If you shout out “Lactobacilli Shirota Strain!” to a random group of cultured milk drinkers, there will be, without fail, someone who will yell “Yakult!” back at you. It’s bits of trivia like this that make most people think that cultured milk — or probiotic dairy products, if you prefer — is as Japanese as shiatsu and green tea.
But to give credit where it’s due, probiotics officially got its start in 1907, when a Russian scientist named Élie Metchnikoff postulated that the long lifespan of Bulgarian peasants was due to microbes in the yogurt that they were regularly consuming. But it was indeed a Japanese scientist, Minoru Shirota, who was able to isolate and culture the most robust and beneficial strain able to survive the human digestive tract.
According to the probiotic theory, ingesting these “good” bacteria helps crowd out and compete against the “bad” bacteria living in your gut, and in so doing can do things like relieve intestinal discomfort or even cure the common cold.
Even as medical experts are still undecided about some of probiotic’s wilder claims, there is enough anecdotal evidence for some doctors to recommend probiotic dairy products for maintaining a healthy digestive system.
Not all cultured milk are created equal, though. So before you head to the supermarket, here’s a rundown of the more popular brands:
Yakult (Php8.00 per 80 ml bottle)
Ever since the Japanese company introduced it to the Philippines in 1978, Yakult is, without a doubt, THE established brand of cultured milk. In fact, much of the Filipino consumer’s knowledge about the benefits of probiotics can be directly traced back to this stubby, bullet-shaped bottle. As a result, very early in the game, Yakult had somehow conditioned the local market as to what cultured milk should taste like (milky and sweet-sour), how much a typical serving size should be (80 ml), even what a typical bottle should look like (i.e., all the other brands look like Yakult bottles). This makes Yakult a logical benchmark for reviewing cultured milk brands.
When you drink Yakult, what you notice immediately on the first swig is the body. Yakult has a thick mouthfeel, probably because each small bottle contains about 11 grams (about 3 teaspoons) of sugar, the highest among all brands we reviewed. This sweetness, however, is muted by the tartness and milkiness of the rest of the ingredients, resulting in a not too overpowering, well-balanced flavor — almost middle of the road, in fact, when compared to other brands.
But what does stand out in Yakult (and its variant, Yakult Light) is its long, sour finish, which lingers long after the bottle is consumed. Since no other ingredient can account for this, the sourness can only come from the lactic acid produced by the live lactobacilli, which suggests something of the product’s potency.
Yakult Light (Php10.00 per 80 ml bottle)
Cultured milk drinkers are, by definition, a health-conscious bunch. But that didn’t stop Yakult from making a successful variant called Yakult Light, probably so named because of the increasing number of “light”, low-calorie drinks aimed at health-conscious consumers. But instead of using artificial sweeteners like saccharin and aspartame like other light drinks, Yakult Light uses a mixture of other sugars like polydextrose and sucralose to reduce its calorie count — but not by much. A serving of Yakult Light has only 25% fewer calories (45 calories versus 60, mostly because there is less sugar) though it costs 25% more.
The taste, as expected, isn’t as sweet as the regular Yakult, which in turn allows the tartness of the lactic acid to really come forward. What’s surprising, though, is during a side-by-side comparison with the regular Yakult, the milkiness and mouthfeel are also reduced in Yakult Light, making it seem like a thinner, watered-down version of its original self. The long, sour finish, however, is the same — which suggests that the potency is unchanged.
Dutch Mill Delight (Php8.00 per 100 ml bottle)
In the mid-1990s, an executive of a certain soda company (not Coca-Cola) once remarked that being number two in his business wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. That said, judging from the stock in the supermarket chillers, Dutch Mill Delight is Yakult’s best competitor, its number two.
Monde Nissin, the makers of Dutch Mill (and, incidentally, Lucky Me! instant noodles), even went out to make modifications to their cultured milk, to set their brand apart. For one, their bottle size is 100 ml, 25% bigger than Yakult’s. They’ve also fortified their milk with a probiotic fiber called inulin, which is said to inhibit the growth of bad bacteria, among other health benefits.
As for the taste, the most striking characteristic of Dutch Mill Delight is its predominantly fruit-forward flavor, with very little milkiness. Its juice-like taste (somewhat citrus with a hint of red berry) makes it the most tart of all brands reviewed, despite it having the second highest sugar content and calorie count. The mouthfeel is also thinner (compared to Yakult), and the sour finish is noticeably short. One thing going for this brand, though, is that it offers 25% more product for the same price, making it the most “sulit” of all the brands reviewed.
Go Long Cultured Milk (Php39.00 per 233 ml bottle)
This bonus competitor, a Taiwanese import that’s currently available only at 7-Elevenstores, is immediately noticeable on shelves because it resembles a giant-sized Yakult bottle. I must admit that the shiny red cap — a feature reminiscent of Yakult’s signature red foil — is so spot-on, it can even make you smile and wonder why Yakult doesn’t sell a bottle this big. A word of warning, though: if you’re curious enough to buy a bottle of Go Long, know that there is actually a foil seal underneath the cap, and it has such an industrial-grade thickness that you might get a sore finger trying to peel it off. It might be best to punch through this with a sharp, stiff straw, or the tines of a metal (not plastic) fork.
Despite being thrice the size of a normal Yakult bottle, Go Long (unfortunately) is four times the price, making it the worst value for money among the brands reviewed. And despite having the lowest calories per ml, it offers little milkiness, sweetness and sourness — almost like a watered-down, middle-of-the-road kind of cultured milk. It has a very short finish and very little aftertaste, which is surprising because the list of ingredients already includes artificial flavors.
In our opinion, Go Long is (at least, at this point) a novelty product that will have to rethink its game if it wants to compete seriously against the product it is trying to mimic. Nice looking bottle, though.
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