can easily imagine what one special kind of product from Taiwan had been affected by the issue in such a way that it has become center in the disputation—the tapioca pearls themselves, also otherwise called the milk tea pearls.

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Squabble on the Milk Tea Pearls

Around the Fall season in 2013, a report came from Germany which states that the tapioca pearls used in Boba milk tea could cause it consumers to develop cancer. Immediately, the media across the world picked up on the report and escalated the information, concluding to the world that the said ingredient in pearl milk tea is indeed carcinogenic.

The blame is primarily pointed towards a certain group of compounds called “polychlorinated biphenyls” or PCBs found in the studied samples of tapioca pearls which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared cancerous to animals. In separate studies, the PCB group is linked to the development of malignant melanoma and liver cancer to man.

It specifically pertains to chemical compounds known as styrene and acetophenone.

The Taiwanese government, on their part, conducted their own study as well whose findings confirmed the presence of brominated biphenyls, but at a caveat that the detected amount are merely traces and thus not pose any significant concern to health. It is worth noting, however, that the said study was not made transparent to the rest of the world and that the sample used is feared to be minuscule at best.

Bubble tea 'pearls' are made from tapioca, a starch extracted from the cassava plant.
Photo by istock

Are tapioca pearls therefore toxic?

Now, while the rest of the world were easily swayed with the said reports, a representative of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Noah Bartolucci, claimed that both styrene and acetophenone are actually not PCBs. Rather, they are separate compounds, because they neither are biphenyls nor chlorinated, but do share similar traits to an actual PCB.

“Both acetophenone and styrene are aromatic compounds (PCBs are also aromatic), but being an aromatic compound is not, in and of itself, a reason for toxicological concern,” said Bartolucci.

The simple answer, therefore, is NO—tapioca pearls are actually safe to consume and was only made to appear otherwise brought about by a fallacy.

Photo by Point Pleasant Child Care Centre

If it’s not toxic, then it’s good, right?

Well, not really. Even though the mystery of tapioca pearls’ edibility is already but confirmed, it does not mean that it’s healthy for consumption. Tapioca pearls, in a nutshell, is a consumable food that is mostly carbohydrates and little nutrition in it, almost synonymous to a “junk food”.

If you are calorie-conscious, this means that the inclusion of tapioca pearls to your drink only adds to the overall calories that the drink is already giving.

For other generalized health concern, having tapioca pearls in your milk tea would insinuate a likely spike in your blood sugar after consumption.

Bottom line: Constant intake of tapioca pearls could be bad to your guts and your weight.

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