Last Updated on
If you follow the latest health fads, you won’t have missed the new kid on the block: kefir. Or is it new? Many of us have been left wondering what this stuff is, why everyone is talking about it, and what should we be doing with it anyway.
Firstly, kefir is anything but new. It’s simply a fermented milk drink that has been around for thousands of years. It’s popularity is highest among the central Asians and eastern Europeans, but can now be found in most supermarkets in the eastern European sections of the refrigeration aisles. So let’s have a look at this strangely sounding drink
What exactly is kefir?
Kefir (pronounced “kef-ear”) has the consistently of a thin yoghurt. Like yoghurt, it requires a culture to change it from milk to something else. But unlike yoghurt, it provides a much broader range of bacteria and also introduces yeasts too. Kefir is made by introducing “kefir grains” to either cow’s or goat’s milk and allowing it to ferment. This fermentation process converts the sugars in milk (lactose) into lactic acid, which gives the drink a slightly sour flavour and thickens it too. The grains are then removed and used again to make a new batch. In fact, some grains pass down family generations for years and years!
Kefir can be made at home by acquiring the grains from health food shops or online. This is particularly useful for vegetarian or vegan consumers who prefer a non-dairy version, because kefir can be made from any dairy alternative such as soy or coconut milk.
Kefir is a great source of a range of vitamins and minerals including vitamin D, B1, B3, B12, folate and vitamin K. It’s also high in protein and great for people who cannot tolerate unfermented milk because of the sugar, lactose.
What are kefir’s health benefits?
Consumed daily, kefir has shown to promote the beneficial bacteria in our gut better than some yoghurts or probiotic drinks. By doing so, the colonisation of “bad bacteria”, bacteria thought to be disease-causing, is subsequently reduced – possibly through competition for space along the gut wall. However, kefir has also shown to have both antifungal and antibacterial functions, which sounds odd considering it also promotes their growth! But kefir targets bad bacteria and fungal species specifically in order to promote the growth of its own species.
A recent study on mice showed that kefir might also reduce cholesterol and keep body weight down, but whether this has the same effect on humans is not known. Previous animal studies have also shown beneficial effects on cholesterol, a primary cause of heart disease. Kefir may also protect against tumours too! Some studies have shown kefir to have anti-tumour properties by killing cells in lab experiments (this does not mean that the same effect happens in humans, but is interesting none-the-less) and in mouse experiments where kefir appeared to support the immune system in killing cancer cells.
Allergies are on the rise in the developed world, particularly among children. As we age, we’re also more likely to develop various allergies, and for many, they can become life changing. The species of bacteria present in our gut appears to be correlated with our propensity to allergy, although more studies are required to determine this fact. Studies suggest that certain species of bacteria have a direct influence on our immune system, particularly on cells that are responsible for inflammation – those that produce inflammatory chemicals. Allergies create an inflammatory response in the body, and if kefir is able to influence this, then it is possible that allergic reactions can either be prevented or toned down.
How to use kefir
Kefir is a drink, so it can be consumed straight from the bottle. But its natural sour or acidic flavour is not for everyone. Kefir can be used in the same way you use yoghurt or milk:
- Make smoothies
- Use in dips
- Great for a salad dressing base instead of yoghurt or sour cream
- Pour it over cereal or fruit
- You can also use it in ice creams, baking, cooking (instead of yoghurt or sour cream) although, I suspect the heat will kill off the bacteria and thus you’ll lose the health benefits.
BBC “Trust me I’m a Doctor” – experiment on probiotics
Bourrie et al (2016) The microbiota and health promoting characteristics of the fermented beverage kefir. Frontiers in Microbiology. 7;647
Choi et al (2017) Kefir prevented excess fat accumulation in diet-induced obese mice. Journal of Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry. doi: 10.1080/09168451.2016.1258984
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat. He writes for www.veggieandspice.com and www.itsaboutnutrition.com