Does bubble tea contain gluten?

What is Bubble Tea?

Bubble tea, also known as boba tea or pearl milk tea, is a chilled tea-based drink that originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. The distinguishing feature of bubble tea is the addition of chewy tapioca pearls, also known as boba, that sit at the bottom of the cup. These tapioca pearls are made from tapioca starch extracted from the cassava root. The pearls are cooked until soft and soaked in a sugary syrup to add sweetness. When you drink bubble tea, you consume the pearls along with the tea through a large straw.

The tea base of bubble tea can be black tea, green tea, oolong tea, jasmine tea, or even coffee. It is sweetened with sugar or syrups and usually mixed with milk, creating a creamy, frothy texture. In addition to tapioca pearls, bubble tea can also contain a variety of other toppings like fruit jelly, pudding, grass jelly, aloe vera chunks, etc. The endless flavor combinations and textures make it a fun beverage.

Bubble tea has become immensely popular worldwide, especially among young people. Its origins in Taiwan have spread across Asia and beyond to Europe and the Americas. Specialty bubble tea shops let customers customize their drinks exactly to their liking. The Instagram-worthy, colorful drinks are now a global phenomenon.

Does Bubble Tea Naturally Contain Gluten?

Gluten is a group of proteins found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. For people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten triggers an autoimmune response that damages the small intestine. They must strictly avoid gluten in their diets.

The core ingredients of basic bubble tea – tea, milk, sugar, and tapioca pearls – are naturally gluten-free. Tapioca starch used to make the pearls is extracted from the cassava root, which does not contain gluten. Therefore, bubble tea does not inherently contain gluten.

However, many bubble tea shops offer customizations and toppings that may contain gluten. For example, wheat-based ingredients are sometimes added to the tapioca pearls or tea base for additional texture and flavor. Certain toppings like cake chunks or cookies contain gluten. Flavor syrups, powder mixes, and other add-ins may also contain gluten depending on their specific ingredients.

So while traditional bubble tea made with just tea, milk, sugar, and tapioca does not contain gluten in its basic form, customized and flavored versions may include gluten-containing ingredients. Checking the ingredients of your specific bubble tea order is important, especially if you are avoiding gluten for medical reasons.

Common Sources of Gluten in Bubble Tea

Here are some of the most common sources of gluten that can be added to customized bubble tea drinks:

Tapioca Pearls

– Wheat starch – Some bubble tea shops add wheat starch to their tapioca pearls to improve the chewy texture.

– Maltodextrin – This additive derived from corn, wheat, or potato starch is sometimes used to enhance the pearls.

– Flavored syrup – The sugary syrup added to flavor the tapioca pearls often contains barley malt, wheat extracts, or other gluten sources.

– Starch slurry – A gluey starch mixture with wheat flour or barley malt may coat the pearls.

Tea Base

– Powdered mixes – Flavored powder mixes blended into the tea may contain wheat flour, maltodextrin, or barley malt extract.

– Milk powder – Dry milk powder is added to some bubble teas and may contain gluten.

– Flavored syrup – The syrup sweetening the tea often has barley malt, wheat starch, or similar glutenous ingredients.


– Cookies – Cookie crumbles are a popular topping that contains gluten from wheat flour.

– Cake – Similarly, cake chunks mixed into the tea have gluten.

– Cereal – Some shops add gluten-containing cereal or crackers like wheat germ or graham crackers.

– Mochi – These chewy rice cakes are often coated in wheat starch.

– Candy – Gummies and jellies may use wheat-based starch.

– Chocolate – Barley malt may be present in the chocolate pieces.

– Creamer – Non-dairy creamer powders can have gluten in the form of maltodextrin.

Flavored Powder

Many stores offer additional flavored powder mixes that you can add to tea or milk foam. These contain gluten sources like:

– Wheat flour

– Malted barley flour

– Maltodextrin

– Dextrin from wheat or barley

Overall, carefully read the ingredients list for each element of your customized bubble tea to spot potential sources of gluten. Even gluten-free brands may get cross-contaminated at a shop that also handles gluten ingredients. When ordering, emphasize that you need completely gluten-free preparation to avoid trace amounts. Or stick to the core ingredients – tea, milk, sugar, and plain tapioca pearls.

Are the Boba Pearls / Tapioca Pearls Gluten-Free?

Boba pearls, also called tapioca pearls, are traditionally gluten-free. Authentic tapioca pearls contain just two ingredients:

– Tapioca starch – Extracted from the cassava root, tapioca starch provides the bulk and chewiness of the pearls. Cassava does not contain gluten, making tapioca starch gluten-free.

– Brown sugar – Added for sweetness, brown sugar does not contain gluten.

However, many bubble tea shops add extra ingredients to their homemade boba to modify the pearls’ texture and flavor:

Added Ingredient Contains Gluten?
Wheat starch Yes
Maltodextrin Sometimes (if from wheat)
Flavored syrup Sometimes (if contains barley malt, wheat, etc.)
Starch slurry Sometimes (if contains wheat flour)

For gluten-free tapioca pearls, the shop must use pure tapioca starch without other starches or questionable thickeners in the mix. Always check if the store can guarantee their boba pearls are gluten-free before consuming. It’s safest to request plain tapioca pearls flavored only with sugar rather than more complex syrups.

Many bubble tea chains use pre-made boba that comes in sealed packages rather than homemade pearls. Large tapioca pearl manufacturers generally produce gluten-free boba using just tapioca starch and brown sugar. However, check the ingredients list carefully, as rare brands may add wheat starch. Mass-produced boba can also risk cross-contact with gluten during processing at shared facilities.

What to Watch out for When Ordering Gluten-Free Bubble Tea

Here are some tips for ordering gluten-free bubble tea:

– Review the whole menu first and look for gluten-free labels. Some stores may mark certain options as gluten-free.

– Ask if the tapioca pearls are gluten-free – they should be made with only tapioca starch, sugar, and water. Request plain pearls.

– Opt for classic milk tea or fruit tea bases without extra flavor powders or syrups, which may add gluten.

– Avoid toppings like cookies, cake, or chocolate that inherently contain gluten.

– Request dairy or non-dairy milk instead of powdered creamers, which can have hidden gluten.

– For flavor, get real fruit purees instead of syrups with mysterious ingredients.

– Ask if the store can make your order gluten-free. Emphasize cross-contact precautions.

– For severe celiac disease, avoid shops that also handle gluten ingredients altogether. There’s high risk of cross-contact.

– Check ingredient lists and allergen information for every element added to your customized drink.

– Call ahead to inquire about gluten-free options rather than assuming the store can accommodate.

– Opt for national chains that are more likely to mark menus and train staff on food allergies.

– Bring your own gluten-free toppings like mochi, fruits, coconut jelly, etc. to add instead of unknown in-house ingredients.

With modifications and careful questions, people avoiding gluten for medical reasons can often enjoy bubble tea. But it requires extra care reading labels, selecting plain ingredients, and avoiding cross-contact.

Are the Boba / Bubble Tea Pearls Dairy-Free?

The tapioca pearls, also known as boba, in bubble tea are dairy-free. Boba are created from just two ingredients – tapioca starch and brown sugar. Tapioca starch comes from the cassava root, not any dairy source. And brown sugar does not contain milk or any other animal products.

Sometimes starch from potatoes or other vegetables is added to the tapioca to make the pearls, but these starches are also dairy-free. As long as no milk-based powders are added to the boba, which is very rare, the pearls do not contain any dairy.

However, some bubble tea bases or added toppings may contain dairy:

Bubble Tea Ingredient Contains Dairy?
Black tea base Dairy-free
Green tea base Dairy-free
Oolong tea base Dairy-free
Milk tea base Contains dairy (milk)
Non-dairy creamer Dairy-free (check ingredients)
Fresh milk foam Contains dairy (milk)
Ice cream Contains dairy
Cookies/cake topping Often contains dairy

So while the boba pearls themselves are dairy-free, customized milk teas with dairy creamers or ice cream added would no longer be dairy-free. Check the specific ingredients of each component of your bubble tea to ensure it is completely dairy-free. Specify non-dairy milk and avoid creamy toppings if you want a dairy-free drink.

Are the Bubble Tea Boba Vegan?

Traditional plain tapioca pearls made of just cassava starch and brown sugar are completely vegan. They contain no animal products. However, bubble tea shops sometimes add non-vegan ingredients to their homemade boba:

– Milk powder – Adds creaminess but contains dairy

– Egg whites or egg yolks – Used as binders in some recipes

– Honey – Some brands add honey instead of sugar

– Collagen powder – Made from animal tissues

If the store uses pre-made packaged tapioca pearls, check the ingredients list carefully for any non-vegan additives like milk or egg before consuming. Call ahead to ask if the boba is vegan if you have concerns. Request plain pearls without toppings for maximum vegan-friendliness.

The tea base itself is normally vegan, containing tea leaves, water, sugar, and sometimes vegan milk like soy milk or rice milk. But again, customized add-ins may not be vegan:

– Dairy milk or creamers

– Honey-sweetened syrups

– whipped cream topping

– chocolate chips containing dairy milk

– candy or jellies containing gelatin made from animal collagen

So while classic bubble tea with tapioca pearls is vegan, customized add-ins and toppings may not be. Check all ingredients and specify your needs to the staff to ensure your drink is prepared 100% vegan. Bring your own vegan boba or toppings if you are concerned about cross-contamination from animal products being handled in the shop.

Is Bubble Tea Gluten-Free and Vegan?

Yes, it’s possible to make vegan gluten-free bubble tea at home. You would need:

– Gluten-free, vegan tea base – Use black, green, oolong, herbal, rooibos, or other naturally gluten-free tea. Avoid powdered mixes with questionable ingredients. Sweeten with plain sugar instead of barley malt syrups.

– Vegan milk – Choose unsweetened almond, soy, oat, coconut, rice or other vegan milk. Avoid dairy milk.

– Plain tapioca pearls – Use gluten-free, vegan pearls made with just tapioca starch and sugar.

– Vegan toppings – Add fresh fruit, coconut jelly, crushed nuts or seeds instead of candies or cream.

– Vegan sweeteners – Opt for fruit purees, agave syrup, maple syrup or sugar instead of honey.

– Unflavored ice/bubbles – Use plain ice or bubble foams instead of powdered creamers.

With homemade components, you can craft bubble tea that fits both a gluten-free and vegan diet. But it will take some effort tracking down the right special gluten-free, vegan ingredients compared to just ordering out. Checking with your favorite bubble tea shops to see if they offer any certified gluten-free and vegan options can also open up more choices. Overall, customize your order carefully and confirm the ingredients to enjoy allergy-friendly bubble tea.


In its traditional form made from tea, milk, sugar, and tapioca pearls, bubble tea does not inherently contain gluten. But customized versions with added flavorings and toppings may include gluten from sources like wheat, barley, and maltodextrin. Check carefully for gluten-containing ingredients in the tapioca pearls, tea base, toppings, and any powdered mixes. When ordering, ask if the shop can accommodate gluten-free preparation and emphasize avoiding cross-contact. Stick to plain ingredients like milk tea with unflavored boba pearls to be safest. While gluten-free and vegan homemade bubble tea is achievable, it requires using specialty ingredients not common at most shops. With extra care reading labels and knowing your options, those avoiding gluten for medical reasons can often enjoy this popular beverage.

Leave a Comment