OVER the years, scientists and nutritionists in Japan have diligently researched and developed all kinds of 'health' foods for the increasingly health-conscious Japanese people.
But a problem arose - how are the Japanese people to distinguish the real McCoy, the genuine health food, from the so many food products in the market which are not.
The Japanese government had established in 1991 a regulatory framework called Foods for Specified Health Uses (Foshu).
No longer can any food product make unsubstantiated health claims.
The regulatory framework acts as a health food labelling system and only products certified by it can claim certain health benefits.
Any food product carrying the Foshu label defines it as food that carries "active constituents which affect the physiological function and biological activities of the body".
More importantly, a certified product has to be that if consumed as part of one's daily diet, can provide the specified health benefit that it claims.
Getting the certification isn't easy. The application process can cost a company up to a million yen (about RM300,000).
And only after stringent evaluation on the efficacy, safety and quality, which can take between three and six months, can a product be so labelled.
Today, there are over 700 types of approved products sold in Japan, serving an estimated market size that was worth about US$5.5 billion (RM18.8 billion) in 2005.
"One such approved product that has become firmly established in the Japanese diet is the probiotics yoghurt drink, Yakult," says Naomasa Tsuritani, the managing director of Yakult Honsha (headquarters).
Yakult is a yoghurt drink made by fermenting a mixture of skimmed milk with a special strain of the intestinal bacteria Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota.
The drink was created by Dr Minoru Shirota who graduated from the Medical School of Kyoto University in 1933.
He was the first man to succeed in culturing a fortified strain of lactic acid bacteria that is beneficial to health.
Dr Shirota believed that a healthy intestinal tract would lead to longer life and advocated the prevention of illness rather than reliance on medical treatment when a person falls ill, says Tsuritani.
Yakult, which is derived from the Esperanto word jogurto which means yoghurt, was first marketed in 1935.
Yakult Honsha has since introduced a line of beverages for the Japanese market that contains the Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota and a newer strain of bacteria - the Bifidobacterium breve.
In 1971, Yakult used its lactobacilli research to develop cosmetics based on the lactic acid bacteria and the Bifidobacterium.
The results were Natural SE liquid and BE Liquid, which boast moisturising, antioxidant, lifting and anti-wrinkle effects.
Like its yoghurt products, Yakult cosmetics are marketed and delivered door to door by a team of "Yakult Ladies" who total some 79,000 worldwide, with 43,700 in Japan alone.
The Yakult Lady system was introduced in 1963 and recruits mostly housewives to work an average five hours a day.
In the late 1990s, Yakult Honsha branched out into pharmaceuticals and today it is a major developer of the cancer chemotherapy drugs irinotecan (Campto) and oxaliplatin (Elplat) that is marketed by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Sanofi-Aventis.
But as Tsuritani says, Yakult's true business is still the manufacture and sale of its probiotic yoghurt drinks.
"As a result of our efforts, we now sell our dairy products to 30 countries and regions around the world.
"More than 25 million people enjoy them every day."