Tapioca balls

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Tapioca balls

Tapioca balls are translucent spheres; a product of tapioca, a starch extracted from the cassava root.[1] They are also known as boba (a transliteration of the word "bubble"), or "pearls" when in bubble tea. Some boba are five-to-ten-millimeter starch balls, consisting of sweet potato powder, potato powder, or jelly. By adding different ingredients, like water, sugar and seasoning, tapioca balls can be made to vary in color and in texture. Tapioca balls are typically neutral in flavor and gel easily, and are therefore often used as a thickening agent in foods like pudding.[2]

Name origin[edit]

In Taiwan, it is more common for people to refer to bubble tea as pearl milk tea (zhēn zhū nǎi chá, 珍珠奶茶) because originally small 1/12” tapioca pearls were used. It was only when one tea shop owner—in an attempt to make his tea stand out—decided to use larger tapioca balls and chose a more provocative name, “boba,” to represent the difference. In Chinese, the word boba, 波霸, is a combination of a word for bubble and a word for big, which, when found together, is slang for “big breasts” or “buxom lady.” When used to describe the drink, the characters 波霸奶茶 directly translate to boba milk tea, and loosely to bubble milk tea. This translation is commonly used by English speakers and refers to the variant with 1/4" tapioca pearls.[3]


Bubble tea has gained widespread popularity in recent years across Europe, and Germany in particular, after already converting young people across North America. McDonald's restaurants in Germany have begun selling the dessert beverage as part of its revamped McCafé menu.[4]


Tapioca pearls are derived as baked tapioca products, which are obtained from heat treatment of the moist cassava starch in shallow pans.

Preparation of wet flour[edit]

To create pearls, tapioca starch/flour is mixed with boiling water until a kneadable consistency is achieved. The dough is cut and rolled into a spherical shape. One method of achieving the correct shape is called the gangsor method. The starch is inserted into a long, cylindrical twill cloth bag and a jerking motion is used to toss the starch lumps back and forth. The lumps will become more firm and gain a more spherical shape. The process is repeated until the pearls have roughly become the desired size. Afterwards, the pearls will be sorted according to size.

Another method is to feed the moist flour into open cylindrical pans, which rotate for a certain amount of time and at a specific speed to form the pearls.[5]


Traditionally, during heat treatment, the temperature is kept moderate so that only the surface layer of the lumps of the moist starch begins to gelatinize, and this process is described as gelatinization. One process of gelatinization is performed by placing the pearls inside shallow pans, which are then placed inside a brick oven. The pans are covered with a towel soaked in oil or fat to prevent burning the starch. While the pearls are heated over a moderate fire, it is stirred continuously with large forks to prevent burning. When this hand-baking process is applied to manufacture pearls, irregularly shaped beads may be obtained, inferior in colour and in other qualities.

In order to produce first-rate products, the starch beads are poured onto plates in a thick layer, and the plates are slowly drawn through a tunnel charged with steam. In this way, uniform gelatinization are ensured.[5]


During the gelatinization process, the moisture content does not change very much so another drying stage is required to achieve the desired moisture content of 12%. Drying is done in a chamber drier and when drying, it must have an initial temperature of below 40 °C to avoid further gelatinization.[5]


Other than drying, freezing could also be used to preserve pearls before consumption. After gelatinization, the pearls are soaked in ice water to decrease the viscosity and enhance its chewiness. Afterwards, it should be frozen using a quick freezing device, such as an air-blast freezer, or through an individual quick freezing process to avoid pearls from sticking together. [6] One important note is that retrogradation happens quickest at near 0 °C temperatures, which would lead to tougher pearls, so it is best to minimize the time that the pearls spend in that temperature range and freeze the pearls to lower temperatures quickly. [7]

Preparation for consumption[edit]

Consumers and food retail establishments can purchase raw tapioca starch and create their own pearls, or they can purchase partially cooked pearls, which have already gone through the gelatinization process. Raw tapioca pearls usually require 45 minutes of boiling whereas partially-cooked tapioca pearls require 30 minutes. To ensure chewy texture, the pearls are then cooled for approximately 20 minutes. One can verify whether the pearls are ready to serve is by taking a pearl and chewing it, making sure it is well-cooked all the way to the center.

In addition to the shorter cooking time, another benefit of partially cooked tapioca is that it lasts longer, with a shelf life of 8 months compared with the shelf life of 6 months for raw tapioca. Cooked tapioca pearls should only be kept for around 4-6 hours. When serving tapioca pearls, please note that the pearls will harden once it is submerged in water and will eventually soften and lump together. Lumping of tapioca pearls can be avoided by stirring and adding sugar.[8]

After the tapioca pearls are cooked, they should be strained through a cullender. After straining, they should be rinsed to remove excess starch. What you do next depends on your use, if they're to be used as something sweet, such as in bubble tea or as a dessert topping, you should soak the tapioca pearls in a sugar solution for ten minutes. The sugar will also help to prevent them from lumping.[9]


To support to the creation of tapioca pearls, some additives are used, especially during the tapioca flour making process.

  • Sulfuric acid is added as a bleaching agent and helps to speed up the process of making flour.
  • Aluminum sulfate is useful for increasing the viscosity of the flour.
  • Sulfur dioxide is used to separate the starch from other unwanted substances as well as acting as a bleaching agent, and regulating microbial and enzymatic reactions.
  • Chlorine helps to create a higher quality flour and also has disinfecting and bleaching properties.

The tables below list permitted additives in tapioca pearl products regulated under different regions.

Additives permitted as domestic food[edit]


Starch-specific Additives[10]
Categories Additives
Starch Modifying Agents

Sodium Trimetaphosphate, Azodicarbonamide, Benzoyl Peroxide, Sodium γ-Polyglutamate

Bleaching, Maturing and Dough Conditioning Agents

Potassium Sulfite, Sodium Sulfite(Anhydrous), Sodium Bisulfite, Sodium Hydrosulfite, Potassium Metabisulfite, Potassium Bisulfite, Sodium Metabisulfite

Coloring Agents

Caramel Colors

General Additives[10]
Categories Additives

L-Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Sodium L-Ascorbate, L-Ascorbyl Stearate, L-Ascorbyl Palmitate, Erythorbic Acid, Sodium Erythorbate, dl-α-Tocopherol( Vitamin E), Calcium L-Ascorbate, Mixed Tocopherols Concentrate, d-α-Tocopherol Concentrate

Leavening Agent

Potassium Alum, Sodium Alum, Burnt Potassium Alum, Ammonium Alum, Burnt Ammonium Alum, Ammonium Chloride, Potassium Bitartrate, Sodium Bicarbonate, Ammonium Carbonate, Ammonium Bicarbonate, Potassium Carbonate, Baking Powder, Acidic Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Burnt Sodium Alum

pH Adjusting Agents, Acid-Reacting Materials and Water Correcting Agents

Calcium Chloride, Calcium Hydroxide, Calcium Sulfate, Calcium Gluconate, Calcium Citrate, Monobasic Calcium Phosphate, Dibasic Calcium Phosphate, Dibasic(Anhydrous) Calcium Phosphate, Tribasic Calcium Phosphate, Calcium Dihydrogen Pyrophosphate, Calcium Glycerophosphate, Calcium Lactate, Calcium Stearoyl Lactylate, Ammonium Carbonate, Potassium Carbonate, (Anhydrous) Sodium Carbonate, Magnesium Carbonate, Ammonium Sulfate, Sodium Sulfate, Magnesium Stearate, Magnesium Sulfate, Magnesium Chloride, Monobasic Ammonium Phosphate, Dibasic Ammonium Phosphate, Monobasic Potassium Phosphate, Dibasic Potassium Phosphate, Tribasic Potassium Phosphate, Monobasic Sodium Phosphate, Monobasic(Anhydrous) Sodium Phosphate, Dibasic Sodium Phosphate, Dibasic( Anhydrous) Sodium Phosphate, Tribasic Sodium Phosphate, Tribasic( Anhydrous) Sodium Phosphate, Potassium Metaphosphate, Sodium Metaphosphate, Potassium Polyphosphate, Sodium Polyphosphate, (Anhydrous) Sodium Acetate, Glycerol, Sodium Stearyl 2-Lactylate, Bentonite, Aluminum Silicate, Diatomaceous Earth, Talc, Sodium Silicoaluminate, Silicon Dioxide, Calcium Oxide, Potassium Bicarbonate, Stearic Acid, Adipic Acid, Aluminum Sulfate, Perlite, Sodium Stearate, Potassium Stearate, Hydroxypropyl Cellulose, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose( Propylene Glycol Ether of Methylcellulose),Polydextrose, Disodium Dihydrogen Pyrophosphate, Potassium Pyrophosphate, Sodium Pyrophosphate, Sodium Pyrophosphate (Anhydrous), Anhydrous Calcium Chloride, D-Sorbitol Solution 70%, D-Xylitol, D-Mannitol, Maltitol, Maltitol Syrup (Hydrogenated Glucose Syrup), Isomalt (Hydrogenated Palatinose), Lactitol, Erythritol

Nutrient Additives

Triglyceryl Linoleate, L-HistidineMono-hydrochloride, L-Isoleucine, etc.

Coloring Agents

Cochineal Red A (New Coccin), Erythrosine, Erythrosine Aluminum Lake, Tartrazine, Tartrazine Aluminum Lake, Sunset Yellow FCF, Sunset Yellow FCF Aluminum Lake, Fast Green FCF, Fast Green FCF Aluminum Lake, Brilliant Blue FCF, Brilliant Blue FCF Aluminum Lake, Indigo Carmine, Indigo Carmine Aluminum Lake, β-Carotene, β-Apo-8'-Carotena, Ethyl β-Apo-8'-Carotenoat, Canthaxanthin, Laccaic Acid, Sodium Iron Chlorophyllin, Iron Oxides, Allura Red AC, Titanium Dioxide, Allura Red AC Aluminum Lake, Synthetic Lycopene, Cochineal Red A Aluminum Lake( New Coccine Aluminum Lake)

Flavor Enhancer

Ethyl Acetate, Butyl Acetate, Benzyl Acetate, Phenylethyl Acetate, Terpinyl Acetate, Cinnamyl Acetate, Geranyl Acetate, Citronellyl Acetate, Linalyl Acetate, Isoamyl Acetate, etc.


D-Sorbitol, 70% D-SorbitolSolution, D-Xylitol, Glycyrrhizin, Trisodium Glycyrrhizinate, D-Mannitol, Aspartame, Licorice Extracts, etc.


MonosodiumL-Aspartate, Fumaric Acid, MonosodiumFumarate, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Succinic Acid, MonosodiumSuccinate, Disodium Succinate, L-Glutamic Acid, MonosodiumL-Glutamate, etc.

Emulsifying, Gelling, Stabilizing and Thickening Agents

Casein, Sodium Caseinate, Calcium Caseinate, Sodium Carboxymethyl Cellulose, Calcium Carboxymethyl Cellulose, Acid-Modified Starch, Methyl Cellulose, Sodium Polyacrylate, Carrageenan, Xanthan Gum, Alginic Acid, etc.

Additives permitted as imported food[edit]


Philippine National Standard Dried cassava chips and grates for food[11]
Categories Additives
Flavor Enhancer, Sweetener

Acesulfame Potassium, Phosphates


Ascorbyl Esters, Phosphates, BHA


Caramel Colors, Phosphates, Allura Red AC, Azorubine, Brilliant Black PN, Brilliant Blue FCF, Canthaxanthin, Carmines

Acidity Regulator, Firming Agent, Raising Agent

Adipates, Phosphates




Singapore Food Regulation[11]
Categories Additives
Flavor Enhancer, Sweetener

Acesulfame-K, Saccharin, Cyclamates(as cyclamic acid), Neotame, Sucralose


German researchers from University Hospital Aachen tested the tapioca pearls from an unnamed Taiwanese chain. According to the Daily News, the report showed that carcinogenic chemicals were found in the samples. Chemicals found included styrene, acetophenone, and brominated substances, which were not permitted as food additives.[12] Another German study found carcinogenic PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in the starchy balls as well.[13]

But the German reports didn’t specify the amount of substances they found in the tapioca pearls, and were not published in peer-reviewed medical or scientific journals. That is saying the accuracy of the results are not ensured.[14]

Phthalates is a chemical added to plastics used for the purpose of strengthening plastic’s flexibility, durability, longevity and transparency. In 2011 there was a discovery of phthalates inside sold Canadian beverages. It was surprisingly found in processed food items such as concentrated juice beverages, tea drinks, and other food supplements. This low cost substance had replaced regular food additives, which would normally be an emulsifier for the contents inside the drinks to generate a more attractive and natural appearance. Over-consumption of these harmful compounds can lead to very serious negative health effects such as endocrine disruption, malformation of reproductive organs, infertility and abnormal neurodevelopment. It is important to know that the maximum daily intake for this chemical is 0.05 mg/kg/day for a 70 kg body weight individual. Fortunately, the study has shown that some beverages contain insufficient amount of phthalates levels that will not exceed the daily limit. In high concentrations, it could modify the product's appearance significantly as well.[15]

Jelly tapioca pearls (or frog egg drink)[edit]

"Jelly tapioca pearls" are a type of flavored tapioca ball. They get their Mandarin name, “frog eggs,” from their white appearance in the center after cooking. Vendors who sell the drink usually add some syrup or creamer before serving, or serve it on top of shaved ice.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Editor, Julie R. Thomson Senior; Taste; Post, The Huffington (2015-07-13). "So What Exactly Is Tapioca, Anyway?". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2016-11-18.
  2. ^ "The Scoop on Tapioca: Origin, Uses, and More". About.com Food. Retrieved 2016-11-18.
  3. ^ "Bubble Tea: 25 Things You Didn't Know | Eat This Not That". Eat This Not That. 2016-02-05. Retrieved 2016-11-18.
  4. ^ Bennett-Smith, Meredith (2012-09-05). "Bubble Tea Tapioca Pearls May Cause Cancer, Study Says". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2016-11-18.
  5. ^ a b c "Cassava processing - Cassava flour and starch, Baked tapioca products, Cassava products for animal feeding, Cassava starch factories". www.fao.org.
  6. ^ US application 20140335244, Shih-Ting Chen & Chin-Hua Chiang, "Frozen instant tapioca pearls and method for manufacturing the same", published 2014-11-13, assigned to Fong Chen Frozen Food Co., Ltd. 
  7. ^ US grant 6455091, Patrick Po-Yung Ling & Janie Huoy-Jen Lai, "Time saving method for preparing tapioca starch balls and the product thereof", published 2002-09-24 
  8. ^ "The Nature of Tapioca Pearls". www.bruceandclark.com.
  9. ^ "HOW TO COOK TAPIOCA PEARLS -- PROFESSIONAL GUIDE". www.restaurantsupplydrop.com.
  10. ^ a b "附表一食品添加物使用範圍及限量" (PDF). 食品藥物消費者知識服務網.
  11. ^ a b 林詠萱; 王素梅. "飲冰品原料外銷法規研析Study on Food Import Regulation of Drink Ingredients in Philippines, Singapore and Australia" (PDF). 臺北市食材登錄平台. 台北市政府衛生局.
  12. ^ "Bubble Tea Tapioca Pearls May Cause Cancer, Study Says". HuffPost Canada. 5 September 2012.
  13. ^ "Bubble tea can contain carcinogens, researchers claim". CTVNews. 6 September 2012.
  14. ^ "Be Well: Tapioca Pearl Problems". @berkeleywellness.
  15. ^ Truong, Nicole; Karakilic, Vanessa; Soulsbury, Kevin. "Detection of DEHP in beverages sold in Canada using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry". Bcit Environmental Health Journal.
  16. ^ "Taiwan Night Market Snacks". dfll.nchu.edu.tw. Retrieved 2016-11-18.