It's hard to say exactly when bubble tea took over the world, but you've probably noticed that boba went from being an unheard-of to a ubiquity in the past decade. Big towns and small alike are now littered with brightly colored bubble tea cafes, serving sweet, milky concoctions of tapioca pearls, grass jelly, and other gelatinous additions to a loosely defined definition of "tea." Sometimes it comes from a powder, sometimes it comes from a massive steel pot. But it's cheap, it's tasty, and it's certainly texturally interesting.
And it might be made from boots.
Well, let's rewind. Bubble tea, a.k.a. boba or pearl milk tea, originated in Taiwan in the late 80s, supposedly invented in a moment of ingenuity by a Taichung woman named Lin Hsiu Hui. From there, it exploded in popularity, but Lin never trademarked the stuff. And as with coffee and other drinkables that are available far and wide, there's great bubble tea, lousy bubble tea, and everything in between.
But Japanese news sources claim that there's a darker side to the seemingly innocuous beverages. And it's not just because those squishy little brown balls may or may not contain carcinogenic chemicals, or because the brews of sugar, milk, and flavoring are super caloric.
On October 19, a Chinese patient who had recently consumed bubble tea at a shop in Shangdong Province underwent a CT scan and noticed some strange white dots in the image of their stomach—as did their doctor, who identified the dots as abnormal since tapioca balls are primarily just starch, which is typically fairly easily digested. (The patient's gender wasn't specified.) A reporter caught wind of the incident and visited the same bubble tea shop, then returned for a CT scan of her own. Ditto: weird little white spots showed up in the image of her abdomen where there should have been a whole lot of nothing.
The reporter proceeded to visit a variety of boba shops in the area and ask owners and employees what they are using to make their tapioca balls. This is where the facts get a little hazy.
Apparently, staff at the bubble tea cafes told the reporter that the pearls were made with everything from unidentified "starch" to "potatoes," or said that they had no clue. But one employee gave a particularly disturbing answer, one that has haunted the dreams of the reporter, and her audience, since.
"They're chemically made at a factory," the employee alleged. "It's pretty weird, but they're made with things like the soles of leather shoes and old tires."
Odd as it sounds, that could make sense within the context that something indigestible had clearly made its way into the boba of the poor patient with the spotty CT scan. Worse, if consumed in large quantities, these types of materials could cause dangerous internal blockages, especially in children.
Seems crazy? Tell that to the man who was hospitalized last year after eating a mere tablespoon of chia seeds, which are similarly gelatinous to bubble tea pearls and can expand in your esophagus or intestines and have to be surgically removed. Here's a horrifying image of the chia seeds lodged in his esophagus, if you care to traumatize yourself.
But at least you don't have to worry that your chia seeds were chipped off from the bottom of a pair of Doc Martens.