Is Boba Vegan? The Vegan Guide to Bubble Tea

Enjoy your bubble tea cruelty-free with our ordering tips.

hand holds milk tea with boba pearls vegan illustration

Treehugger / Joshua Seong

Boba goes by a number of names, but in order to call it vegan, it must not contain milk or any other animal products.

Luckily, most boba pearls are made of entirely plant-based ingredients. The ingredients in the surrounding sweet tea, though, may not be. Luckily, it’s easy to find vegan-friendly boba in most tea shops in the United States.

Learn about the many kinds of boba tea and how to make sure your next bubble tea order is vegan.

What Is Boba?

Boba originated from Taiwan in the 1980s. This cold tea—also known as bubble tea, pearl milk tea, bubble milk tea, and tapioca milk tea—stands out in the crowd because of its signature tapioca balls or pearls, also known as boba. Many varieties exist, but most boba teas share three common elements:

  • tea that is usually black but can also be green, red, and white
  • milk that is traditionally sweetened condensed cow’s milk
  • boba pearls

Boba quickly spread outside its home in Taiwan and found its way to the west. Boba drinks today often come with heat-sealed cellophane lids and wide plastic straws to suck up the quarter-inch-diameter boba pearls as well as the sweet, sometimes milky tea. 

When Is Boba Vegan?

Boba pearls in U.S. tea shops come in several varieties, and nearly all are made from plant-based ingredients. The most popular type of boba ball is made from tapioca—an extract from the root of the cassava plant—water, food coloring, and white sugar. These ingredients are mixed and boiled to produce a round, chewy ball. The starch in the cassava turns gelatinous when heated, giving boba its toothy texture. 

Despite their gelatinous appearance, boba pearls don’t usually contain any non-vegan ingredients. Other possible vegan toppings include white coconut gel (nata de coco), fruit jellies, and sweet bean paste.

When Is Boba Not Vegan?

While most varieties of boba balls are vegan-friendly, some contain non-vegan ingredients like caramel and honey. Check with your server when ordering to ensure that your boba pearls have no animal-based ingredients.

Of more significant concern are the other ingredients in the tea. The most common varieties of boba are milk teas that use non-vegan dairy milk. For the most part, making a vegan boba milk tea requires only a simple shift to dairy-free milk. But non-vegan egg pudding sometimes appears as a boba topping, so watch out for that, too.

Boba teas can also be made without any milk, dairy or otherwise. Some vegans prefer to order their boba with fruit, tea, and boba pearls, commonly known as fruit bubble tea. Most tea shops will offer these kinds of options for vegan customers.

Did You Know?

Boba pearls come from the root of the cassava plant, a staple crop for much of the tropics. Cassava farming, however, can cause severe environmental damage, including soil degradation and habitat destruction. Restoring more traditional intercropping systems (as opposed to monoculture cassava systems) can help balance environmental wellbeing with farm productivity and crop resilience.

Types of Boba Balls

Traditional Taiwanese tapioca pearl dessert in a large pot with ladle
Vegan-friendly black pearl boba are made from water, tapioca, food coloring, and sugar.

Ivan / Getty Images

Since boba is an incredibly versatile beverage, it can be prepared in various ways with many different ingredients and toppings. Some types may contain animal products, but in general, boba pearls are vegan-friendly.

Black Pearl Boba

Also known as pearl jelly, these traditional dark tapioca balls have a spongy texture and neutral taste. Some varieties of black pearl boba contain brown sugar or non-vegan caramel, but most are made with white sugar and dark food coloring.

Golden Boba

This type of boba may or may not be vegan, depending on how it was made. Some golden boba contains non-vegan honey as a sweetener instead of white or brown sugar. 

Popping Boba

Known also as popping pearls or bursting boba, these semi-solid spheres are made from a flavorless seaweed extract and a salt (calcium chloride) mixed together with a liquid fruit juice in a process called spherification. The seaweed forms a membrane around the juice-turned-gel, and, when bitten into, the popping boba explodes with flavor. 

White Pearl Boba 

White pearl boba derives its gelatinous texture and light citrus flavor from its primary starch, a tropical Southeast Asian flower called the konjac. Also called agar boba or crystal boba, these soft, milky-white balls readily absorb the surrounding flavors of the tea. Some white pearl boba is flavored with vegan chamomile root and non-vegan caramel.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Are popping boba vegan?

    In almost all cases, yes. Popping boba is made from fruit juice that has been captured inside a thin seaweed membrane. However, if the surrounding tea contains dairy milk—a common ingredient in boba tea—the drink is no longer vegan.

  • Is crystal boba vegan?

    In general, yes. Crystal boba, also known as white pearl boba, is a white, gelatinous sphere made from the konjac flower. While crystal boba is usually vegan, some may contain non-vegan honey. Other ingredients in the tea might also not meet vegan standards.

  • Is taro boba vegan?

    Taro boba typically contains jasmine tea, condensed milk, tapioca boba pearls, and purple ground taro root—giving the drink its lavender hue. On the whole, the boba pearls, taro root powder, and tea are all naturally vegan, but unless specifically ordered otherwise, most milk teas are made with cow’s milk.

  • Is fruit bubble tea vegan?

    Generally speaking, yes. Fruit bubble tea usually has fruit, tea, and boba pearls—all plant-based ingredients. Unlike many boba recipes, fruit bubble tea doesn’t include milk (dairy or non-dairy).

  • Does boba have gelatin in it?

    No. Boba pearls get their gelatinous texture from starches like tapioca and konjac that get very sticky when heated.

View Article Sources
  1. Teo, T.W., 2014. Teaching Science In Culturally Relevant Ways: Ideas From Singapore Teachers. Chapter 4: Bubble Tea Toppings.

  2. Shackelford, G., Haddaway, N., Usieta, H., Pypers, P., Petrovan, S. and Sutherland, W., 2018. "Cassava farming practices and their agricultural and environmental impacts: a systematic map protocol". Environmental Evidence, 7(1).

  3. Delaquis, E., de Haan, S. and Wyckhuys, K., 2018. "On-farm diversity offsets environmental pressures in tropical agro-ecosystems: A synthetic review for cassava-based systems". Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 251, pp.226-235.