18 September 2020 - Updated with new Yakult LIGHT formula.
3 May 2016—Updated with an offical response from Yakult at the bottom of the article.
Yakult, Align, Probio 7, Bio-Kult, Activia... The chilled section at any supermarket is littered with these probiotic drinks. Many people down their morning shot of 'good bacteria' after hearing about the benefits of extra probiotics in the diet.
Don't get me wrong, probiotics are great. There are numerous health benefits of consuming probiotics. Mark Sisson covers this topic in great detail with his article on fermented foods. Your gut health is closely linked to your overall health, so feeding your gut with good bacteria in the form of probiotics makes perfect sense.
Personally, I aim to eat a wide variety of low-sugar, unprocessed, probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut. (Make sure it's raw unpasteurized sauerkraut.) I love Superkraut, kombucha, kimchi & kefir. When I can't consume unprocessed, low-sugar, fermented foods or beverages, I will take a quality probiotic supplement.
I am also aware that a lot of people don't eat or drink many unprocessed fermented foods or beverages, which again is why I recommend supplementing with a quality probiotic supplement.
However, I commonly hear 'Oh I don't need that as I take a probiotic drink every day'. I cringe when I hear this. Why? Well, I have 9 reasons why you should avoid probiotic drinks!
If you look at the ingredients label of the food industry's most popular probiotic drink, you will see that it contains 11.2g of sugar per 65mL serving (this is 17.2g per 100mL).
However their newer 'Yakult Light' version contains a much better 2.8g of sugar per 65mL serving (4.3g per 100mL).
|Sugar per 65ml serve||11.2g||2.8g|
|Sugar per 100ml||17.2g||4.3g|
Data from Yakult.com.au
At 11.2g of sugar per bottle serve that is over 2.5 teaspoons of sugar that you are downing with every bottle.
The 17.2 grams per 100mL is higher than that of Coca-Cola (which only has 10.6g of sugar per 100ml).
Fortunatley though, Yakult have released a new lower sugar version of Yakult called 'Yakult Light'.
This is sweetened with a combination of sugar (i.e. sucrose), dextrose, polydextrose, maltitol and stevia.
As a result there is only 2.8g of sugar per bottle - or 3/4 of a teaspoon. Which is a significant drop compared to the original formula, but it does bring potential flavour issues with the use of stevia and the the other new ingredients.
Though for those trying to eliminate sugar from their diet, or following a ketogenic diet, even 3/4 of a teaspoon of sugar is enough to want to look elsewhere.
Should you worry about the sugar? Yes, even if it's 1 teaspoon a day. Many studies show that the more plain white sugar you add in your diet, the worse your micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) intake becomes (1).
A study in the European Journal of Nutrition also states that:
"Prospective cohort studies, which provide the strongest observational evidence, have shown an association between fructose-containing sugars and cardiometabolic risk including weight gain, cardiovascular disease outcomes and diabetes only when restricted to sugar-sweetened beverages and not for sugars from other sources. In fact, sugar-sweetened beverages are a marker of an unhealthy lifestyle and their drinkers consume more calories, exercise less, smoke more and have a poor dietary pattern. The potential for overconsumption of sugars in the form of sugary foods and drinks makes targeting sugars, as a source of excess calories, a prudent strategy." (2)
Of course, the near-teaspoon of sugar in Yakult light, and 2 teaspoons in regular Yakult is a small dose. But over time, consuming 10 grams of sugar every single day, as Yakult suggests regarding their product, will add up and increase your risk for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
When looking at the ingredient list of both Yakult original and Yakult Light you will see the first ingredient is water (It turns out they even use reverse osmosis filtered water—nice start.)
The second ingredient on the list is skim milk powder. Skim milk powder is a horrible food source partly because all the nutritious fat has been 'skimmed off'. (See my blog post 9 Reasons Why Your Doctor Is Wrong About Fat where I talk about dietary fat phobia.) Also, because the heat treatment that the milk receives to turn it into powder form. This turns healthy nutritious food into an inflammation health bomb. Chris Kresser covers this in detail with his article 'Still think low-fat dairy is the healthy choice?'
Another problem with using skim milk is that more empty calories are added to the product. Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A (retinol), D, E, and K2, are almost exclusively found in the fat portion of animal products, with the exception of vitamin E (3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8)
The fat-soluble vitamins in milk are retinol, vitamin D, and vitamin K2 (menaquinone). Skim milk is:
"made when all the milkfat is removed from whole milk. [Skim milk] tends to contain around 0.1% fat." (9)
As whole - full fat - milk generally contains at least 3.5% fat, the skim milk used in Yakult only contains 1/35th the portion of fat, and logically, therefore only 1/35th the number of fat-soluble vitamins.
The case can thus be made that Yakult is adding more calories to their product that don't contribute to the overall micronutrient profile of the average consumer.
Another ingredient in the popular probiotic drink Yakult is dextrose.
Dextrose is a simple sugar, and in Yakult's case, it is derived from tapioca. Not quite as bad as the standard sucrose sugar (due to the lack of fructose molecules). However, it is still a simple carbohydrate. As if we didn't have enough sugar from the second ingredient, we now have some more!
I should point out that some of the sugar is used in the fermentation process to grow the bacteria used in Yakult's probiotic drinks.
Yakult Light replaces sugar in it's ingredients list with other sweeteners such as stevia, maltitol and ploydextrose.
Maltitol and polydextrose don't have an significant effect on blood sugar levels for people consuming it compared to ordinary table sugar (10; 11; 12; 13; 14).
One study states that:
"The chronic administration of maltitol (10 g 3 X daily for 5 days) induced no variations of glycemia or insulinemia when compared with the same dose of sucrose" (11)
Another study shows a slightly less "peaky" curve with regard to blood sugar levels:
"The peak of the stimulation of glucose oxidation occurred 60 min after the load of sucrose and 90 min after the load of maltitol. The delta glucose oxidation was significantly lower with maltitol than with sucrose during the first 90 min after the ingestion of the load. It was slightly higher (although not significantly) with maltitol than with sucrose starting from the 210th min. Maltitol resulted in a cumulated suprabasal glucose oxidation which amounted to 40% that obtained with sucrose after 180 min." (12)
So maltilol might be absorbed slower than ordinary table sugar (sucrose) but it still leads to increased blood sugar and insulin levels. Again, sugars per se aren't the problem but adding empty sugars to your diet on a daily basis isn't beneficial to health.
Polydextrose, moreover, seems safe overall in different animals including humans (13; 14).
In several studies, polydextrose even improves gut function (15; 16; 17) which is great.
Dextrose, however, found in the regular Yakult, is one of the most quickly absorbed sugars in existence, with a Glycemic Index (GI) of 100 (18; 19; 20). In fact, dextrose is commonly used to increase blood sugar levels quickly for people with hypoglycemia (21; 22).
Should dextrose - the quickest sugar on the market - be included in a "health" product? Not at all!
With the new reformulated Yakult Light on the market, you are far better off consuming that than the original Yakult formula.
But like I have eluded to numerous times in this article, there are even cheaper, healthy and more natural ways to get your daily probiotic intake without needing Yakult Light.
After the fermentation process is complete when making Yakult probiotic drinks, the next step is "a smoothing process known as homogenization". (source—http://www.yakult.com.au/resources/documents/Yakult_2ndKitMadeFreshForYou.pdf)
Though not as bad as high-heat treatment, homogenization still destroys milk molecules. Milk companies use homogenization to ensure a consistent texture. They literally blend the milk and cream from the cow's milk to produce a standard, consistent product.
You can see some pretty cool photos looking at the difference of homogenized milk and unhomogenized milk at the Weston A Price website. However, we're not concerned about how Yakult drinks look, instead we're worried about the impact that this homogenization process has on the milk and on our body.
This is a great quote from the Weston A Price website:
We have observed that pasteurization, ultra-pasteurization, and homogenization impact the colloidal structure of milk, altering its organizational integrity. ... Homogenization affects the integrity of the fat globules, rendering them smaller and more uniform, and thus, alters raw milk’s colloidal ultrastructure, too.
The effects of homogenization upon milk's quality aren't fully studied yet, meaning that it's not safe to assume that homogenized milk has the same quality as fresh unprocessed milk (25).
But there are peer-reviewed papers that warn against the consumption of homogenised milk in animals. One study commented:
"only homogenized milk induced an allergic reaction in the intestinal wall of the animals, indicating that such milk processing may predispose one to an allergic reaction" (30)
Is homogenized milk fully safe and similar to regular milk? I'd like high-quality human studies backing this up!
According to Yakult's website:
Yakult’s unique-shaped plastic bottles are produced on-site from triple food grade polystyrene pellets using injection blow-moulding machines. Pellets are melted and injected under pressure onto 'core' rods.
We are starting to realize that plastic is not necessarily the best form of packaging when it comes to health. Plastics have been shown to leech into food products and disrupt our endocrine system, impact our hormonal and reproductive systems and have even been linked to cancer and neurological damage. (source—Harmful Plastics).
To clarify, a systematic review of 2018 states the following:
"There is increasing concern regarding additives in plastics to which most people are exposed, such as phthalates, bisphenol A or polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), and their detection in humans, leading to harmful impact on health." (27)
There are also other plastics that may be harmful to our health as well. For instance, a product can claim to be "bisphenol A free" even though it contains other (harmful) bisphenols. Bisphenol S, for instance, likely has more obesogenic and harmful hormonal side-effects than Bisphenol A does (29).
The same systematic review states that the main reason for using platics is "their low cost" (27).
Another recent 2018 review on plastic packaging states:
"Plastic packaging is diverse and made of multiple polymers and numerous additives, along with other components, such as adhesives or coatings. Further, packaging can contain residues from substances used during manufacturing, such as solvents, along with non-intentionally added substances (NIAS), such as impurities, oligomers, or degradation products." (28)
The review continues saying:
"Of the 906 chemicals likely associated with plastic packaging, 63 rank highest for human health hazards and 68 for environmental hazards according to the harmonized hazard classifications assigned by the European Chemicals Agency within the Classification, Labeling and Packaging (CLP) regulation implementing the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System (GHS). Further, 7 of the 906 substances are classified in the European Union as persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT), or very persistent, very bioaccumulative (vPvB), and 15 as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC)." (28)
Can Yakult please affirm that none of these compounds are found in their packaging? I'm especially worried - as an owner of a health website - about the 63 compounds that risk creating health hazards and the 7 compounds denoted as "bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT)".
Of course, there's a very simple solution to avoid plastic hazards: don't use plastics in the first place! And if Yakult does use plastics, please confirm that none of these identified harmful compounds by of the Classification, Labeling and Packaging (CLP) of the European Chemicals Agency are included. We just like to play it safe...
But why even expose yourself to the risk? Eat fresh, unprocessed food - free from plastic containers or pop a probiotic capsule made from natural products.
Looking back at the ingredient list we see 'flavors'. Is this really required? We have enough sugar in there to make it palatable to even the fussiest eater. And it's meant to be a health drink, not a competitor to Coca-Cola (though it is sweet enough to compete rather well I must say!) I know taste is important for a product's success, but my concerns are:
1) What actually is this 'flavoring' ingredient? I'm pretty sure they're not squeezing some organic lemon juice into each bottle.
2) It brings me to the question again: 'Why get your probiotics in drink format with all the added sugar, processed milk and unknown flavorings?
Woolworths sells a five-pack of Yakult for $4.00. This works out to be 80 cents per serving. If you're taking one daily that's $5.60 per week. If you're a family of five, that's $28 per week for a sweeter-than-Coca-Cola probiotic drink (assuming you go with Yakult Original).
Now, I admit that this is a lot cheaper than some top-of-the-range probiotic supplements, however, these highly processed, sugar-laden probiotic drinks are still a lot more expensive than making your own probiotic-rich fermented foods and eating a probiotic rich diet.
Probiotic drinks such as Yakult require constant cold temperature storage. A lot of the top-quality probiotic supplements on the market are heat-stable and do not require refrigeration.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I personally consume my probiotics in the form of unprocessed fermented foods and drinks.
However, occasionally I don't have any in the pantry (or perhaps if I'm away traveling for a few days) then this is when the supplement form comes in handy. It's heat-stable, so I can throw the container in my suitcase and know that my gut will be well looked after no matter where I am.
Here's my final point. Although probiotics are very important for optimal gut health, and there are some studies showing the effectiveness of Yakult's patented L. casei Shirota strain, it may not be the 'wonder strain' that it's made out to be.
This taken from SuppVersity
Probiotic supplements don't cure everything - although many ads may give just this impression. In a recently published study, Swiss researchers were not able to show any beneficial effects of the patented L. casei Shirota strain on the increased gut permeability of 28 patients with metabolic syndrome (Leber. 2012). In the course of the three months study period, it rather exasperated the already elevated C-reactive protein levels, due to liposaccharide leakage through the leaky gut into the system and I bet the only reason that the conclusion states that the dosage may have been too low instead of "this is initial evidence that the use of L. casei Shirota is not useful if not counter-indicated in to treat gut permeability in patients with MetS", was the financial support by Yakult Europe the patent holder of L. casei Shirota ;-)
And this article from The Perfect Health Diet looks at other common probiotic drink strains:
Probiotic Supplements Are Inadequate For Serious Gut Issues
Most supermarket probiotics contain Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium species. These species are specialized for digesting milk; they populate the guts of infants as they start breastfeeding, and are used by the dairy industry to ferment cheeses and yogurt.
These supplements are very effective at fighting acute diarrhea from most food-borne infections. A fistful of probiotic capsules taken every hour will usually quickly supplant the pathogens and end diarrhea.
However, against more severe bowel diseases caused by chronic infections and featuring damaged intestinal mucosa, these species are usually not helpful. One issue is that they provide only a tiny part of a healthful adult microbiome.
After communication with Yakult Australia, they pointed out that the study listed (Leber 2012) on the SuppVersity website was not conclusive evidence that the strain of bacteria (used in Yakult's products) was ineffective. They also claimed that their strain was well-researched and proven to improve health conditions.
The Leber study in question concluded:
Gut permeability of MetS patients was increased significantly compared with healthy controls. L. casei Shirota administration in the MetS patients did not have any influence on any parameter tested possibly due to too-short study duration or underdosing of L. casei Shirota.
A quick search on PubMed dug up this study that found the LcS strain to be ineffective at changing health markers:
But those are two fairly basic studies.
To be completely fair to Yakult, I looked for more studies on the effectiveness of the LcS strain. Within minutes I had numerous papers that found the LcS strain to have positive health effects. Some of these papers are listed below:
I don't want to turn this article into a literature review. I simply included point number 11 regarding effectiveness to show that the LcS strain used by Yakult may not be for everyone. This article isn't intended to be an investigation on what are the best probiotic strains. But instead, it's showcasing how simply eating naturally unprocessed fermented foods is a better alternative to drinking highly processed probiotics.
In a nutshell, probiotics are good and we should be ingesting them. Drinking our probiotics in sugar-laden, ultra-processed drinks encased in plastic is, perhaps, not the best method. Instead, eating unprocessed, low-sugar fermented foods are a much healthier and cheaper option.
Failing that, a supplement should be considered. A quality supplement with a broad range of probiotic strains which doesn't require refrigeration and that comes in an acid-resistant capsule.
Do you drink daily probiotic drinks? And after reading this, will you continue to buy them? I'd love to know your thoughts after reading this blog.
I was fortunate enough to be contacted by Yakult Australia in regards to this article. After some back and forth communication—including me pressing them for explanations on their ingredient and manufacturing decisions—Yakult Australia decided to send me (and my readers, like you) an official statement in response to the questions I sent them and the statements made within this article.
Their full statement is listed below, but before we get to that I wanted to say I was impressed with Yakult's response and can understand that they are aiming to appeal to the mass market—not extreme health nuts like myself! Anyway, please see the full response by Yakult Australia below:
Official Response by Yakult Australia
A small amount is required for fermentation, to allow the strain to grow and multiply. Sugar is later added for taste; the lactic acid produced by the LcS strain would otherwise make the product taste sour. Historically, Yakult was introduced in Japan when infectious diseases and malnutrition were common, to encourage wide spread appeal, it was made with a palatable flavour. This flavour profile has remained consistent since the introduction of Yakult over 80 years ago. Yakult LIGHT was introduced in 2004, to help meet consumer expectations for a reduced sugar product. We are commitment to continual product development in line with consumer feedback and ongoing product research. It is important to consider the purpose and size of Yakult when making a product comparison, a serve of Yakult is 65ml/bottle, in comparison to soft drinks at 375ml/can or a 250ml/cup. It would appear simplistic to criticise sugar alone, when a balanced moderate calorie diet across the day is more vital to health. A bottle of Yakult contains the same amount of calories as a small apple.
Skim Milk Powder
The sole purpose of the milk used in Yakult is to provide a solution to encourage the growth and viability of the live beneficial bacteria, while providing an excellent medium to deliver the probiotic to the human gut. In the context of probiotic capsules, you wouldn’t expect the nutritional benefits of vegetables while consuming a probiotic encapsulated in a vegetable capsule, the same way you wouldn’t expect to get the benefit of milk from drinking Yakult.
Homogenisation is a necessary requirement for Yakult; otherwise the product would be thick and lumpy (a consistency similar to cottage cheese) and generally not palatable for consumers. Milk used in Yakult provides a nutritious medium for the beneficial bacteria, and virtually all milk available for human consumption in Australia goes through a homogenisation process.
Sucralose is added in Yakult LIGHT to ensure a consistent flavour profile between Yakult Original and Yakult LIGHT, as there is 30% less sugar in the Yakult LIGHT product. While the quantities used in Yakult Light are safe for human consumption and permitted for use under the Food Standards Code, we understand consumer’s personal decisions about the type of foods and ingredients that they choose to consume or avoid. In line with consumer feedback and product research, we are actively looking at the use of other sweeteners for future product application.
Generally Yakult flavours can be described as a blend of vanilla and citrus oils. We are only able to disclose general terms regarding the flavour, as you would appreciate; the precise flavour recipe is “commercial in confidence”.
What is your reaction to this response by Yakult? Please post your feedback and thoughts in the comments section below.
Here is my reaction:
Alex's Official Response to Yakult Australia's Response
Sugar: Fair enough, for your product to sell it needs to taste great. And it's a valid point regarding serving size, but there is still 11.4g of sugar in one serving! That is nearly three teaspoons of sugar! I believe many Yakult drinkers would be surprised to hear that there was added sugar in their Yakult. (In fact, a quick skim through the comments section below supports this belief.) And many people wouldn't knowingly down three teaspoons of sugar every morning in the name of 'health'.
Skim Milk Powder: I think Yakult Australia has missed the point. Sure skim milk powder is lower in nutrients when compared to full-fat milk, but my concern (as discussed in my second point above) is about the harmful effects of skim milk powder. Some of these effects can be mitigated by using full-fat powder, or even better, full-fat milk.
Homogenization: Again, it's appealing to the masses and manufacturing efficiencies ($$$). I understand. My thoughts are simple—homogenization can destroy food molecules and make them inferior from a health point of view. It goes back to what I said before—simply eat unprocessed naturally fermented foods and avoid UHT, homogenization, etc. Oh, and what's wrong with cottage cheese?
Sucralose: Fair enough that they say it is 'safe for human consumption and permitted for use under the Food Standards Code'. Also, I must give credit to Yakult for seeking out potential alternatives to their use of sucralose (though actions are a lot more powerful than words). And they still didn't state why they use an artificial sweetener and added sugar.
Flavoring: The recipe is a secret, but 'generally' they use a blend of vanilla & citrus oils. (Why 'generally'? Sometimes do they mix things up and experiment with other ingredients?) It's anyone's guess as to what these exactly are..
So there we have it. The great Yakult debate! Please chime in with your thoughts and reactions below. I would love to hear them!
Yakult Australia have informed me that the formula of their Yakult LIGHT has been updated. They have removed the synthetic artificial sweetener and replaced it with stevia.
As a result the total sugar content is now even lower - with only 3/4 of a teaspoon of sugar per serve.
Which is a great change!
There are also new ingredients in the formula, including Maltitol and polydextrose. Some may find these new ingredients change the taste.
Personally I think these changes are a step in the right direction. Though of course it doesn't resolve the other issues outlined above.
I have updated this article to reflect these new changes (including removing the section on artificial sweeteners being a problem with Yakult).
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