When the bubble tea fad hit the Klang Valley in 1997, I was 15, and quite a fan of the drink.
One sip (in this case bite of those chewy black tapioca balls, also known as pearls) and I was sold.
My choice of flavour back then? Passion fruit topped with pearls.
Popularly known as ‘Pearl Tea’ back then, it was a widely sold at night markets and roadside stalls.
With a cup costing RM4.50 to RM6, it was a beverage I consumed twice a month and something I was hooked on to for a couple of months.
Lining up for 15 minutes was the norm as these stalls were manned by one person.
The fad soon died and with it, the urge to get my fix.
Eight years ago, a new bubble tea wave hit Malaysia with major players being large corporations which also operate stores worldwide.
While I am no longer a big fan (having had my last cup some six years ago), the second wave is unlike the first.
Fans have been flocking these bubble tea stores like excited kids on Christmas eve, lining up for hours to get their hands on this sweet delight.
First created in Taiwan in the 1980s, experts say it is cheaper to set up a bubble tea shop than a coffee store. It is no wonder so many bubble tea shops are mushrooming at shopping centres and neighbourhood malls.
Popular eateries are jumping on the bandwagon in a bid to get a slice of the market share.
Last year, the Malaysian bubble tea industry was reported to be worth US$49.8 million and is expected to grow at 6.9 per cent from 2019 to 2026.
Reported to be the next goldmine, the industry is booming in Southeast Asia, Europe and America.
But concerns have been raised over the high sugar content of these drinks (some as high as 22 teaspoons of sugar per cup) and also the high level of trans-fat.
According to a report, a 500ml cup of brown sugar bubble milk tea can contain 92gm of sugar (minus pearls and additional toppings). The amount is three times more sugar than in a 320ml can of Coca-Cola.
The study was commissioned by Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia through an experiment conducted by students in the Applied Food Science and Nutrition diploma course at Temasek Polytechnic.
The recently introduced sugar tax in Malaysia aimed at addressing diabetes and obesity, only affects manufacturers of sweetened drinks (carbonated, flavoured, juice, and vegetable based drinks) but is not applicable to eateries and restaurants selling sugary drinks, as yet.
Perhaps, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad may want to see if his ministry plans to revisit this policy upon visiting ‘Bubble Tea Street’ in SS15 Subang Jaya.
While demand for bubble tea is expected to grow over the next few years, health awareness is also a fast-growing trend worldwide. The fad may just die off again.
Thus in the longer term, the survival of the industry may very well depend on how much it is willing to invest in research and development to introduce healthier options.
Will the bubble pop for the multimillion-ringgit industry? It’s a bubble tea kurang manis for thought.