25 April 2017Expand your Probiotics Horizon with Kefir

Imagine if you lived in the North Caucasus region of Russia hundreds of years ago. You might have kept sheep or goats. Some of the milk from your animals would be put into a goatskin bag, along with a fermentation culture, and hung in a doorway. Every time someone passed through the door, they were supposed to hit the bag, keeping the milk and culture mixed. After fermentation was done, you'd have kefir. According to one traditional explanation, the word "kefir" comes from a Turkish word for "good feeling".

Kefir has been used in medical treatments in Russia and the Soviet Union, thanks to the belief that it has healing properties, as well as a treatment for hangovers. It's still a popular drink there, and is growing in popularity in other countries. It's turning up in more and more US grocery stores; the displays are expanding and flavor choices and brands are proliferating. If you've noticed those kefir displays, you might have wondered what exactly kefir is.

First off, kefir is not yogurt. The probiotic profile is distinctly different. The kefir starter culture, or "grains", contains bacteria and yeasts, while yogurt is all about bacteria, especially lactobacillus varieties. These grains ferment milk and break down almost all the lactose, so kefir is a virtually lactose-free beverage. If you don't use cow's milk, you can make kefir from other "milks", such as soy, coconut, goat or nut milks, although nut milks can produce inconsistent results.

How does it taste? Because kefir grains include both yeast and bacteria, the fermentation produces lactic acid (like yogurt), carbon dioxide gas and some alcohol. The resulting drink is more bubbly/fizzy than yogurt, although the taste of plain kefir is very similar: tangy and acidic. Many commercial brands are available with fruit flavors and sweeteners to mask the acidic taste of plain kefir.

Aside from the probiotic cultures, the nutritional profile of kefir is very similar to that of the milk it was made from. Kefir made from low fat cow's milk contains:

  • 110 calories
  • 2 grams fat
  • 11 grams protein
  • about 300 mg calcium

So kefir has many nutritional benefits, but the curative or "good feeling" effects may have more to do with the unique probiotic culture. Frequent consumption of kefir is likely to affect your gut microbe population, which will have an impact on digestion. But other than general benefits for digestion and gut health, there is no evidence that kefir has any curative properties for specific diseases.

History and tradition tell us kefir has a good reputation, and most people find that kefir is helpful for digestion. But it's impossible to predict how any one person will react to kefir, just as it's impossible to predict how someone will react to a particular yogurt or fermented sauerkraut or kombucha or a probiotic supplement. If you want to try it, start with a small amount, perhaps a fruit flavored brand and see how you like it. You can drink it straight, or add to smoothies in place of yogurt. Just don't expect overnight miracles. It might take some time for the probiotics in kefir to produce an effect on your gut microbes. And keep in mind, gut health is not a one-shot deal; you need to promote it everyday with healthful probiotic foods such as kefir, along with a plant-based diet of whole foods.

Donna P Feldman MS RDN

is author of "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen", writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast series.

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Disclaimer: Please note that we cannot provide personalized advice and that the information provided does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit a medical professional.

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Alcohol & Other Beverages/Kefir

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