The Yakult Women of Seoul

Their name in Korean means Yakult women: street peddlers who sell several probiotic drinks, including Yakult. I encountered them in a Seoul suburb (Bundang) on the way to the subway. During one 15-minute walk, I saw three of them. Other street peddlers in Bundang were often men (selling cookware or socks, for example) but the probiotic sellers were always women. I haven’t seen street peddlers selling probiotic drinks anywhere else. In Japan, Yakult and other probiotic drinks are sold door-to-door but apparently not on the street.

I asked a Korean friend how she (and Koreans in general) got the idea that probiotic drinks are good for health (which I am sure is true). She said she knew it before she went to school and believed she picked it up from TV ads. Apparently these ads are more successful in Korea than elsewhere. General Foods recently paid $9 million to settle a legal case based on Yoplait Yo-Plus ads in America  that made similar claims. The lawyers who sued General Foods claimed that healthy people don’t benefit from Yoplait Yo-Plus.

I can think of several reasons that Yakult women exist in Korea but (apparently) nowhere else. Maybe the fact that Koreans eat a lot of kimchi makes them more likely to believe that a probiotic is healthy. Maybe Koreans care more about health than other people. Maybe Koreans are unusually sophisticated about health. Bundang’s density (it is full of tall apartment buildings) is surely one reason, because Yakult women weren’t the only street peddlers. American suburbs, where I almost never see street peddlers, are much less dense. Another certain reason is that Bundang is a wealthy suburb. A third certain reason is that Yakult and similar drinks help you digest lactose. Lactose intolerance is much more common in Asia than elsewhere.

It would be interesting to compare the rate of digestive problems in South Korea versus other countries, especially the United States. I think they are likely to be much less common in South Korea.

6 Responses to “The Yakult Women of Seoul”

  1. Mikael Says:

    Yakult is also extremely popular in Singapore, where I lived for a few years. There were ladies who knocked on apartment doors and sold six-packs (or some other quantity, maybe 8-packs) at slightly reduced prices compared to the shops. My kids (and other kinds) loved Yakult.

  2. vic Says:

    Gastric cancer rates are generally much higher in East Asia than in the US or Europe

    Seth: I was under the impression that was because of high salt content. For example, miso is salty.

  3. Robin Says:

    I can’t imagine how Yakult which is just loaded with sugar is a very good way to get probiotics. But yes here in Singapore people give this sugary stuff to their kids and feel good about it. Then again they also pass off watered down chocolate/malt beverage(aka Milo) as a healthy sports drink to rival Gatorade.

  4. Arthur Says:

    Selling Yakult door to door is quite common in São Paulo, Brazil, not on the street though.

    Seth: I read that in Brazil Yakult is considered a way to become lactose tolerant.

  5. Morex Says:

    Yakult is very popular in Mexico. There are peddlers selling it door to door and in the street, specially outsides elementary schools.

    Peddlers even have a subscription business model!

    Thanks to an ad in the 80′s, moms now trust Yakult. I recall the tv ad was an anime that explained how probiotics fought evil bacteria inside the human body. It was funny.

    Also, Mexico is a country where most of the population suffers from gastritis and colitis thanks to spice and peppers in pretty much any meal. Hell, even candy are hot.

    It’s thought that Yakult helps prevent and heal those diseases. Drinking Yakult is a must for millions.

    Even more, Yakult has a very good reputation now a days thanks to charismatic and inspiring Carlos Kasuga Osaka, Yakult’s CEO for Mexico (Distribuidora Kai).

    He speaks in conferences and is a YouTube star here. Ergo, a lot of people love Yakult.

    I like it, but have it maybe once a year.

  6. Erikku Says:

    Yakult Ingredients: Water, Sugar, Skim Milk Powder, Glucose, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Lactobacillus Casei Shirota (http://www.yakultusa.com/yakult-nutrition-information.php)

    Seth: It’s puzzling that they don’t add more bacteria, which would make the product more valuable.