As is other parts of the world Bubble Tea, which originated in the cafes in Taiwan, has recently become very fashionable in Germany. Popularity often brings with it closer scrutiny and bubble tea is no exception.
Scientists from the Rhine-Westfalian Technical University in Aachen claim to have identified carcinogenic substances in locally served bubble teas. They tested nine sorts of the drink from the Mönchengladbach branch of a national bubble tea serving chain. In these samples the scientists found chemicals which can be damaging to health and are generally banned substances for food and drink applications (If you are interested in the original German article this can be found by clicking here).
The scientists involved claim that the chemicals they identified should not be found at all in products intended for human consumption. The Institute of Hygiene and Environmental Medicine at the Rhine-Westfalian Technical University confirmed that the chemicals identified are suspected of increasing the risk of cancers and allergies. They identified small quantities of styrene, acetophenone and bromide containing substances in the drinks’ chewy balls or ‘bubbles’. There are no minimum permissible limits for these chemicals because their use in food and drinks is forbidden. The scientists believe they have been introduced into the bubble teas as a result of unclean processes used in the manufacture of the aroma additives.
The team in Aachen identified the chemicals using equipment which was originally intended for testing cosmetic products for allergens. The equipment is produced by the manufacturer Leco, based in Mönchengladbach. This is the first time the equipment has been used for testing foodstuffs.
The poisonous substances were found by the scientists in all the kinds of bubble tea tested; the ‘bubbles’ were sourced from a manufacturer in Taiwan. The foodstuff importer in Germany, Kreyenhop & Kluge, was reported by the Süddeutsche Zeitung (23rd August 2012) as having temporarily halted further sales of the ‘bubbles’: “We do not assume that our products are involved, but as long as the slightest risk exists we have stopped sales of the balls” (rough translation taken from the original German statement).
The State Prosecutor in Mönchengladbach is determining whether there are grounds for suspicion that any laws have been broken. The North Rhine-Westfalian Consumer Protection Ministry has announced that it will undertake further investigations but at the moment the Ministry is not prepared to confirm or deny the validity of the results coming out of Aachen. They need to have more information regarding the quantitative test results and the suitability of the test methods used. They have, however, already expressed concern in the past about bubble tea products based on analysis carried out in Saarland. Here high levels of microorganisms were found and there was a lack of information about the preservatives used in the products (see below: DEHP).
The German Consumer Minister Ilse Aigner has also suggested that consumer warnings in relation to bubble tea should be considered because the products are high in calories (leading to obesity) and there is a risk that small children might choke on the pea sized ‘bubbles’.
This is not the first time that bubble tea has been in the headlines with regard to consumer health concerns. In May 2011 there was a major food and drink safety scandal in Taiwan involving the replacement of palm oil with the cheaper chemical DEHP as a clouding agent in beverages, fruit juices, sports drinks, tea and jam. DEHP, also known as Dioctyl phthalate or DOP, is a common plasticiser used to give flexibility to PVC plastics. DEHP in addition to causing cancer in animals has been linked to development problems in children due to its effects on hormones (leading to smaller penis size and other feminising characteristics in boys).
At least 95 food and drink manufacturers in Taiwan had been illegally using DEHP and within a month of the scandal becoming public 900 products had been recalled from 40,000 Taiwanese retailers. In June 2011 Malaysia identified DEHP in bubble tea products imported from Taiwan and banned further imports and the domestic distribution of the products. The Taiwanese Department of Health confirmed that contaminated food and beverages had been exported to other countries (if you want to find out more about this subject please look up 2011 Taiwan Food Scandal in Wikipedia).
It is worth keeping in mind that some green products may not be as ‘green’ as they first appear.
If you are interested in reading my other health focused articles try the following