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Bubble tea is bursting in popularity around the world. But the drink also made a young girl feel as if her stomach was about to pop.
A 14-year-old living in Zhejiang, China, went to hospital after five days of stomach pain and constipation. A CT scan showed she had more than 100 "unusual spherical shadows" in her abdomen, according to Shaoxing News.
Those spheres turned out to be undigested bubble tea balls.
The teen claimed she had only consumed one cup of the sweet drink, also known as boba tea, but doctors suspected she likely had consumed far more than that but didn’t want to say so for fear of getting into trouble by her parents.
Bubble tea is a Taiwanese beverage made with iced tea, milk, fruit, flavourings, sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup) and small balls made of tapioca, a starch extracted from cassava root, or yuca. Also known as tapioca pearls, those balls are usually black or white and slurped up with a fat straw and chewed, having a consistency similar to gummy bears.
Tapioca consists mainly of carbohydrates and has texture resembling that of cornstarch. It’s commonly used to make pudding and as a thickening agent in many foods and can also be made into flour used in gluten-free bread.
What’s curious about the young girl’s case is that tapioca pearls wouldn’t likely show up on a CT scan unless they contained some kind of additive, possibly inedible and uncommonly found in North America, according to a Snopes report.
She was given laxatives and sent home.
Most people won’t ever end up in the emergency room from bubble tea, health experts say. It’s likely the teen simply consumed far too much of it.
“Tapioca itself is an easily digestible starch,” says registered dietitian Andrea Hardy, owner of Calgary’s Ignite Nutrition Inc. “I would not expect it to cause a blockage or digestive issues in a healthy individual. However, other ingredients in certain types of bubbles such as fibre could have contributed to the reports of constipation. While fibre can act as a laxative, too much fibre, especially if your body isn’t used to it, can also cause constipation.
“You’d be surprised how many emergency visits there are for constipation each year,” she adds. “Being full of stool can be painful.”
What concerns health experts most about bubble tea is its high sugar and fat content and low nutritional value.
In fact, bubble tea has the potential to further exacerbate the childhood obesity epidemic, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Food Science and Nutrition.
The study found that a 16‐ounce serving of bubble tea contains between 200 and 450 calories, depending on the contents, and exceeds the upper limit of added sugar intake recommended by the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
Sometimes, other ingredients are added to boba drinks, such as egg pudding and jelly.
A 32-ounce serving with jelly and egg pudding easily exceeds 500 calories and supplies more than 250 per cent and 384 per cent of the recommended maximum daily intake of sugar for men and women, respectively.
Vancouver registered dietitian Cristina Sutter, a sport dietitian in private practice, recommends people who enjoy bubble tea to drink it in moderation.
“I would compare it a little bit to a Slurpee,” Sutter says. “We had Slurpees in our childhood; we were all guilty of having them once in a while. But having it regularly, once a week, that’s probably a little bit too much. In that girl’s case, it sounds like it was just too much for her little system.”
Sutter notes, too, that it’s no wonder the 14-year-old girl was in so much discomfort due to several days of not having a bowel movement.
“Constipation every day is not healthy or normal,” Sutter says. “It can cause a great deal of abdominal pain and distress. It affects how you feel: you might feel too bloated and full to eat a good meal. A dietitian or a doctor can give you suggestions to fix that. It’s especially important to address it early in kids, who might suffer in silence.”