Is Bubble Tea (Boba) Vegan?: Tapioca, Jelly, etc.

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bubble tea

Every street I walk down seems to have a new bubble tea shop opening up.

The good news for vegans is that while not all bubble tea is vegan, many types are.

I’ll break down the common and possible ingredients here, and go over which ones you should avoid.

The Main Ingredients of Bubble Tea

Every shop makes their bubble tea a bit different, but certain types of ingredients are consistent.

Ingredient Description Is it Vegan?
Tapioca balls (“boba”) These are made from the cassava plant Tapioca is almost always vegan
Milk and creamer  Dairy versions of these are not vegan. Only if you can get non-dairy milk
Brewed tea The “tea” in bubble tea. Almost always (as long as there are no added ingredients)
Sugar Some sugar is processed with bone char. It’s likely vegan, you just can’t be sure. Hold off on it if you want to be safe.
Fruit jelly (grass jelly) The jelly can be made with agar agar powder (from seaweed, or from lychee jelly) or an agar replacement, but also gelatin (an animal product that’s not vegan). Agar jelly is vegan but jelly with gelatin is not. You’ll need to ask for more information or omit jelly if “agar” isn’t specified.

Are Tapioca Balls in Bubble Tea Vegan?

Based on the texture, you might suspect that it has gelatin.

Thankfully, tapioca is made only from plants, specifically, the cassava root (also called yucca).

cassava-root

Cassava root is a tuber that looks a lot like a sweet potato. You’ve probably seen it before and not even known what it was.

It’s mainly grown in Brazil, Nigeria, and Thailand, but originally came from South America and the Caribbean.

Tapioca is the starch that’s extracted from cassava root.

Once the plant is grown, toxins are removed from the roots, and then the starch is removed and turned into a bunch of products: flakes, powder, and pearls.

SUMMARY

Tapioca is 100% carbohydrate (gluten-free), and is completely vegan.

Is Lychee Jelly Vegan?

lychee

The short answer is that lychee jelly is sometimes vegan.

Lychee is a tiny red fruit that mostly comes from Asian countries.

Inside the skin, it contains an edible white ball of fruit, with a texture almost similar to an orange.

It’s usually turned into a lychee syrup or powder, which is one of the ingredients that lychee jelly for bubble tea is made from.

What is Lychee Jelly Usually Made Of?

The reason that lychee jelly is only sometimes vegan is because it can be made from several ingredients.

In addition to the lychee syrup or powder, the most common other ingredients are:

  • Agar agar powder
  • Gelatin (not vegan)
  • Creamer (not vegan)
  • Sugar (usually vegan)
  • Coconut (vegan)

So whether or not it’s vegan depends on the ingredients used, and often the ingredients are not vegan.

Unlike some other foods, I don’t expect most bubble tea shops to know whether their lychee is or isn’t vegan.

Usually it’s better to stick with an alternative that is almost always vegan like tapioca when ordering your bubble tea.

In Summary: How to Get Vegan Bubble Tea

Ideally, ask for all vegan ingredients, most shops can accommodate you and give you several options still.

Otherwise, here are some things to keep in mind when ordering bubble tea:

  1. Get tapioca balls or agar jelly as toppings (or ask if their “fruit jelly” or “grass jelly” is vegan).
  2. Stick to fruit bubble teas when possible, as they don’t have any milk or cream usually.
  3. If you want a milk or cream-based bubble tea, ask for non-dairy milk or cream.
  4. Avoid adding sugar unless you’re sure it’s not white sugar.

If you do those 4 things, it’s not too difficult to enjoy bubble tea as a vegan.

About the author

Dale Cudmore

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance nutrition writer. I've been vegan for years and try to make life easier for others by sharing what I've learned.