SINGAPORE: Bubble tea is a beverage that remains hugely popular in Singapore, with some people willing to queue for 30 minutes or more to get their favourite cup, but its potential impact on people's health has largely slipped under the radar.
However, for those fans who are also concerned about their diet and how it could impact their overall health, digging a little deeper into what goes into bubble tea could be worthwhile.
The sweetest varieties could contain more sugar than some soft drinks, which have frequently come under fire for containing too much sugar.
For instance, a 500ml cup of brown sugar boba milk can contain about 92g of sugar, about three times more than the amount of sugar in a 320ml can of Coca-Cola.
This was one of the findings in an experiment commissioned by Channel NewsAsia and conducted by students enrolled in the Applied Food Science and Nutrition diploma course at Temasek Polytechnic.
Channel NewsAsia went to six popular bubble tea brands and got a variety of drinks. Armed with just a few drops of the drink and a device called a refractometer, which measures the amount of dissolved sugar in liquids, the students were able to detect each beverage's level of sweetness, excluding pearls and toppings.
The experiment did not distinguish between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars.
The results showed that some bubble teas could have a detrimental impact on one's health if consumed too often.
MADE-TO-ORDER DRINKS MAY SLIP UNDER RADAR
Experts warned that a lack of knowledge of how much sugar goes into each cup of bubble tea could mislead people into thinking it is healthier compared to soft drinks.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) has started consulting the public on four possible measures that include banning and taxing some pre-packaged sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) like soft drinks. This is to try and cut Singaporeans’ overall sugar intake in an ongoing fight against diabetes. Almost half a million Singaporeans live with diabetes, higher than the global prevalence.
However, freshly-prepared drinks are excluded from the public consultation.
“There is a lot of attention given to soft drinks, but it is the unlabelled products that slip under the radar,” said Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach at The Nutrition Clinic Bonnie Rogers.
As bubble tea, like other sweet made-to-order drinks, are liquids, people tend not to think of them as part of their daily consumption and they often get consumed between meals, Ms Rogers added.
Given that the Health Promotion Board (HPB) recommends that a female with a 1,800 kcal daily energy requirement limit sugar calories to no more than 180kcal, equivalent to 45g, one cup of bubble tea could easily account for a whole day’s sugar intake.
Applied Food Science and Nutrition lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic Siti Saifa said even when there are options for the level of sweetness, choosing quarter or half sugar could still be too much sugar in a day.
She also noted that sugar that is contained in the pearls, toppings and even fruits added to the bubble tea were not tested in the experiment.
Both experts said it is worrying that teenagers and younger children are in the lines that form at some bubble tea shops.
“If we look at the addictive nature of sugar it is not surprising that these drinks are popular and a lot of parents see this as a healthy option compared to soft drinks,” Ms Rogers said.
But the reality is that the amount of sugar in one drink is “astounding”, she said.
“When you add other sources of sugar from snacks and even complex sugars from rice and fruit, paired with more inactivity in children and adults in general it paints a scary picture,” she added.
DRINKING BUBBLE TEA FOR THE VARIETY, SUGAR RUSH
Grab driver Tan Hongming frequently gets his drinks with the full sugar option, especially when he finds that the tea leaves used are bitter.
The 31-year-old drinks bubble tea once a week now, down from his daily habit when bubble tea shops were more accessible to him when he was working in the IT industry at Toa Payoh. But still, he has three cups at a go.
“Most people find it too sweet, but for myself, I find the sweeter, the better,” he said.
The colours and variety are what tempt him to keep buying bubble tea, he said.
“I want to try the different drinks. There are so many different types and toppings,” he said. He added that he tends to consume the drinks when he feels sleepy.
THE LURE OF SWEET DRINKS
There could be a reason why consumers like Mr Tan may be seeking drinks like bubble tea. These have a rollercoaster effect on the body, said Ms Rogers.
“It picks you up and then drastically lowers your blood sugar making you tired, hungry and in search for your next sugary pick me up,” she said.
In the context of a bigger picture, if a person is not sleeping well, under a lot of stress or eating a high-carbohydrate diet, the body will crave sugar to keep on going.
With options like bubble tea being relatively affordable as well as so easily accessible it is easy to see how they gain popularity, she said.
HEALTH IS A PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
When asked about the consumption of sugary drinks like bubble tea, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said that consumers are free to make their own choices. The Government's focus is on making consumers more aware of the consequences of their choices.
“We also want to avoid becoming too tight on the regulations because we really don’t want to take away choice unnecessarily. We want to give people choice but at the same time, we want to help people make the right choice,” he said on the sidelines of the first Ministerial Conference on Diabetes held here in November 2018 which was attended by international delegates.
READ: Singapore’s approach to war on diabetes 'generally in right direction': Health Minister Gan Kim Yong
The primary approach must be to make healthy living and healthier choice the norm and to educate the public about the health nature of food that they are consuming, Mr Gan added.
“Health is still a personal responsibility. The person who benefits most is yourself, and therefore you need to be responsible,” he said.
If you must get your bubble tea fix, Ms Saifa suggested opting for lower sugar amounts where possible and choosing the smallest cup.
“You can’t make the change to taking less sugar overnight. You can do it step by step,” she said.