Many of us grew up drinking Yakult, the cream-coloured sweet beverage which comes in a curvy plastic bottle and foil cap. Our mothers told us that it would be good for our digestive systems. So what exactly is Yakult? It is actually a fermented milk drink made from skimmed milk powder, sugar, water and, of course, the bacterial strain that is to do good in our intestines.
It all began in the 1930's. While studying microbiology at the Kyoto Imperial University, Dr. Minoru Shirota cultured a bacterial strain that is able to survive the harsh conditions in our stomachs and, at the same time, improve our bowel movements and prevent intraintestinal growth of harmful bacteria, among other benefits. Shirota found a way to integrate the bacteria, named "Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota" after him, into a milk-based beverage and began marketing the product under the name "Yakult" in 1935. Yakult has since grown to become a household name boasting worldwide daily consumption of 28 million in over 30 countries and regions.
The following are ten interesting facts about the drink which many of us associate our childhood with…
1) According to the company's websites, Shirota had derived the name "Yakult" from the word "Jahurto", meaning "yoghurt" in Esperanto, the proposed universal language of the 1880s.
2) The unique Yakult Lady home delivery system contributes as much as 60% of Yakult's sales! First launched in Japan in 1963, the pioneering system relied on the delivery ladies to bring fresh Yakult supplies to customers in their neighbourhoods door-to-door by foot or on wheels. Each Yakult lady typically carries 20 to 30 kg of Yakult in their daily load. Today, it is providing employment to some 79,000 women around the world, many of whom are homemakers seeking to supplement their family income.
3) Yakult was originally packaged in glass bottles. It was not until 1968 that the plastic container we are familiar with today was introduced. The hour-glass, easy-to-grip design of the bottle was apparently inspired by the shape of the traditional Japanese wooden Kokeishi doll. Yakult cited easier automated filling in the factories and lower transport costs as some of the advantages of this lightweight bottle. Well, we know for certain that the Yakult Ladies of yore definitely appreciated the switch to a lighter packaging.
4) Yakult's first overseas market was Taiwan. A joint venture was established in 1962 and the first bottle of Yakult rolled out of its Taiwanese plant in March 1964. Interestingly, Yakult's second overseas market was not in another Asian locale but Brazil. Yakult entered "samba-land" in 1966, tapping on the large number of Japanese immigrants in the country. Also noteworthy is the fact that the first native English-speaking country in which Yakult was launched was Australia (in view of its proximity to Asia). And this came quite late, only in 1994, almost 40 years after the Yakult head company Yakult Honsha was founded (in 1955).
5) Yakult is marketed in different sizes in different countries. That said, all the packaging remain palm-sized. In Australia, Europe, India and Indonesia, Yakult comes in 65mL bottles. In Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the US, it is sold in 80 ml bottles. In Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan and mainland China, Yakult is packaged in 100 ml bottles. As to the question why Yakult only comes in such small servings, this is apparently a deliberate decision driven partly by hygiene considerations. The Yakult company suggested that a larger serving may not be finished in one go, thus leaving the remaining contents susceptible to contamination, and thereby compromising the quality of the live probiotic bacteria. Yakult has of course also assured its customers that one bottle a day is sufficient for adults. Interestingly, Yakult Malaysia even expounded on its website that "Yakult is not a thirst quencher"!
6) The fermented dairy drink has been variously described as "melty creamsicle", "sour milk", "sugary-sweet gut drink", just to name a few. So yes, Yakult does taste different in different countries. This is attributed to the availability of different types of sweeteners in each place.
7) More about taste. In all except one market, Yakult is available only in its original/natural milky flavor. In Singapore, Yakult comes in three other flavours, namely grape, apple and orange. Hence, the five-bottle strip package sold in Singapore contains two bottles of the original flavour, and one each of the fruity flavours. One can only hazard a guess that Yakult's product diversification in this country was the result of competition against a home-grown pioneer brand which had beaten Yakult to the market by some two years.
8) Again, another "anomaly" unique to Singapore – the Yakult packages come with straws attached! For some reason, Singaporean consumers have not taken to peeling the foil cap and drinking direct from the bottle. Wonder if this has to do with the home-grown rival again…
9) In these days of rising health-consciousness, even Yakult, which markets its product as a health drink, has had to keep up with the times. "Healthier" versions of Yakult have been introduced under various names in different markets. In Japan, the Yakult 400LT drink boasts "reduced sweetness" and "fewer calories" with its Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota concentration boosted to 40 billion strains per bottle! (A standard bottle of original Yakult contains between 6.5 million to 30 billion of the active Shirota strain, depending on the bottle size.) In Australia, Yakult Light contains 30% less sugar than the original formula while Malaysia's Yakult Ace Light has 50% less sugar than the original formula. Yakult Japan even has a range called Yakult SHEs which is fortified with iron and calcium, in addition to collagen, specifically targeted at female consumers.
10) Talking about women consumers, did you know that Yakult also produces cosmetics with its proprietary strain of the lactobacilli? First launched in 1971 in Japan, Yakult’s cosmetic products initially relied on its good-old Yakult Ladies direct-sales network for distribution but have subsequently been made available through beauty salons. While the cosmetic products have been well-received in Japan, it was not as successful overseas. In 1999, Yakult Brazil tried diversifying its business by venturing into the cosmetic line. However, the foray performed below expectations and the cosmetic branch was eventually closed after ten years of losses.
And one last point - Yakult conducts free factory tours at some of its plants, such as those in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and the US. Apart from getting to view the entire production process (no photography allowed) and learn about Yakult's history and its products' beneficiary effects, Yakult always gives out many fresh sample products to the visitors. Yummy!