Australian farmers are eyeing the profitable Asian bubble tea market after researchers created a healthy variety of the popular drink that replaces a portion of its sugar content with oats.

Bubble tea, sometimes called boba or pearl milk tea, originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and has since found mainstream popularity around the world.

The tea is made with sweet tapioca pearls, giving the drink its name bubbly, but their high-sugar content can also lead to a range of health problems including diabetes, obesity, and poor dental health.

Man in white coat bends over three glasses filled with liquid

Dr Nabeen Dulal is among scientists who helped blend the oat-derived beta-glucan with tapioca.(Supplied: Evan Collis, GRDC)

Scientists from the Australian Export Grains Innovation Center (AEGIC) have successfully blended oat-derived beta-glucan, a healthy soluble fiber, with tapioca, reducing the drink’s sugar content.

” Tapioca, by its nature, is relatively high in sugar,” said AEGIC barley and oat quality program manager Jack King.

Close up of a man with a bush behind him

AEGIC’s Jack King said the bubble tea market has potential for cereal farmers.(Supplied: AEGIC)

“The beauty of this is we’re not actually changing the flavor profile.

“We’re just introducing this as an ingredient in foods without changing the taste or texture of the product, but we’re adding this health benefit.”

Global market ripe for oats

Mr King said the push into the bubble tea market followed relative success in creating other oat-based products, including noodles and rice alternatives.

“We developed 100 per cent oat noodles and also an oat rice product, and we’ve got an agreement in place with a West Australian company, My Plant Co Real Oats, who we’re supporting in developing a pathway to market for those products ,” he said.

“Bubble tea, being as popular as it is through Asian markets, was one that we identified as having some potential.”

Rolled oats

Beta-glucan is a soluble fiber derived from the cell walls of oats.(ABC Rural: Bec Whetham)

The global bubble tea market is valued at just over $4 billion, with the Australian market in 2023 estimated to be worth more than $90 million.

The domestic market was expected to grow by 10 per cent annually over the next six years, growth Mr King said would benefit Australia’s cereal producers — if the oat-based bubbles made their way to market.

“We have produced the physical bubble in our Perth laboratories, [but] we haven’t taken that to market as yet,” he said.

“We’ve consumed it, tested it ourselves within our team. It’s an option now to look at how we can get those products out to market.”

Cereal growers welcome potential

The potential to open up a new line of supply to the domestic and global oat markets has been welcomed by cereal growers as an opportunity to strengthen and build their smaller and sometimes volatile market.

Nick Panizza is a grain and cereal grower in the town of Williams, two hours south of Perth, who can bring in up to 4,000 tonnes of oats a year.

Headers harvesting oats in a large field near Tilpa in outback nsw

Western Australia is the biggest oat-producing state in the country.(ABC News: Bill Ormonde)

He said the year-on-year growth projected for bubble tea could provide more certainty for farmers — if the oat-based product was picked up.

“For something like oats, that’s a smaller market at the moment, so any consistent growth in markets over an extended period of time will be beneficial,” he said.

“I think if the markets were there then I would say that oats could be there as well.”

A cup of bubble tea.

Bubble tea, the popular Asian desert beverage, is estimated to be worth more than $4 billion globally.(Pexels: RDNE Stock Project; license)

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Oat farmers poised to enter the billion-dollar bubble tea market with healthy alternatives

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