The little, hourglass-shaped bottle with the blue foil lid. It’s everywhere: lying empty curbside, waiting patiently in the office refrigerator, sitting unopened outside your neighbor’s apartment door.
The ubiquitous little bottle is Yakult, a drinkable probiotic out of Japan that’s been around for decades. The fermented milk drink claims to balance the flora of the gut (read: regulate your trips to the bathroom).
Yakult is no stranger to Thailand: the drink was widely adopted after its introduction to the market in 1971. Today, it seems as if everyone and their neighbor drinks a bottle of the stuff a day.
Yakult owes its success partly to its distribution and partly to the health benefits it claims.
Friendly “Yakult Ladies” ride around the city on scooters delivering packages of the probiotic door-to-door, touting its digestive health benefits. The miracle drink is believed to regulate everything from constipation to diarrhea, along with protecting against infections. But as the probiotic and prebiotic industry continues to grow, in both Thailand and worldwide, health regulators are clamping down on the claims and benefits touted by probiotic manufacturers. Turns out the world of friendly bacteria is a bit murkier than you’d think.
There are hundreds of different species of bacteria that live in our gut, synthesizing vitamins, managing your metabolism and floating around with their other bacteria buddies. The good bacteria keep the bad ones at bay. Factors like ageing, diet, stress and antibiotic use can upset that balance; probiotics – foods that contain the live, beneficial bacteria – help maintain it.
People have been eating fermented food with live cultures for centuries, but it wasn’t seriously studied until the early twentieth century. As antibiotic use increased, so did research into probiotics. Multiple scientists studied the active cultures and how they worked in our intestines, but one microbiologist really had some fun with it.
In 1930, Dr. Minoru Shirota discovered a strain of good bacteria that would be able to survive the fatally acidic conditions of the stomach – something not many strains are capable of. Dr. Shirota named the strain after himself - Lactobacillus casei Shirota – and the probiotic drink “Yakult” was born.
Each bottle of Yakult contains at least 6.5 billion cells of the bacteria, along with fermented skim milk, sugar and water. After the probiotic drink found success in Japan, it was gradually introduced worldwide. The first overseas operation opened in Taiwan, followed by Brazil four years later. The company then spread throughout the Asian region in the 1970s, and entered Europe in the early ‘90s.
Today, Yakult is sold in 32 countries and continuing to expand. The good bacteria swimming around in each bottle – and their supposed health benefits – aren’t the only reason for the company’s success. Meet the “Yakult Lady.”
The “face” of Yakult
The Yakult Lady whizzes around Bangkok with a cooler on the back of her scooter, distributing packages of Yakult. If you’re new to the probiotic scene, she’ll explain what it does for your intestinal track. If this isn’t your first probiotic rodeo, she’ll give you a pack of the bottles, a bill and a smile.
The Yakult Lady has been hawking the probiotic like this since the product first appeared in Thailand nearly 40 years ago. But back then, she was cycling around with the cooler on a bicycle. In case you haven’t already surmised: these ladies are committed.
The Yakult Lady is usually a housewife earning supplemental income. Each morning, the ladies arrive at Yakult distribution centers and stock up their insulated coolers with 20-30 kilograms of the stuff. The women make stops around their communities, making both pre-ordered deliveries and selling on the spot.
This unique delivery system is a constant in every country where Yakult is sold. Yakult Ladies are deployed whenever Yakult expands into another country. The system is based on the company’s idea of entrenching the product and winning acceptance at a local level. Around the world, there are almost 41,000 Yakult Ladies making their rounds.
The growing market of good gut bacteria
But one look at the dairy section of a 7-Eleven will have you scratching your head. Rows upon rows of brilliantly-colored probiotics line the shelves. Yakult isn’t the only single-serve drink finding success in Thailand’s probiotic market. Meiji, Betagen and Foremost are all manufacturing probiotic drinks, and they’re not shying away from using packaging that all-too-closely resembles the hourglass bottles of Yakult. Dannon has even employed its own “Activia Ladies,” who ride around on motorbikes delivering the probiotic yogurt drink.
Yakult’s popularity and acceptance catalyzed the market for probiotics in Asia. Probiotic drinks and yogurts are largely marketed towards women in not just Thailand, but worldwide. Generally, the woman is responsible for buying decisions when it comes to food and beverages in the house. So when it comes to hyping the health benefits of probiotics, women tend to be the ones listening – and buying.
Today, probiotics are a multimillion dollar industry in Asia. Industry analyst Frost and Sullivan reported that Asia Pacific’s probiotic culture market was worth USD$310 million in 2011. It’s set to surge to USD$522.8 million by 2018. And it’s expanding not just in Asia, but internationally, a trend that analysts say is a result of the rising level of health consciousness, or rather, a new appreciation for one’s intestinal track.
“Give your bowels a break!”
The problem is, there’s little definitive research validating much of the benefits claimed by many probiotic manufacturers. Outside of Asia, health regulators are stricter on the claims companies can use in their marketing. In Europe, Dannon was forced to withdraw claims that its Actimel fermented drink could “boost the immune system” and that the product helped with irregularity. Yakult’s advertisements claiming that the drink “wards off respiratory infections,” were also rejected. And in the U.S., Dannon was forced to pay a settlement to the Federal Trade Commission for advertising that its Activia yogurt and DanActive drink could help prevent colds or the flu.
Making those claims wouldn’t be an issue if the manufacturers had enough justifiable studies to back them. More often than not, the claims aren’t based on scientific studies but customer feedback and focus groups. Only recently have reputable academic institutions begun conducting sound scientific research on the benefits of probiotics.
Because of the growing probiotic market and discrepancies in probiotics marketing, the Thai Food and Drug Administration plans to take a closer look at probiotic labeling. They recently established guidelines to evaluate and regulate claims by probiotic and prebiotic manufacturers – including what it means to be a “beneficial” probiotic.
For a probiotic to be successful, the bacteria must be able to colonize in the gut, attach itself to stool and adhere to the stomach lining. Not an easy feat: only a few strains of probiotics are actually able to do this. Yakult’s Lactobacillus casei Shirota is reportedly one of those strains.
The bacteria that make the cut can then induce health benefits. Clinical studies show that probiotics can help with diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation. Other studies based on consumer research show probable treatment for everything from rheumatoid arthritis and lactose intolerance, to inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease.
The benefits of probiotics, then, are likely subjective. It depends on your digestive track and your own intestinal flora. The placebo effect probably plays a role in some cases as well. The best way to decide whether or not a probiotic is right for you might be to give it a try yourself. Most probiotics claim to have the status of “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS), so while we’re no doctor, it wouldn’t hurt to try. Take a shot of Yakult a day, and introduce a couple (or 6.5 million) good bacteria to your gut. Track how your bathroom visits go. If you don’t find regularity in your bowel movements, at least you’ll get a damn good sugar high.