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  • Scott Adams

    Is Bubble Tea Gluten-Free and Safe for Celiacs?

    Scott Adams
    1 1
    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Is Bubble Tea, or 'Boba tea' gluten-free and safe for people with celiac disease?

    Image: CC BY 2.0-- ljguitar
    Caption: Image: CC BY 2.0-- ljguitar

    Celiac.com 09/07/2020 - Anyone living in a bubble for the last decade or two might be excused for asking "What, exactly, is bubble tea, aka 'boba tea?'" Anyone not living in a bubble the last decade or two, and who has celiac disease, might be excused for asking "Is bubble tea gluten-free and safe for people with celiac disease?"

    Created in Taiwan in the 1980s, bubble tea has become so popular in the United States in the last decade, that "Boba Tea" shops are popping up like weeds. If you live in a city, or go to a mall, you may have noticed the popularity of bubble tea establishments. San Francisco alone is home to dozens of bubble tea shops, including some much-loved northern California chains like T-Pumps, and Teaspoon

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    For the uninitiated, "Bubble tea," aka "Boba tea" is a drink made from sweetened black tea and milk, shaken with ice to make a foamy layer of "bubbles" that float on top of the drink. Chewy tapioca balls, aka 'boba' are also commonly added, as are many other ingredients, and flavors, including: taro, red bean, ginger, and even bran.

    Flavors are commonly fruit based, such as: peach, mango, strawberry, passionfruit, strawberry, guava, and tangerine, among others.  

    So, here's the gluten-free breakdown. As with so many questions, the answer can depends on what you add to your boba tea.

    Bubble tea is just black or green tea, milk, sugar, fruit, and tapioca balls. All of these are gluten-free and safe for people with celiac disease. For reference, tapioca balls, or 'pearls,' are chewy little balls of tapioca starch, which is derived from the cassava root, which is gluten-free.

    As with ice cream, the devil can be in the details. Or, in this case, the things we add to the final product. Any ingredient that includes wheat, wheat bran or gluten, will make the final product not gluten-free, so be careful what you add. Most additives to boba tea are fruit-based, but sometimes they offer bran, which is not gluten-free, so be careful. Cross-contamination can also be an issue, so if you do decide to try it be sure to explain to the person making it that you need to avoid any contamination with gluten.

    If you're not sure about ingredients, it's best to avoid them. For a full list of safe and unsafe ingredients, consult Celiac.com's list of safe, gluten-free ingredients, and a list of unsafe, non-gluten-free ingredients

    So, to recap: Bubble tea, aka 'boba' tea is basically gluten-free, as long as you don't accidentally add gluten ingredients to the final product. Stick to the basics, the tea, milk, sugar, fruit and tapioca pearls, and you'll be sure to stay in gluten-free territory.

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    Over the past 2 decades, I've worked in places that make boba tea. However the ingredient lists on the packages are always in Chinese.  So I had no way of knowing whether it was safe.  What makes the tapioca balls brown?  And what about maltose, a super-common ingredient in Asian beverages?   

    I know what you're going to say: maltose is safe because it's made with corn. And that is true in the U.S. But I'm not convinced that the products that do not have (supposedly required) English labels are necessarily intending to adhere to U.S. laws about this.  It has also always been my understanding that the word "malt" by definition means kilned, sprouted barley.  And that any variant on that would then declare itself as it is contrary to the generally accepted definition of "malt". (eg. Malted wheat, malted corn, malted millet...) 

    Your links last week to the FDA documents were helpful. Are there similar for this issue. 

    https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=184.1443a&SearchTerm=malt#:~:text=184.1443a Malt.,alpha]-amylase (EC 3.2.  



    "The terms "malt extract" or "malt syrup" unqualified should be applied only to products prepared from barley. If any other malted grain is used, the extract or syrup may be designated by a specific name such as "extract of malted barley and corn."

    "The designation "liquid malt" is considered false and misleading as applied to mixtures of malt extract or malt syrup with corn syrup or other substances which are not normal constituents of malt extract."



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  • About Me

    Scott Adams was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1994, and, due to the nearly total lack of information available at that time, was forced to become an expert on the disease in order to recover. In 1995 he launched the site that later became Celiac.com to help as many people as possible with celiac disease get diagnosed so they can begin to live happy, healthy gluten-free lives.  He is co-author of the book Cereal Killers, and founder and publisher of the (formerly paper) newsletter Journal of Gluten Sensitivity. In 1998 he founded The Gluten-Free Mall which he sold in 2014. Celiac.com does not sell any products, and is 100% advertiser supported.

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