This Taiwanese sweet treat has taken North America by storm! But are those tiny tapioca balls vegan or made with gelatin? What is boba made of, exactly? Learn more in our vegan guide to ordering yourself some dairy-free bubble tea to slurp up with your straw!
At the rate this trend is growing, you've probably already tried bubble tea. Or, at least, you’ve seen others walking around the mall or streets drinking a brightly colored, milky beverage with some strange-looking spheres floating around inside!
Bubble milk tea brings a beautiful whimsy to drinking tea, and slurping those boba tapioca pearls up your straw is pretty fun. Plus, there are countless variations of your sweet and addictive combo, as you can switch up your brewed tea base, fruit or milky add-in, and type of boba pearl.
Luckily, the squishy tea pearls in your vegan boba don't contain gelatin, so they're acceptable for a plant-based diet.
It's easy to find plenty of boba tea combinations that are vegan, though you'll want to be mindful when you order – some bubble tea ingredients can contain animal-based products.
Is boba tea vegan?
Read more below to find out which ingredients are safe so you can still enjoy your favorite bubble tea on a plant-based diet!
What Is Bubble Tea?
This tea-based beverage originated in Taiwan during the 1980s, with squishy, gelatinous tapioca balls at the bottom of each sweet cup. This beverage is trendy among Asian Americans and enjoyed widespread American consumption in the last 5-10 years.
At the bottom of each cup, bubble tea contains brewed tea, sugar or sweetener, milk or juice, and tapioca pearls. If you head to a bubble tea shop, you get to choose and customize your beverage precisely as you please.
Bubble Tea Ingredients
- Tea. The brewed tea options are usually green tea, black tea, or red tea.
- Fruit juice or milk. Milk may be dairy or non-dairy, or fruit juice instead.
- Boba pearls. There are countless types of tapioca pearls, vegan jellies, syrups, and foams.
Is Boba Vegan?
Ingredient #1: Tapioca Pearls
Let's get the most-questioned ingredient out of the way first: tapioca pearls!
Is tapioca vegan?
Yes! It's common to say that boba contains gelatin because their textures are very similar to one another. Gelatin is a big no-go for anyone following a vegan diet, as it has animal bone, skin, and ligaments.
What is tapioca made of?
Instead, boba contains tapioca, starch from the cassava root. And luckily, roots are entirely plant-based, as they're plant bases, literally.
How is tapioca made?
Producers first grind the cassava root, squeeze the starch-based liquid out of it, and let the remainder dry into tapioca powder. Then, they create pearls, flakes, or sticks that rehydrate into jelly, tapioca pearls. Most pearls contain tapioca flour, water, and sugar to sweeten.
Though the base of tapioca pearls is vegan, some producers sweeten the pearls with honey, a product made by honeybees.
If you choose to consume boba, read the package labels closely and ask tea shops about their ingredients list.
Another common ingredient in tapioca balls is coloring, both natural and artificial. For the most part, food coloring is vegan-friendly, though bright red food coloring may come from red beetles, rendering the bubble tea non-vegan.
Your bubble tea may contain popping boba made with agar agar, a seaweed-based ingredient. The algae mix with a base liquid, like fruit juice, and turns into tiny spheres that look like fish eggs. Popping boba is entirely vegan unless it's sweetened with honey!
Ingredient #2: Boba Pudding
One of the more traditional bubble tea toppings is a pudding-like custard. Though tasty, this is one ingredient vegans should avoid, as it almost always contains eggs.
Ingredient #3: Other Jelly Toppings
Some bubble tea offers different boba ingredients than tapioca balls – luckily, most of them are vegan. Lychee jelly, grass jelly, rainbow jelly, and almost all other jellies are fine, as they're made from sugar and other plant-based ingredients. Double-check that the jellies contain sugar, not honey.
Ingredient #4: Milk
First, we have to answer this question: do vegans drink milk at all?
Well, in a way, yes. While cow's milk is out, there are plenty of delicious plant-based milk options.
Along with the boba pearls and tea, you'll often see milk or fruit juice added to your drink. Fruit juice should always be plant-based, but milk presents a bit of an issue for vegans!
Traditional bubble tea usually contains cow's milk, but modernized tea shops often use, or at least offer, plenty of vegan milk tea options made with soy, almond, coconut, oat, or rice milk instead.
Instead, ask about non-dairy milk options at your favorite tea shop or stick with a fruity juice base.
Ingredient #5: Honey & Syrups
Just as makers can add a honey substitute to tapioca pearls, some may add this non-vegan sweetener to the milk/fruit base or tea.
Is tapioca syrup vegan?
Generally, yes. Many choose to add syrup to their drink base for bright color, sweet flavor, and aroma. These syrups usually contain sugar as their base, along with other plant-based ingredients – ask your server for an ingredients list to be on the safe side.
Ingredient #6: White Sugar
White sugar tends to open a whole can of worms when it comes to the discussion on veganism. Some vegans choose to consume white sugar, while others avoid it altogether.
Why would vegans avoid a plant-based product like sugar?
White sugar indeed comes from the sugar cane plant, but there is a catch for many vegans, as during the manufacturing process, animal bone char bleaches and filters the sugar.
Producers remove the bone char from the final product, but technically, they use an animal product during the process, rendering it un-vegan to some.
The good news is that many – maybe even most – modern producers have stopped using bone char in their processing, and one day we'll likely abolish the practice altogether. Avoiding white sugar is all but impossible in a modern diet, so many vegans find it impractical to remove white sugar from their diet.
Any certified organic sugar is guaranteed to be plant-based. You can ask about vegan ingredients at your tea shop to find more about their sources' practices. If you choose to avoid white sugar, you're going to have a difficult, if not impossible, time finding bubble tea made without it.
Ingredient #7: Artificial Sweeteners
Occasionally, we use artificial sweeteners to sweeten our vegan bubble tea. While this removes the white sugar/honey issue, it presents another problem – scientists test most artificial sweeteners on animals, which is a dealbreaker for most vegans.
They're also not great for your body, so it's generally best to avoid unnatural sweeteners altogether!
Final Note & The Best Bubble Tea Combo
While there are plenty of potentially non-vegan ingredients in bubble tea, there are still countless options out there for vegans to enjoy, provided you're a white sugar-eating vegan!
Our favorite vegan bubble tea combo to order is with fruit juice in place of vegan milk – we find it adds more flavor and sweetness that pairs well with the tea.
Try peach green tea with lychee jelly for a sweet, fruity delight!