Sugary Stuff

Boba tea, a popular drink made with tea and tapioca balls, is laden with more sugar than a can of Coke.


A 16-ounce cup of bubble tea or boba milk tea typically has 50-plus grams of sugar.

Photo by Milah Gammon

Lanie Goldberg drinks boba tea because she thinks it’s cool and artsy. Her Instagram and Snapchat feeds, like those of other 14-year-olds like her, are full of photos with artful angles and filters of the sweet tapioca drinks.

“It’s like hip and pretty photogenic,” she said, noting how neat the tapioca balls look floating in the milky drink first created in Taiwan, now taking over street corners across the globe, including Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, and beyond.

The drink is so trendy these days that when Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant came to the Bay Area and asked the Reddit community what he should do in town, the answer was to most definitely make a stop for bubble tea. A shot of him at an unknown boba tea shop made it to the superstar’s Instagram feed in late October. (Durant also took pics of himself on BART and at Amoeba Music in Berkeley that same day, so it’s possible he found his drink in the East Bay.) Who knows, maybe No. 35 bought his tea at the Sweetheart Cafe, a boba tea shop in Oakland’s Chinatown, which the owner said was one of the first cafes to serve boba tea in the United States more than two decades ago.

Photo by Milah Gammon

Micah Ross and other teens are fans of boba tea. Why? Sugar probably has a lot to do with it.

But there’s another reason Goldberg, a freshman at Oakland Tech High School, likes boba, or bubble tea. “I like to think it’s healthier,” she said. “It’s tea.”

Note the word “think.”

Goldberg really didn’t know, or want to know, just how much sugar her favorite drink really had. But she looked it up anyway.


A 16-ounce cup of bubble tea or boba milk tea typically has 50-plus grams of sugar, according to numerous sources, including The same size glass of Coke? Just 48 grams. One regular size Snickers bar has 27 grams. (It’s a pretty sad day when Coke and Snickers are the “winners” of a sugar contest.)

But because boba tea is packaged so nicely, and has no nutritional information marked on the side of the slick plastic cups, the illusion of health can run rampant, especially in the minds of teenagers who flock to Green Bubble on Piedmont Avenue, for example, on any given afternoon, to sip and snap away.

“They really know how to fake you out,” Goldberg said.

As a compromise, some boba tea shops, like Purple Kow in Berkeley, allow customers to alter and customize their sugar content. Goldberg’s friend, for instance, asks for 20 percent sugar; Goldberg asks for 80 percent in her favorite glass of Thai tea. But now that she’s done her research, she said she’s “wondering if that’s even enough of a reduction.” 


Published online on April 20, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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