Everything You Need To Know About Kefir

It's cultured and filled with probiotics, but not quite yogurt and not quite milk. What is it really?

Nutritional And Scientific Facts Kefir

Many of you that already know what kefir is have embraced it with open arms. So what exactly is milk kefir? According to Kefir.net, it is “a cultured, creamy product with amazing health attributes” and is much like drinkable yogurt. [1] Kefir can be made from any dairy milk, whether it be cow, goat, or sheep, as the milk feeds the culture. Non-dairy milks (such as almond, coconut, or rice milk) can weaken the culture, so it is recommended to use dairy milk before and after each time a non-dairy milk is used.

In order to properly make this probiotic-filled drink you must have kefir “grains,” which are technically SCOBYs (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast).  When people think of grains, they think of wheat. However, kefir grains are a gelatinous collection of beneficial yeast and bacteria that are shaped like grains. They resemble small pieces of broken up cauliflower. These grains are essential to turning the sugar in the milk into kefir by the process of fermentation.

According to Phickle, the grains serve a wonderfully important purpose: “The “food” of milk kefir grains is lactose or the sugars that naturally occur in milk.  The kefir culture transforms these dairy sugars into a few different things, including lactic acid, CO2 and small amounts of alcohol.” [2] This simple process from the grains allows the fermentation process to start, which is how kefir is made. Many people love the way it makes their bodies feel, and are convinced it has helped tremendously with their digestion and overall gut health.

Fun Facts About Kefir

  • There are two types of kefir grains: milk and water. Milk kefir is made from dairy milk, and water kefir is made from sweetened water. Either grain can be occasionally used with non-dairy milks, such as almond or coconut milk.
  •   “Kefir contains about 30 different microorganisms, making it a much more potent source of probiotics than other fermented dairy products.” [3]
  • “The word kefir comes from the Turkish word ‘keyif.’ The original word means ‘feeling good’ after its ingestion, according to a paper published by the Brazilian Journal of Microbiology.” [3]
  • This drink is believed to have come from the region of the Caucasus Mountains.
  • Milk kefir contains an abundance of protein.

History/Mythology of Kefir [4]

As said above, it is believed that kefir originated in the Caucasus Mountains, which are between Russia and Georgia. The story of kefir goes like this:

“According to the people of the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains there is a legend that Mohammed gave kefir grains to the Orthodox people and taught them how to make kefir. The ‘Grains of the Prophet’ were guarded jealously since it was believed that they would lose their strength if the grains were given away and the secret of how to use them were to be common knowledge. Kefir grains were regarded as part of the family’s and tribe’s wealth and they were passed on from generation to generation.”

For centuries it was relatively unknown outside of the Caucasus Mountains until word spread that it was used to help treat tuberculosis and gastrointestinal diseases. Kefir was hard to get ahold of, and the grains were hard to find, which made it hard to produce in large amounts. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the All Russian Physician Society were determined to make kefir available on a wide scale. The two Blandov brothers were the ones that primarily made this happen, and they had a goal to obtain kefir grains and make kefir in large amounts.

As the story goes, the brothers sent in a woman named Irina to delight the prince of the Caucasus Mountains so that he would give her some kefir grains, but unfortunately he wouldn’t budge because of the religious law regarding the grains, so she left. The prince had, however, fallen in love with Irina, and she was kidnapped before making it home. The prince wanted to marry her, but the forced arrangement came to a halt when Irina was rescued in a daring attempt arranged by her employers. In exchange for all of her troubles, the Tsar ordered that she be given ten pounds of kefir grains, which were brought to the Blandovs’ Moscow Dairy in 1908. It spread like wildfire over the next century, which is why many people can enjoy this fermented drink today.

Kefir Nutritional Facts

Kefir contains abundant levels of B12, magnesium, biotin, folate, probiotics, calcium, and vitamin K2. This merely scratches the surface, as the probiotics pack a large punch with their nutritional density. Kefir contains over 30 different microorganisms, which makes it more effective than yogurt. “A 175 ml (6 oz) serving of milk kefir contains:

  • Protein: six grams
  • Calcium: 20 percent of the RDA
  • Phosphorus: 20 percent of the RDA
  • Vitamin B12: 14 percent of the RDA
  • Riboflavin (B2): 19 percent of the RDA
  • Magnesium: 5 percent of the RDA
  • A decent amount of vitamin D.” [5]

The most impressive quality that milk kefir has is the abundance of probiotics that makes this drink ultra healthy for your gut. The powerful probiotics being created during the fermentation process have antibacterial properties. According to Eco Watch, “Kefir contains the probiotic Lactobacillus kefiri, and the carbohydrate Kefiran, both of which can protect against harmful bacteria.” [5]

Kefir Health Benefits

There are many health benefits linked to kefir, and people for hundreds of years have enjoyed drinking this yogurt-like drink just for its medicinal properties. Studies have shown that kefir or kefir extracts are capable of triggering aptosis (cell death) in cancer cells, such as for stomach and breast cancer, and also showed benefits against skin and colon cancer and leukemia. [6, 7, 8]

In addition to anti-cancer benefits, kefir has been said to help detoxify the body from harmful bacteria by replacing it with good bacteria, which in turn boosts your immune system. Because of its high calcium content, it also helps you keep and increase your bone density! Do you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome? There have been studies done by the Canadian Medical Journal that have proven that probiotics, like those found in kefir, improve abdominal pain and the symptoms of IBS. [9]

Uses For Kefir

Back in the earliest times when milk kefir was discovered it was used primarily for medicinal purposes. In today’s day and age, people still use it for health benefits but they also drink it for enjoyment as well. Many people like the tart taste that kefir offers, and if they are not fond of that taste they simple add some natural flavor like vanilla or fruit. Milk kefir can also be strained and made into kefir cheese, or used as a culture for other cheese recipes.

The process of making your own kefir is quite simple. Start with the milk of your choice and place it in a mason jar or other similar container (roughly 2 cups). Simply add about two tablespoons of kefir grains to the milk and leave it on your counter top, do not refrigerate it (the SCOBY components do their work quite effectively at room-temperature and will prevent the milk from spoiling during culturing).

You can culture or ferment for different amounts of time – most people go 24 to 36 hours, but others prefer to culture it in the fridge for three to five days (the cooler temperatures significantly slow the process). Lengthier culturing times will cause the kefir to be tangier and stronger in taste. Once you are done fermenting the kefir, you will strain out the grains; they can be reused for the next round of kefir you want to make. The grains themselves are not consumed. The drink is ready to consume, and you can add natural flavors if the taste is too tart for your liking. To store your grains for next time (if not using them again right away), place them in a container of full-fat milk in the refrigerator. They will last up to 10 days before needing a fresh feeding of milk.

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Upon receiving her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism in college, and competing at a Division 1 level for tennis Lauren has loved writing for many years. She specializes in health and nutritional topics, which has come from the decades of high level education from her competitive tennis days where she worked with nutritionists, strength coaches, and mental coaches full time. After graduation she went onto compete at a professional level for tennis, in which injury sidelined her career. She then jumped straight into the health and wellness space working for a nutritional company, as well as writing for multiple health organizations to date.


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