Tabbed as an “it” health food of the 21st century, kefir is a probiotic food that contains many bioactive compounds, including as many as 30 strains of good bacteria that help fight against tumors, harmful microbes, carcinogens and more. Not only has this nutrient- and probiotic-packed drink been linked to a number of kefir benefits, but it may also hold the key to improving many health issues related to digestive health and immune function.
Still wondering: Should I drink kefir? Here’s what you need to know about this superstar ingredient and why you should consider adding it to your next shopping list.
What Is Kefir?
Kefir is a fermented milk beverage made using starter “grains,” which are actually a combination of bacteria and yeast that interact with the milk to make a lightly fermented drink that even lactose intolerant people can drink. It can be made from any type of milk, such as goat, sheep, cow, soy, rice or coconut. It can even be made using coconut water. Scientifically speaking, milk kefir grains contain a complex microbial symbiotic mixture of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts in a polysaccharide–protein matrix.
Kefir has been used for thousands of years in many different cultures around the globe. Derived from the Turkish word keyif, or “feeling good,” kefir comes from the Eastern European Caucasus Mountains. It’s thought that sheep herders accidentally fermented milk in their leather flasks. The potency and powerful effects of the mixture soon spread around the tribes and was later picked up by Russian doctors, who heard of its legendary healing benefits and used it to help treat ailments like tuberculosis in the 19th century.
Highly consumed in the Eastern European countries, it was traditionally made in skin bags and hung above doorways to consistently knock the bag to mix the concoction of milk and kefir grains. Mass production of kefir didn’t begin until the mid-1900s in Russia and produced 1.2 million tons of the fermented product by the late 20th century.
Today, kefir has become a worldwide phenomenon. Sales in the U.S. alone by Lifeway, which accounts for 97 percent all kefir sales in the U.S., reported a growth from $58 million in 2009 to over $130 million in 2014.
However, although this popular probiotic drink is widely available and there are many options for where to buy kefir, it can also be made right from your own kitchen. In fact, there are plenty of recipes out there for how to make kefir grains and interesting ways that you can use them in soups, stews, smoothies, baked goods and more.
Is kefir really good for you? Besides being associated with a number of powerful health benefits, kefir also contains high levels of vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, vitamin K2, biotin, folate, enzymes and probiotics. Because kefir does not have a standardized nutrition content, the values can vary based on the cows, cultures and region where it’s produced. Yet even with the range in values, kefir has superior nutrition.
For example, one cup of store-bought whole milk kefir contains the following nutrients:
- 160 calories
- 12 grams carbohydrates
- 10 grams protein
- 8 grams fat
- 390 milligrams calcium (30 percent DV)
- 5 micrograms vitamin D (25 percent DV)
- 90 micrograms vitamin A (10 percent DV)
- 376 milligrams potassium (8 percent DV)
In addition, kefir contains plenty of probiotics, which is where many of the kefir benefits come from. Kefir is one of the best probiotic foods you can eat with several important probiotic strains, and homemade kefir far outranks any store-bought variety.
Beneficial bacteria and yeasts may include the following:
- Kluyveromyces marxianus/Candida kefyr
- Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis
- Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris
- Streptococcus thermophilus
- Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus
- Lactobacillus casei
- Kazachstania unispora
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Bifidobacterium lactis
- Leuconostoc mesenteroides
- Saccaromyces unisporus.
In a 2015 study published in Frontiers in Microbiology, kefir was recognized as a potential source of probiotics and molecules with several healthy properties. According to the authors, “its biological properties suggest its use as antioxidant, antitumor agent, antimicrobial agent, and immunomodulator, among other roles.”
1. Boosts Immunity
Kefir contains many compounds and nutrients, like biotin and folate, that help kick your immune system into gear and protect your cells. It contains large amounts of kefir probiotics, the special forces of the microbial world. One kefir probiotic strain in particular that’s specific to kefir alone is called Lactobacillus Kefiri, which helps defend against harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. Coli. This bacterial strain, along with the various handful of others, helps modulate the immune system and inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.
Kefir also contains another powerful compound found only in this probiotic drink, an insoluble polysaccharide called kefiran that’s been shown to contain antimicrobial properties, which can fight against candida. Kefiran has also shown the ability to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
2. Builds Bone Strength
Osteoporosis is a major concern for many people today. The deteriorating bone disease flourishes in systems that don’t get enough calcium, which is essential for bone health. Fortunately, kefir made from whole fat dairy has high levels of calcium from milk.
However, perhaps more importantly, it holds bioactive compounds that help absorb calcium into the body and stop bone degeneration. Kefir also contains vitamin K2, which has been shown to be vital in improving calcium absorption as well as bone health and density. The probiotics in kefir improve nutrient absorption, and the dairy itself contains all of the most important nutrients for improving bone strength, including phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K2.
3. Potentially Fights Cancer
Cancer is a serious epidemic impacting our country and the world today. Kefir can play a big role in helping your body fight this nasty disease. It can be a seriously effective weapon against the spread of these multiplying and dangerous cells. The compounds found in the probiotic drink have actually been shown to kill off cancer cells in the stomach in some in vitro studies.
Kefir benefits in the fight against cancer are due to its large anti-carcinogenic role inside the body. It can slow the growth of early tumors and their enzymatic conversions from non-carcinogenic to carcinogenic. One in vitro test conducted by the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition at the Macdonald Campus of McGill University in Canada showed that kefir reduced breast cancer cells by 56 percent, as opposed to yogurt strains, which reduced the number of cells by 14 percent.
4. Supports Digestion and Combats IBS
When it comes to bacteria in the gut, it’s a tricky balance. Research suggests that consuming probiotic foods like kefir milk and kefir yogurt can help restore that balance and fight against gastrointestinal diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and ulcers.
Drinking kefir, which is loaded with probiotics, also helps your gut after taking antibiotics. The probiotic compounds help restore the lost flora that fight against pathogens. Probiotics can also aid against disruptive diarrhea and other gastrointestinal side effects caused by these types of medications.
5. Improves Allergies
Various forms of allergies and asthma are all linked to inflammatory issues in the body. Kefir may help treat inflammation at the source to help reduce the risk of respiratory issues like allergies and asthma. According to an animal study in Immunobiology, kefir was shown to reduce inflammatory cells disrupting the lungs and air passages as well as decrease mucus buildup in mice.
The live microorganisms present in kefir help the immune system naturally suppress allergic reactions and aid in changing the body’s response to the systemic outbreak points for allergies. Some scientists believe these allergic reactions are the result of a lack of good bacteria in the gut. Researchers from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center reviewed 23 different studies with almost 2,000 people, and in 17 of those studies, test subjects taking probiotics showed improved allergic symptoms and quality of life.
6. Improves Skin Health
When your gut is out of whack, it can send signals to your skin that disrupt its natural balance and cause all sorts of problems like acne, psoriasis, rashes and eczema. Kefir helps bring good bacteria back to the forefront and supports the health of your largest organ, the skin. Not only does it help with systemic based skin issues, but kefir benefits skin issues like burns and rashes as well.
Plus, aside from aiding the health of the immune system, the carbohydrate found in kefir known as kefiran has also been shown to improve the quality of skin wound healing and may also be protective for connective tissue.
7. Improves Lactose Intolerance Symptoms
The good bacteria found in many dairy products is essential for a healthy gut and body. However, there are many out there who cannot tolerate dairy because they are unable to digest lactose, the key sugar found in milk (thus being lactose intolerant). The active ingredient in kefir helps break lactose down and makes it easier to digest. Furthermore, kefir has a larger range of bacterial strains and nutrients, some only specific to kefir, that help remove almost all of the lactose in the dairy.
Research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics even showed that “kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose malabsorption.” As a disclaimer, although most people do very well with goat milk kefir, a small percent of people may still have issues with dairy and may need to opt for coconut or water kefir instead.
Types of Kefir
Even if you can’t tolerate having any dairy, there are types of kefir that are still rich in probiotics and have plenty of healthy kefir benefits but are completely lactose- and dairy-free. There are essentially two main types of kefir, and they differ in multiple ways.
The two types of kefir are milk kefir (made from cow, sheep or goat milk but also from coconut milk) and water kefir (made from sugary water or coconut water, both of which do not contain any dairy).
While the base liquid used in different types of kefirs varies, the process for making kefir is still the same, and the multitude of kefir health benefits are thought to be present in both types. All kefir is made using kefir “grains,” which are a yeast/bacterial fermentation starter. All types of kefirs are similar to kombucha (another healthy probiotic-rich drink) in that they must have sugar either naturally present or else added in order to allow the healthy bacteria to grow and for the fermentation process to take place.
However, the end result is that both kombucha and kefir are very low in sugar, because the live active yeast essentially “eats” the large majority of the added sugar during the fermenting process.
Here is more information about how the different types of kefirs are made and how their tastes and uses differ:
Milk kefir is the type of kefir drink that’s most well-known and widely available, usually sold in most major supermarkets and nearly all health food stores. Milk kefir is most often made from goat’s milk, cow’s milk or sheep’s milk, but certain stores also carry coconut milk kefir, which means it does not contain any lactose, dairy or real “milk” at all.
Traditionally, milk kefir is made using a starter culture, which is what ultimately allows the probiotics to form. Typically, all kefir recipes use a starter kit of “live” active yeast, which is responsible for culturing the beneficial bacteria.
Once fermented, milk kefir has a tart taste that’s somewhat similar to the taste of Greek yogurt. How strong the taste is depends on how long the kefir has been fermented; a longer fermenting process usually leads to a stronger, tarter taste and even yields some carbonation, which results from the active yeast.
Milk kefir is not naturally sweet on its own, but other flavors can be added to it in order to boost the flavor and make it more appealing. While some people prefer to have kefir milk plain, many like to have vanilla- or berry-flavored kefirs, similarly to how you will find yogurts flavored and sold.
Most store-bought kefirs are flavored with additions like fruit or cane sugar, but you can sweeten and flavor your kefir yourself at home by adding raw honey, maple syrup, vanilla extract or organic stevia extract. Also try adding pureed fruit to your plain kefir (like banana or blueberries) to boost the nutrient content even more.
Beyond just drinking milk kefir, there are other clever ways to use it in recipes. Milk kefir can make a great base for soups and stews that would otherwise call for regular buttermilk, sour cream, heavy cream or yogurt. You can substitute plain or flavored kefir for any of these in ingredients in your favorite recipes for baked goods, mashed potatoes, soups and more in order to boost the nutrient content and get all the wonderful kefir benefits. You can even use it to make kefir cheese, a type of hard, crumbly cheese that can be sprinkled over top of your favorite dinner dishes.
Coconut kefir can be made either using coconut milk or coconut water. Coconut milk comes directly from coconuts and is made by blending coconut “meat” (the white, thick part of the inside of a coconut) with water, and then straining the pulp out so that only a milky liquid is left. On the other hand, coconut water is the clear liquid that is held inside coconuts naturally, which would come out if you were to crack open the coconut.
Both types of coconut kefirs are dairy-free and are often considered the perfect base for creating fermented kefir because they naturally have carbohydrates present, including sugars, which are needed to be consumed by the yeast during the fermentation process to create healthy bacteria.
Coconut kefir is made in the same way as milk kefir. It contains live active yeast and bacteria that combine to make a traditional starter culture. It becomes more tart and also carbonated once fermented, and tends to be sweeter and less strongly flavored than milk kefir.
Both types of coconut kefir still taste like natural coconut and also keep all of the nutritional benefits of unfermented plain coconut milk and water, including potassium and electrolytes.
Water kefir tends to have a more subtle taste and a lighter texture than milk kefir, and it’s normally made using sugar water or fruit juice.
Water kefir is made in a similar way as milk and coconut kefirs. Just like milk kefir, plain water kefir can be flavored at home using your own healthy additions and makes a great, healthy alternative to drinking things like soda or processed fruit juice.
You want to use water kefir differently than you use milk kefir. Try adding water kefir to smoothies, healthy desserts, oatmeal, salad dressing, or just drink it plain. Since it has a less creamy texture and is less tart, it’s not the best substitute for dairy products in recipes.
If you’d like to drink water kefir on its own, make sure you buy a kind that’s low in sugar and then consider adding your own fruit or herbs to bump up the flavor. Try having water kefir with fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juice, mint, or cucumber to flavor your water kefir naturally, or make a healthy soda alternative by combining water kefir with club soda or seltzer for a virtually sugar-free carbonated drink.
No matter the type of kefir you choose to consume, look for a high-quality brand that’s preferably organic. Choose kefirs that are low in sugar and added flavors, and then try flavoring it yourself at home where you have control over the amount of sugar being used. All types of kefir should be refrigerated, and it’s best to keep them in glass bottles, so that plastic or any BPA that might be present cannot leach into the kefir and offset the potential kefir benefits with harmful toxins.
Kefir vs. Yogurt
So how does kefir stack up against yogurt? Let’s take a look at the main differences and similarities between kefir vs yogurt:
- Yogurt cultures come from thermophilic strains and need to be heated to be activated in a yogurt maker. There are also strains from mesophilic as well.
- Kefir comes solely from mesophilic strains, which cultures at room temperature and does not require heating at all.
- Yogurt contains two to seven types of probiotics, good bacteria strains.
- Kefir contains 10–34 strains of probiotics as well as numerous beneficial yeast strains.
- Yogurt contains transient bacteria to help clean and line the gut, giving food to the beneficial bacteria. They go in and don’t stay.
- Kefir bacteria can actually attach to the walls and colonize to stay and regulate. They’re also aggressive in nature and can actually go out and attack pathogens and bad bacteria in your gut.
Production and Flavor:
- Yogurt is generally made by heating milk and adding a bacteria starter in powder form. You can then extract a mother strain and use that to make more batches of yogurt.
- Kefir is made from kefir grains, which are actually clusters of bacteria and yeast that are added to room-temperature milk, then strained and used for another batch within 24 hours.
- Yogurt is thicker and milder and is dependent on the starter one uses to make the yogurt. You can strain it further to make it extra thick, like Greek yogurt
- Kefir is generally thinner and sold as drink. Kefir tends to be more sour than yogurt and has a slight buttermilk taste with a hint of yeast.
Risks and Side Effects
When consumed in moderation, kefir can be a safe and healthy addition to the diet as the potential dangers of kefir are very minimal.
In some cases, it may cause certain kefir side effects, including gas, bloating, nausea, diarrhea or stomach pain. These symptoms are more common when first trying kefir and typically subside over time with continued use.
Many people wonder: how much kefir should I drink? Most sources recommend aiming for about one cup per day to maximize the health benefits of this power-packed beverage. Ideally, start with a lower dosage and slowly work your way up to the desired amount to assess your tolerance and decrease negative side effects.
Keep in mind that milk kefir is made from dairy and is not suitable for those with a milk allergy or sensitivity to dairy products. Additionally, while most with lactose intolerance can tolerate kefir without any issues, it may cause adverse side effects in others. If you experience negative symptoms after consuming kefir milk, try swapping it for coconut or water kefir instead.
- More and more people are learning about and loving the amazing qualities of kefir and kefir benefits, a true probiotic powerhouse. Kefir is more potent than yogurt and has the ability to stay in your gut to heal and attack pathogens.
- Is kefir good for you? Aside from containing a concentrated amount of several key nutrients, kefir has also been shown to boost immunity, build bones strength, promote digestive health, reduce allergies, heal skin and more.
- The integrative effect of kefir on the bacteria and flora in the gut has a systemic impact and can vastly improve your digestive issues, allergies, as well as fight carcinogens and pathogens, which explains why there are so many kefir benefits.
- Best of all, kefir is extremely easy to make in your own home for use in kefir smoothie recipes and more. The success and power of your kefir relies on the quality of the grains, so it’s paramount to find reputable retailers selling top-rate, fresh grains in order to optimize kefir benefits.
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