A Comprehensive Guide to Kefir: Definition, How It’s Made, Benefits, and More
Sick of Greek yogurt? Then it’s time to give kefir a shot. The superfood (slash super drink) is a cross between yogurt and milk in terms of thickness. And just like its dairy-aisle relatives, it’s an excellent source of calcium.
But kefir has even more going for it. It’s a fermented beverage, which means it’s loaded with good-for-your-gut probiotics.
Here, learn more about kefir, its history, how it became a trendy item, and the health benefits it may offer.
What Is Kefir And Why Have I Been Hearing About It So Much Lately?
Kefir is a fermented milk drink that can be made from any type of milk — goat, cow, coconut, rice, soy, sheep, you name it. It’s traditionally made by culturing milk with kefir grains, which are a mixture of bacteria and yeasts. (1) You’ll find kefir in the dairy aisle, likely near the yogurt, or maybe in the refrigerated portion of the natural foods section. In fact, it’s pretty similar to yogurt, but it’s not quite as thick. Think of kefir as a drinkable yogurt with a tangy, slightly acidic flavor.
You may have heard of kefir for the first time in recent years, but it’s not new. Kefir originated thousands of years ago in the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, and it has a long history in Eastern European countries. The word “kefir” comes from a Turkish word that means “good feeling.” (1,2) Kefir grains also have a history in Muslim culture and were considered gifts from Allah.
Kefir has become increasingly popular as researchers have studied the health benefits of the drink. It’s loaded with probiotics (and can have more than 50 different types!), which have been a buzzword in the nutrition world in recent years. (1,3)
Probiotics are bacteria that are added to existing bacteria in the gut. Oftentimes, kefir is enriched with vitamins and minerals that up its healthy quotient. (1) And good news if you’re lactose intolerant: A small study found that kefir improved the way people with lactose issues tolerated and digested lactose. In fact, because it’s fermented, kefir itself is about 99 percent lactose-free. (The good bacteria eat up the lactose, which is milk sugar.) So don’t consider it off-limits just because it’s considered a dairy product. (1)
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What’s in Kefir? A Look at Its Nutrition Facts
The nutrition found in kefir can change based on the milk used to create it and if there are flavors added to it.
Here is the nutritional info for 1 cup of low-fat cow’s milk kefir with no added sugar, for example: (4)
- 110 calories
- 11 grams (g) protein (22 percent daily value, or DV) (5)
- 2 g fat (3 percent DV) (6)
- 12 g carbohydrates (4 percent DV) (7)
- 12 g sugar
- 390 milligrams calcium (30 percent DV)
- 90 micrograms vitamin A (10 percent DV)
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What Are the Potential Health Benefits of Kefir?
Kefir offers a number of possible health benefits.
- A Healthy GutFermented foods like kefir are rich in probiotics, which are good bacteria that can aid digestion and immunity. (8)
- Antibacterial PropertiesIt may seem backward that kefir, which is loaded with bacteria, helps protect against certain strains of bad bacteria, but it’s true. (1)
- Strong BonesThat’s the calcium hard at work. It promotes strong bones and helps protect against osteoporosis and fractures. (9)
- Lower CholesterolAnimal studies have found that kefir can lower high cholesterol, but studies involving humans haven’t verified these findings, so more research is needed before this possible benefit is confirmed. (10)
- Anticancer PropertiesA few animal studies found that kefir has the ability to inhibit the growth of tumors, but again, more research is needed to learn whether the same effects would be seen in humans. (1)
- Healing WoundsIn one animal study, wounds healed more quickly when they were treated with a topical gel made from kefir grains, suggesting another possible benefit of this fermented food. (11)
- Blood Sugar ControlA 2015 study found that study participants with type 2 diabetes who drank 600 milliliters (about 2.5 cups) of kefir each day had lower HbA1C readings — a two- to three-month average of blood sugar levels — than those in the control group. (12)
- Allergy AidA study involving animals with asthma found that kefir helped ease allergy symptoms and inflammation. (13) Human studies are needed to support the theory, however.
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Kefir Grains, Kefir Milk, Kefir Yogurt, or Just Kefir: What’s the Diference?
Kefir grains, which are needed to make traditional versions of kefir, aren’t the type of grain you’re thinking of if wheat or oats have come to mind. Rather, kefir grains are a white or yellowish jellylike substance that looks like cauliflower or cottage cheese. They range in size from 0.3 to 3 centimeters in diameter, and they contain bacteria, yeast, milk proteins, and complex sugar. (2) The grains join with milk and ferment the milk to create kefir. (11,14)
There are many different versions of kefir. (11) There’s nonfat, low-fat, and full-fat kefir, as well as some varieties made from nondairy milk. You’ll also find flavored types of kefir, such as strawberry or chocolate.
More on Probiotics Like Kefir
You might hear kefir referred to as kefir milk or kefir yogurt, but kefir is neither milk nor yogurt — it’s somewhere in between.
There is, however, a beverage called water kefir. Like regular kefir, it starts with kefir grains (or a water kefir starter kit). But instead of milk, it’s mixed with water, sugar, and usually some type of flavoring.
A Closer Look at How Kefir May Help Boost Gut Health
Bacteria have a bad rap. Bacteria are actually crucial to keeping the body working the way it’s supposed to. There are many, many strains of good bacteria that occur naturally within the gut and make up the body’s microbiome. These bacteria help the body do things like digest food and produce vitamins. (15)
Not all strains of bacteria are good, though. The state of your gut health could change quickly, maybe even over the course of a day, mostly based on what you’re eating. Taking in probiotics from outside food sources can help keep the gut balanced. Oftentimes, the probiotics you find in probiotic-rich foods are the same good ones that already exist in the body.
The general idea is that probiotics help keep the gut bacteria happy by pushing out or minimizing the effect of bad bacteria and returning the intestines to a healthy place if things get out of balance. (15)
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How Kefir Compares to Yogurt and Other Probiotics
There’s a difference between yogurt and kefir in terms of consistency, but you can use the two in similar ways, such as in smoothies or mixed with fruit. They have very similar nutritional profiles, too, and pack a similar number of calories. Kefir beats out yogurt when it comes to probiotics, however. (16)
There are other ways to source probiotics through food, such as by eating sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and miso. Kefir is generally considered one of the greatest source of probiotics, but it’s hard to say which one is best for you since taste and your body’s reaction should be considered. After all, the probiotics won’t do you much good if you find the food too hard to stomach!
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The Side Effects of Kefir and Who Should Not Have It
All in all, kefir seems to be a trendy superfood that’s worthy of the hype. It’s considered safe and healthy enough to consume every day.
There are some things to be cautious about, though. First, the calorie count can differ depending on the type of milk used, so keep that in mind if weight loss is a goal of yours. One cup of kefir made with fat-free milk may have slightly over 100 calories, while kefir made with whole milk could reach 200 calories. The whole-milk versions also contain higher amounts of saturated fat, which you should be careful not to get too much of, especially if you’re keeping an eye on your cholesterol or heart health. One serving of whole-milk kefir has 5 g of saturated fat, which is 25 percent of the maximum an average healthy person should take in in a day. (18)
Take a peek at the added sugars when you’re in the dairy aisle choosing which brand or variety of kefir is best. You’ll probably notice that the flavored varieties have significantly more added sugars, usually about 8 g of added sugars per serving. The best choice is a plain variety of kefir or one with a label that indicates there's no added sugar. Note that even plain kefir will contain some sugar from the naturally occurring lactose in milk.
More on Spotting and Avoiding Added Sugar
Some people report experiencing some negative digestive side effects, such as gas, after drinking kefir. (15) These side effects will likely go away over time as your body gets used to it.
People with weakened immune systems, such as someone who has an autoimmune disease or has recently had surgery, should consult a doctor before loading up on probiotics because it’s possible that the probiotics will increase the risk of infection. (15)
How to Select and Store Kefir for the Best Quality and Taste
Before choosing which kefir option is best for you, be sure to check the amount of added sugar. Some brands sneakily pack it in. And look for the words “live active cultures” or “live cultures” on the label, which refer to the probiotics in the product. To maintain freshness, always store kefir in your refrigerator.
You can also make kefir yourself. To get started, you’ll need to purchase a kefir grain starter kit, which you can buy once and then reuse forever. Like kefir you’d find at the store, kefir grains should also be kept in a cool, refrigerated environment.
How to Make Kefir at Home: 4 Simple Steps to Follow
Plenty of blogs and YouTube videos can guide you through the process of making kefir at home.
Here are the usual steps: (18)
- Mix 1 teaspoon of kefir grains with 1 cup of milk in a glass or glass jar. Don’t have kefir grains to get started? No worries — you can buy them at a health-food store or even on Amazon (more on that below). The milk you use is up to you — whole milk is usually the most successful, but other types of milk should work, too.
- Cover the glass with a paper towel, cheesecloth, or napkin secured with a rubber band.
- Leave the glass on the kitchen counter for 24 hours. The kefir grains ferment the milk, so you don’t need to worry about the milk going bad. (2)
- After 24 hours, the kefir should thicken to a consistency similar to buttermilk. Pour the contents of the glass through a strainer to separate the kefir grains from the kefir. That’s it! Enjoy it as a beverage on its own or add it to smoothies or baking recipes in place of buttermilk or sour cream.
You can reuse the kefir grains, which will expand by about 5 to 7 percent each time you make kefir. (2) Store the grains in the refrigerator or freezer until you’re ready to make your next drink.
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