The milk tea craze of almost a decade ago continues until today – people just can’t get enough of this delicious ice-cold drink. When I was still in college, every corner outside my university was filled with stalls selling the drink in almost every known flavor and almost everyone had a cup on their hands.
History has repeated itself today and milk tea has now found a good place among all the "it" food items of this generation.
However, what is it about this beverage that makes us want it more? More importantly, how does its consumption affect our health?
There are various versions of how milk tea came to be. Some accounts say that adding milk to tea was a practice adopted by the British from the Chinese in the 1600s. Others say that it was an old trick to keep the delicate and expensive porcelain cups used then unstained by the tea.
However, the much trendier version – tapioca pearls and all – was said to have originated from Taiwan in the 1980s. The drink was aptly named bubble milk tea, referring to the bubbles that form above the drink once shaken vigorously. The beverage trend has been then picked up and developed over the years.
It's cold, it's sweet and milky, and it has chewy little sugary balls that entice you to take sip after sip. These elements seem to tick off all the boxes of a great drink. Nonetheless, the drink may not be as healthy as we think it is. We discuss three common misconceptions about milk tea and debunk them.
1. Milk tea has the combined nutrients and health benefits of milk and tea.
Back in college, my friends and I interviewed our university's health center director on exactly how healthy milk tea is. As it's a blend of two typically healthy drinks, milk and tea, shouldn't milk tea be at least just as healthy? Unfortunately, experts are saying otherwise.
On their own, milk and tea are healthy. Milk is a great source of calcium while tea has antioxidants that aid the body in fighting damage to cells. However, when both are mixed and artificially-flavored or overly processed, they offer little to no benefits. Most common versions of the drink are pumped with high amounts of sugar and fat to make appealing flavors.
A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed a heightened risk of overconsuming sugar through drinks. It is highly likely to drink more before you feel satisfied, so you may be consuming more sugar than what is healthy.
When drinking milk tea, consider it more as a treat than as a means to fill you up.
2. Only the pearls or sinkers are filled with sugar.
The little floaties or sinkers that add a textural element to milk tea make the drink more appetizing. However, they barely offer any nutrients as they are cooked in pots of saccharine and dark syrup.
A Channel NewsAsia-commissioned experiment (conducted by students of Temasek Polytechnic) has found that a 500 ml brown sugar bubble tea can have about 92 g, which is three times more than the amount of sugar in sodas.
The next time you order, opt for one without any of these elements to lessen your intake of empty calories.
3. Milk tea is a completely unhealthy drink.
How healthy or unhealthy milk tea is has a lot to do with how it's made. Ideally, the drink should be made with freshly brewed tea and with less-processed ingredients such as fresh or low-fat milk.
Thus, milk tea can be healthy with customization. It is best to opt for milk tea shops that allow you to adjust sugar levels or amounts of fruit or flavored syrups. Instead of boba or pearls, you may also choose healthier sinkers such as aloe vera or grass jelly.
We do not discourage you to skip milk tea altogether, but just as with other food or beverage trends, moderation is key when it comes to its consumption. It is also best to explore flavors and experiment on the freshest and healthiest combinations to make every milk tea sip a healthy one.