According to a popular online food delivery app, bubble tea orders in South-East Asia increased 3,000% in 2018 from 2017.
The app is connected to the 4,000 bubble tea outlets in the region, which are growing at a rate of 200%.
Its data also shows that consumers in the region consume at least four cups a month, led by Thailand (six cups), Philippines (five) and three each for Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
Bubble tea has been shown to have extremely high levels of sugar, 20 teaspoons of sugar on average. Healthy adults are recommended to take no more than eight teaspoons of sugar a day.
To help tackle this issue, two companies have banded together for a research and development collaboration to produce healthier versions of three key bubble tea ingredients.
Australian food ingredients specialist Holista CollTech Ltd and drinks packager SunFresh Fruit Hub Sdn Bhd will be working together to produce these lower glycaemic index (GI) items.The first is low-GI "pearls", the tapioca starch balls measuring 0.8 to 1.0 centimetres each, which account for about a third of the drink’s calorie count.
One of Holista's patented formulas will be combined with the tapioca starch to lower the GI of the "pearls" without any discernible change in taste or texture.
The "pearls" will be manufactured by Fruit Hub at its facility in Lanchang, Pahang, using a formula of its Taiwanese partner, YongDa Food Technology Co Ltd, which currently supplies "pearls" to over 5,000 bubble tea stores in China.
Subject to final tests, the partners expect to lower the GI of the "pearls" from the 70-75 currently to below 55.
The second is a sugar syrup using Holista’s proprietary low-GI and low-calorie sugar, which has 80% fewer calories than regular sugar, but still has the same sweet taste.
The third is Holista’s proprietary low-GI sugar caramel (brown sugar), which retains sweetness with lower calories.
Made from molasses, it is used as a pre-pour to sweeten the "pearls" or as a medium to cook them.
All three products will be tested by the Sydney University GI Research Service by the end of this month (November 2019) before hitting local and international markets by the first quarter of 2020.Holista founder and CEO Dr Rajen Manicka said: “The bubble tea fad is not going to go away.
"The challenge is to offer a healthier version that can significantly reduce the potential of higher incidences of diabetes and obesity.
"We are combining science with the market reach and understanding of the needs of bubble tea manufacturers and vendors to offer a healthier alternative without increasing cost of production.”
Fruit Hub managing director Foong Wai Fong said: “This is a Malaysian collaboration with an Australian company that could transform the global bubble tea industry for the better.
"Fruit Hub has a strong network among the major bubble tea chains. We are confident that these three ingredients will make a real difference and can take the creative beverage industry to a new level, providing tastier and healthier versions that consumers can enjoy without health concerns.
“It is our vision that this endeavour will place Malaysia as a centre of innovation in the beverage sector.”