History of Yoghurt and Fermented Milk

Yoghurt and Fermented milks are traditional foods that have long been associated with human health and longevity. The origin of yoghurt is obscure but it is thought to have originated from somewhere between the Middle East and Central Asia thousands of years ago and derives from the Turkish words yoğurt (from yogen for “thick” and urt  for “milk”).

From the earliest of times, yoghurt was a way of preserving milk in all its varieties (cow, goat, sheep, camel, buffalo, and horse) and was known for its positive health effects. In fact, the ancient Assyrian word for yoghurt, “lebeny” signified “for life”.  In India, yoghurt has been consumed from times immemorial and is considered a staple food, used both in cooking and as part of a daily diet.

Legend has it that yoghurt was popularised by a nomad, travelling somewhere between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, who had stored milk in a goatskin bag hung across his camel. After several hours of bumpy travelling in the hot sun, the milk had fermented naturally as it came into contact with bacteria and had curdled into a tangy, custard-like substance.

By the 12th century AD, Mongol warrior tribes of Genghis Khan ate yoghurt for nourishment and good health. Fermented mare’s milk or koumiss was widely consumed in Mongolia, Russia and Central Asia.

The introduction of yoghurt to Europe came with King François 1  of France who suffered from a severe intestinal disorder which French doctors could not cure. His ally, the Ottoman Emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent sent a Turkish physician with a remedy of yoghurt.

By the late 19th century, the Russian microbiologist and 1908 Nobel Prize winner in immunology, Ilya Metchnikoff began studying the effects of lactic acid bacteria in yoghurt. Aware that food residue in the colon produced toxins leading to disease, Metchnikoff looked for answers by studying the mountain dwellers of Bulgaria, noted for their strength and long life.

He linked the longevity of Bulgarians to their high consumption of yoghurt. Metchnikoff also studied the people of the Caucasus mountains, who ate yoghurt and another fermented milk product with yeast compounds, known as kefir (from the word keiph - “good feeling” ). From his findings and research at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, Metchnikoff suggested that bacteria in yoghurt prevented and reversed bacterial infection in the intestinal tract.

The first commercialisation of yoghurt came in 1919 with Isaac Carrasso, originally from Salonika in Greece, who began industrialising the production of yoghurt in Barcelona.
His operation was the precursor for Danone, the company he named after his son Daniel.

Another pioneer in the industry is Dr. Minoru Shirota, the Japanese founder of Yakult. Inspired by the work of Metchnikoff, Dr. Shirota was, in 1930, the  first  to  isolate a specific strain of lactic acid bacteria  known to have positive human health benefits.

This was the Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota, named after himself, which he used to develop the first ever probiotic fermented milk -Yakult- introduced on the market in 1935.
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