Bubble tea, a sweet but deadly brew?

Bubble tea contains sugar, milk and a non-dairy creamer. (File pic)

PETALING JAYA: Experts have sounded the alarm on the high sugar content of bubble tea, advising Malaysians to avoid the drink for the sake of their health.

The Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy Studies said studies conducted on the brew had shown alarming results with implications on the spread of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

The think tank’s CEO, Azrul Mohd Khalib, said a medium-sized cup of bubble tea was found to contain as many calories as a slice of cheesecake.

“The pearls in bubble tea make up one third of the calories in the drink,” he told FMT. “This beverage has twice the amount of sugar as a can of cola.

“The long-term potential for harm to people who drink a lot of bubble tea is high.”

Bubble tea, also known as boba, originated from Taiwan in the 1980s. It contains sugar, milk and a non-dairy creamer, and has become a popular drink in Malaysia.

“If we take Singapore’s bubble tea as a baseline for what is sold here, the situation is quite alarming,” Azrul said.

“A serving of brown sugar milk tea with pearls has been found to have 18.5 teaspoons of sugar. Wintermelon tea has 16 teaspoons. Even plain milk tea with pearls has eight. And all this is before the toppings are added.

“An adult’s daily recommended sugar intake is eight to 11 teaspoons, while for children and teenagers, it is just five teaspoons.

“With bubble tea, you are likely to consume your daily intake of sugar in a single sitting,” he said.

“Malaysia’s problem isn’t pre-packaged sugar-sweetened beverages, which can easily be taxed and subjected to health regulations, but made-to-order drinks such as teh tarik, Milo, kopi susu and now bubble tea.”

Toppings for bubble tea include chewy tapioca balls, fruit jelly, grass jelly and agar jelly. Versions that are ice-blended or contain no milk are also available.

There are various serving sizes, but the largest cups usually cost RM10.

Previous checks by FMT found nine bubble tea shops in Subang Jaya’s SS15 area, four of them within a stone’s throw from each other on the same road. All were packed with university students.

Azrul said consumers could make such drinks healthier by asking for less sugar and fresh, low-fat or skimmed milk instead of non-dairy creamer. They should also forego the toppings.

He said fans of the brew should limit their consumption to two cups a week.

Malaysian Medical Association president Dr N Ganabaskaran urged Malaysians to be careful with their sugar intake, noting that the country has the highest rate of diabetes and obesity in Asia.

“Anything sweet that contributes to such debilitating diseases should be taken with caution and care,” he said. “Malaysians are known to have a sweet tooth. So we definitely need to worry about this growing trend.”

He said the constant consumption of anything sweet would lead to ill health, paving the way for non-communicable diseases which have become rampant in Malaysia.

Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye, however, said the situation was not a big concern but warned that people should not consume too much bubble tea.

He urged vendors to reduce the sugar content as much as possible.

“Consumers must understand that too much sugar is bad for health,” he said. “They can reduce the sugar in their drinks and get used to the new taste.

“I hope consumers will ask for less sugar and operators can provide low-sugar options, not only for bubble tea, but other beverages as well, such as teh tarik.”

A popular bubble tea cafe told FMT that different varieties would have different sugar levels and some preparations could be adjusted to customer preference.

“We do have customers asking for more sugar,” he said. “We can adjust the sweetness of some beverages, but others are fixed.”