If you have been paying attention to the latest food trends that are making waves as a result of being not only delicious but extremely nutritious, chances are you have heard of kefir.
It might have become more mainstream in the last couple of years, but kefir has been around for centuries. What exactly is kefir and how does it play a role in benefiting our health and body?
This article will give a detailed explanation of everything you’ve ever wanted to know about this wonder drink, and more.
What is Kefir?
What happens when you combine bacteria and yeast and allow them to ferment? You end up with kefir!
What is kefir? It is very similar to yogurt (which is fermentation of bacteria in milk) in that the process is almost identical, and you end up with a product that is loaded with probiotics (“good bacteria”) that aide in support of your immune and digestive systems.
When the bacteria and yeast are combined, a product called “kefir grains” is produced and it looks a lot like small cauliflower florets.
Unlike other popular grains such as rice or wheat, kefir grains do not contain any gluten, and can be mixed with any source of milk to produce the drink version.
Cow milk is the most popular, but goat, sheep, soy, rice and even coconut milk and water can be used.
Therefore, the drink can be enjoyed by anyone who is allergic or sensitive to gluten and dairy.
Much like plain yogurt, kefir has a slightly tangy and acidic taste – this is due to the fermentation process.
Milk Kefir vs Water Kefir
Milk based kefir is the most popular and most widely used type of kefir.
Usually it’s made from cow’s milk, but it can also be made from goat or sheep milk.
Not being naturally sweet, and since the fermentation process produces a tangy product, milk kefir can be boosted by various flavors and sweeteners to help with the flavor and to make it more appealing.
While some people prefer it plain (much like plain yogurt), others boost the flavor with raw honey, maple syrup, vanilla extract of simple pureed fruit, which increases the nutritional content of the kefir even more!
Water based kefir can be made from sugary water, coconut water or fruit juice. This type of kefir has a much subtler taste than milk kefir, and is also lighter in texture and consistency.
It can also be flavored in the same way as milk kefir and makes a great alternative to soda or other sugary drinks, and can be added to smoothies, oatmeal, certain desserts, fruit salads and salad dressings.
Kefir is one of the most probiotic-rich foods that you can consume and is typically loaded between 15-20 different strains of beneficial bacteria and yeasts, so no matter which kind you choose and how you consume it, the benefits are endless!
Kefir Health Benefits
Foods that are loaded with probiotics have a lot of benefits that aide the body and our health.
Here are the top 9 reasons how kefir can benefit your overall health, and why it needs to be part of your regular diet:
Healthy Gut and Digestive System
It’s no surprise that probiotics play a huge role in moderating our gut health. Probiotics are responsible for promoting healthy good bacteria in the digestive system.
When consumed regularly, these little live microorganisms keep the natural balance in our digestion, and help regulate a myriad of things, including but not limited to bloating, ulcers, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), urinary tract infections, diarrhea and general imbalances of the stomach fauna as a result of antibiotic use and international traveling and food consumption.
In addition to probiotics, kefir contains many nutrients that help boost the immune system and support our overall health.
Rich in biotin, calcium, magnesium, folate and vitamins B12 and K, kefir is one of those drinks that can make you feel like Popeye eating a can of spinach.
A microbe specific to kefir, Lactobacillus Kefiri, acts as potent antibacterial agent and helps the body’s immune system to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli.
Many other probiotics found in kefir act as agents to signal and aide immune cells when certain pathogens invade the system. They also boost cellular immunity by helping natural killer cells to help fight off common infections and flush out toxins.
Cancer Fighting Properties
There is no doubt that cancer is one of the greatest and deadliest epidemics affecting our world today.
Millions of men and women suffer from this disease that has many forms and even more names.
With the myriad of natural microbiomes found in kefir, this drink can be a helpful weapon against helping cancerous cells spread in the body and studies have even shown that certain compounds in kefir make cancer cells in the stomach self-destruct.
They can also slow tumor growth and change the metabolic properties of the tumors, making them less effective.
Builds Bone Strength
Osteoporosis is a bone-specific disease that occurs when the bones become brittle and fragile as a result of calcium and vitamin D deficiencies, as well as hormonal changes.
It is extremely common, with an estimated 54 million Americans suffering from this medical condition.
Kefir made from whole milk is rich in both calcium and vitamin D, as well as vitamin K2 and phosphorus which are needed for nutrient absorption, and make the nutrients much more efficient.
Helps with Lactose Intolerance
It is estimated that approximately 65% of the population has some degree of lactose intolerance affecting them.
Lactose intolerance is a digestive problem that is caused by having too little of “lactase” which is an enzyme needed to break down lactose (sugar found in dairy products).
Active ingredients and compounds in kefir help break lactose down into lactic acid, which is much easier to digest.
In addition, for those individuals that want all the benefits and nutrition of kefir but are severely lactose intolerant, there are many non-dairy kefir products available on the market!
Promotes Healthy Skin
The skin is the body’s largest organ, serving like a blank canvas the tells the story of what is happening on the inside of our bodies.
Poor nutrition disrupts the stomach and throws the gut fauna out of whack, which then send signals to your skin, throwing it out of balance.
This contributes to all sorts of skin problems, ranging from acne to different types of rashes like eczema and psoriasis.
Consuming kefir alongside a generally healthy diet brings a lot of the good bacteria back into the digestive system, to even out the playing field.
In addition to overall skin health, kefir also benefits the skin in wound and rash healing by supporting connective tissue.
May Improve Asthma and Other Allergy Symptoms
Allergens are everywhere – they are teeny tiny foreign substances that cause allergies and they can be found on pets, outside (whether you’re in a lush, green forest or walking down a polluted street), cleaning products, as well as make-up and skincare products, just to name a few.
Symptoms vary and depend on the severity of the allergies but it usually includes coughing, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, and sometimes difficulty breathing.
As with a lot of other benefits to our body, the probiotics found in kefir help even out the good bacteria in our bodies so that we can develop a natural resistance (antibodies) to common allergens.
Supports Good Mental Health
There have been numerous studies that show promising research linking gut health to mental health and general mood in both humans and animals.
Foods containing probiotics, such as kefir, help with various mental health disorders by improving symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, mood swings, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), memory and autism.
Overall Systemic Cardiovascular Benefits
In addition to all of the great benefits listed above, kefir has been linked to playing a positive role in helping with heart health and overall cardiovascular performance.
Cardiovascular diseases are amongst the major causes of death in adults across the globe. Foods containing probiotics help keep your heart healthy by breaking down bile, lowering bad cholesterol and keeping blood pressure steady.
Kefir vs. Yogurt
Given all of their similarities, it’s often easy to interchange kefir and yogurt and assume they’re the same thing.
While they do have a lot in common (both are loaded with probiotics and nutrients, have similar tangy taste and can be cultured using a reusable or single-use culture), it’s important to note that they contain major differences.
On average, kefir has 2.5 times more of probiotics than yogurt.
Nutrition-wise, kefir (milk-made varieties) has more fat and is higher in protein and calcium when compared to yogurt.
Both products give the consumer a tart flavor, but because of the presence of beneficial yeast in the kefir culture, kefir gives off a yeast flavor as well.
Kefir has been described as being more “sour” and comparable to buttermilk, and the flavor profile can be altered by experimenting and manipulating the fermentation time of the kefir.
The consistency of kefir is thinner and best enjoyed in a drink form, while yogurt is much thicker and is typically eaten with a spoon.
Both milk based kefir and yogurt can be made thicker by draining whey from the final product. In doing so, yogurt can transform into a Greek-style yogurt (extremely thick) or labneh, a type of soft, yogurt cheese.
Similarly, milk kefir can also be drained of whey to make a kefir cream cheese, a soft, spreadable cheese or even a hard kefir cheese.
For the millions of individuals that are lactose intolerant, there are naturally smaller amounts of lactose (a type of sugar found in milk) in kefir when compared to regular milk or milk products such as yogurt. There are also varieties of kefir made with non-dairy sources such as soy, rice and coconut milk and water that can be enjoyed by those who are severely affected by their inability to process lactose and tolerate any milk products, but still want the powerful nutritional benefits of kefir.
Lastly, the process in which kefir and yogurt products are made is different. Majority of yogurt types start their culture under heat while kefir ferments at room temperature.
Despite these differences, both are healthy and wonderful products to consider adding to your daily diet but if you want to get technical and offer your body the better of the two, grab yourself a bottle of kefir!
We know that kefir is full of probiotics and many beneficial nutrients like calcium, magnesium, biotin, folate and many other vitamins and minerals, but what is the nutritional value of kefir?
Given the various ways kefir can be prepared and the different sources that are used to prepare it, it can be hard to standardize the nutrition content and value of kefir. Even with this variety in value, the benefits of kefir nutrition cannot be denied.
For example, one 6 oz cup of whole milk kefir from a retailer has about:
- 160 calories
- 10 grams of protein
- 8 grams of fat
- 12 grams of carbohydrates
- 300 milligrams of calcium (30% DV)
- 100 IU of vitamin D (25% DV)
- 500 IU vitamin A (10% DV)
- 12 milligrams of magnesium
Kefir is a good source of vitamins B-1, B-12, vitamin K, phosphorus and is also very rich in magnesium.
Magnesium is extremely important in neuromuscular transmission and it also plays a vital role in over 250 biochemical reactions that happen in our body. Additionally, magnesium is one of the top 3 nutrients important in bone health, alongside calcium and vitamin D. The human body cannot absorb calcium (the main mineral needed for bone structure and strength) without magnesium, and kefir has plenty of both, so drink up!
Probiotics in Kefir
What are some of the predominant probiotics that are found in kefir?
The answer to this question is in a constant state of flux and evolvement, as more and more literature becomes available on the research done on kefir and the different varieties that can be made.
Based largely on 2 different research studies, the list below identifies at least 20 different species or subspecies of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) found in kefir grains.
These bacteria typically produce lactic acid and other powerful antibiotics that inhibit pathogenic growth in kefir milk and can keep the milk from being spoiled.
Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. delbrueckii, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. lactis, Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus keﬁranofaciens subsp. keﬁranofaciens, Lactobacillus keﬁri, Lactobacillus paracasei subsp. paracasei, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus sake, Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris, Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, Lactococcus lactis, Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris, Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. dextranicum, Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. mesenteroides, Pseudomonas, Pseudomonas fluorescens, Pseudomonas putida, Streptococcus thermophilus
These microorganisms play an important role in supporting general immunity by helping fight off common infections.
They also boost cellular immunity by enhancing our cells to go out and suppress the growth or kill harmful bacteria such as salmonella and others that might make their way into our bodies.
In digestion, they help alleviating IBS symptoms, diarrhea, cramping and constipation and generally promote healthy gut fauna by neutralizing toxins and by creating/keeping an environment in which the heathy bacteria can flourish.
How to Make Kefir | Making Your Own Kefir
With all of the benefits that kefir makes available, and given its simple composition, many of us wonder just how we can make this delicious beverage ourselves. With all the nutrients and science behind this wonder drink, many people think it’s difficult to make but it’s a lot easier thank you think!
As already covered, there are many varieties of kefir, and one of the original ways to make it is to utilize whole cow milk or goat’s milk, which are both naturally homogenized. Stay away from milk sources that claim to be “ultra-pasteurized” as it will not work properly to make kefir.
Follow these simple steps to make your own kefir:
- Obtain kefir grains from store or online retailer.
- Following package directions, place the grains in a clear glass jar (large mason jars work great!) that’s large enough to hold about 3 cups.
- For every 2 cups of milk, use 2 tablespoons of grains
- Mix the milk and grains well using a wooden utensil.
- After mixing, cover the jar with a coffee filter or clean cloth (such as a cheesecloth or thin dishcloth) and secure it with a rubber band.
- Place the jar in a room-temperature location, avoiding any direct light or heat sources.
- Leave the mixture to ferment for about 1-3 days, ideally for at least 24 hours. Longer fermentation periods lead to a more “sour” flavor and cooler climates take longer to ferment so adjust accordingly based on your surroundings and flavor profile preferences.
- Using a clean and plastic strainer, strain the kefir into a cup or container. You can re-use the grains again immediately with a new batch of milk and start the process all over again.
- Please heed all storage instructions to maximize the shelf life of your kefir!
Of course, you can also make dairy-free versions of kefir using soy or rice milk or coconut water, but these types will not pack the same nutritional punch as dairy-based kefir, and they will not contain any calcium to help with and promote bone health.
Even so, dairy-free kefir will still contain many of the same probiotic strains and will promote the same healing properties for our bodies.
Drink it straight, add it to your favorite smoothies, spreads and dips or try experimenting with it in different baked goods such as bread or savory pastries – get creative and reap the amazing benefits!
The History of Kefir
Kefir and its production and usage have been around for centuries, as indicated by archaeological evidence. It is widely believed to be derived from the Turkish word keyif which stands for “feeling good.” This phrase is usually associated with the feelings our stomachs are left with after consuming kefir due to its enormous and systemic health benefits.
It is widely believed that Kefir was first discovered and consumed in the Caucasus mountains of the former USSR, before it’s consumption spread to majority of Russia, Central Asia and the rest of Eastern Europe.
There are tales of sheep herders that left milk in their leather flasks or skin bags that they carried around, which caused the milk to accidentally ferment.
Once it was discovered and the renowned and powerful effects of the mixture were a little better understood, the news and use of kefir spread in no time.
Russian doctors began using kefir in hospitals to treat various illnesses ranging from GI tract and stool issues, to more bacteria causing diseases such as tuberculosis.
Even with its early usage, kefir didn’t become popular enough for mass production until the 1900’s.
It was estimated that production of kefir in Russia totaled 1.2 million tons of the fermented product by the end of the 20th century.
As kefir and its vast benefits became more researched and understood, the phenomenon surrounding it has spread worldwide.
In the United States alone, it was reported that sales of kefir from Lifeway (the company responsible for at least 95% of all kefir sales in the US) grew from $58 million in 2009 to over $130 million in 2014.
As the food industry embraces the health food trends and more consumers sway towards healthier lifestyles and diets, kefir figures are only expected to rise over the next several years.
That is if more people can get on board with pronouncing the name correctly! Please leave questions or comments below.