In June 2019, a number of websites and news outlets reported that a young girl in China was treated for symptoms related to the discovery of “hundreds” of undigested boba pearls in her digestive tract via x-ray.
Notably, headlines for the story often indicated that elements of it were mostly likely unedited and unvetted:
Doctor Reportedly Found More Than a Hundred Undigested Tapioca Pearls in Girl’s Stomach
Boba blockage: Girl, 14, had hundreds of undigested boba pearls stuck in stomach, reports say
Girl, 14, who loves drinking trendy milk tea finds out she has more than 100 tapioca balls stuck in her belly after suffering from constipation
One widely shared version of the story was published by British tabloid Daily Mail on June 11 2019. It was an aggregation of stories from unidentified news organizations in China, claiming that the girl was seen for constipation and abdominal distention:
A teenage girl has reportedly had more than 100 tapioca balls trapped in her body after drinking too much of a popular Asian beverage known as ‘bubble tea’.
After an X-ray checkup, Dr Zhang was shocked to see more than 100 dark balls stuck in Xiao Shen’s body. They were said to fill the teenager’s stomach, intestines and rectum.
After further questioning, Xiao Shen admitted she had drank bubble tea five days earlier.
Dr. Zhang suspected the tapioca balls inside Xiao Shen had been accumulating over a long period of time, and were not the result of a single incident.
He prescribed a laxative to help Xiao Shen pass the balls.
Tthe story was popular on sites like Reddit, where it was shared to r/WTF. The Reddit post did not link to an article, instead embedding the X-ray purportedly showing the girl’s “digestive tract” and clusters of boba pearls:
None of the outlets reporting the story appeared to do anything other than repeat claims that allegedly originated with a Chinese news outlet. Most commonly cited was a June 5 2019 Shaoxing News article:
On the evening of May 28th , the girl Xiao Shen (pseudonym) was accompanied by her parents to the emergency department of Zhuji People’s Hospital in Zhejiang Province. She said that her stomach hurts, she could not have a bowel movement for a few days, and she could not eat anything. When the doctor Zhang Louzhen saw her belly, she arranged a CT of the abdomen. The result of the examination surprised him: the patient’s stomach, transverse colon, ascending colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon, all the way to the anus, all with granular shadows. There are more than a hundred .
“The little girl may be afraid of her parents saying her, but concealing her medical history – so many undigested ‘pearls’ are not accumulated like a cup of milk tea, it should be caused by drinking for a while. ” Zhang Louzhen concluded. Later, he prescribed a laxative to the patient to help remove the undigested “pearl” from the body.
An early iteration of the story was shared to Twitter by @AsiaOne:
Most commenters on that tweet pointed out boba and other foods are not visible in X-rays, and that the circled areas did not show only the digestive tract:
She is definitely constipated but it’s not from bubble tea….they can’t be seen on an xray????
No way, if for no other reason, it wouldn’t migrate to parts outside the intestines
First off…that’s not her stomach!!! This makes zero sense.
An unnamed doctor weighed in for another site to refute the claim that the masses seen on the x-ray were hundreds of boba pearls. That doctor asserted that the blockages were likely fecal matter, not bubble tea.
The story itself called to mind a 2015 long-form piece published on BuzzFeed about dubious “weird news” stories published by tabloids and other sites through an agency called Central European News (CEN). That article detailed how thinly sourced, virtually-unverifiable claims were laundered through the agency to grab clicks and shares:
CEN’s “weird news” stories and images appeal to news organisations precisely because they fall into the category of “too good to check”. They also appeal because they are perfectly tailored to the current media ecosystem, in which the holy grail is to have content go viral on Facebook and other social media platforms, delivering a surge of traffic.
One tried and tested method for gaining those viral clicks is running precisely the kind of oddball human interest pieces in which CEN specialises: stories that are so intriguing or horrifying or just plain weird that you can’t help but share them with your friends.
CEN was in the news not long before the viral boba pearl story was making the rounds. That agency was implicated in the widespread distribution of claims about the death of Noa Pothoven in the Netherlands just days prior.
In summary, one news agency reported on an X-ray with unvetted markings and a claim that “hundreds” of boba pearls obstructed the patient’s digestive system. That unverified claim spread widely through various English-language news sites, with no further input about the accuracy of the claim.
It is possible that excess consumption of bubble tea led to a young girl being constipated, but it was also possible that the claim was exaggerated or otherwise misleading. Without additional detail, the veracity of the story is unclear, and the history of similar and nonsensical claims circulating virally in the same ecosystem suggests that it should be be viewed with caution.