Sorry friends, but I am currently learning about gut health and fermentation, which go hand-in-hand as it turns out. So I figured we may as well discuss the strange, thick, white product always sitting on my counter top, you know, in case you ever come over. Or in case I try to force some of my very rapidly multiplying “kefir grains” on you, as I’ve been known to do.
Kefir (pronounced Keh-fear, or key-fear, or really any way you want to say it) is a fermented milk drink. Unlike wild fermentation, where you proliferate the bacteria naturally present on the food item, kefir is a cultured milk product made by adding a starter culture to milk. In this case, the starter culture is in the form of “grains” (pictured above), which are a whitish, rubbery mass of bacteria and fungi that live in a symbiotic relationship. Sandor Katz accurately describes kefir grains as looking like “a cross between cauliflower florets and little brains.”
Yum! Since “fermented milk drink made with little brain looking things” is possibly the grossest thing you’ve ever even thought about consuming, let’s discuss why you’d actually want to.
Benefits of drinking kefir:
- Easier on the tummy than milk. Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, in her book The Gut and Psychology Syndrome (buy it here), says that the fermentation process make milk much easier for the human gut to handle. A large percentage of proteins are predigested, immunoglobulins are broken down, and lactose is consumed by the fermentation process.
- FULL of beneficial microbes! According to Lynn Margulis, cited in The Art of Fermentation (seriously, my new favorite book-buy it here), kefir grains involve 30 different types of microbes, including the well known Lactobacilli, Leuconostoc, Acetobacter, and Saccharomyces. Other more obscure microbes are present as well though, and fewer than half of the microbes involved are known or named! One of the differences between yogurt and kefir is that yogurt contains only beneficial bacteria, while kefir contains beneficial yeasts and bacteria.
- Soothing to the gut lining. Fermenting produces lactic acid, which Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride says has a healing and soothing effect on the gut lining (something that pretty much everyone needs this day and age). Learn more here.
- Higher in B vitamins, biotin, vitamin K2, and active enzymes when compared to milk. Depending on the length of fermentation and the type of milk used, the nutrient profile of kefir can vary (read the study here). Longer fermentations, which result in a, shall we say, “tangy” kefir, were found to be higher in folate. I’ve got the baby fever, y’all, so tangy kefir it is.
- Colonize your gut. Yogurt is said to contain transient beneficial bacteria that keep the digestive system clean and provide food for the friendly bacteria that reside there, but when you stop eating yogurt, the benefits end too. Kefir, however, can actually colonize the intestinal tract. This is a good thing, the intestines are where it’s at.
- Stimulates your immune system. Probiotics in general (not kefir specific) have been found to stimulate immune system function. (See the end of this bulleted list for a link to the study.)
- Inhibits growth of certain tumors. The same study discussing the immune system above also documented several studies indicating tumor growth rates of different types of cancers were inhibited by kefir components.
- Antimicrobial. Kefir has antimicrobial properties that are useful in the prevention of gastro disorders and vaginal infections. (Again, same study listed for the previous two points, seriously a whopping kefir report!)
Edward Farnworth, who wrote said whopping kefir report (a 2005 Bulletin in Food Science and Technology- read it here), and talks extensively about the final three points listed above, concludes:
The microbiological and chemical composition of kefir indicates that it is a much more complex probiotic, as the large number of different bacteria and yeast found in it distinguishes it from other probiotic products… Furthermore, there is evidence to show that kefir consumption not only affects digestion, but also influences metabolism and immune function in humans.
What about store-bought kefir?
Commercially available kefir is not made using traditional kefir grains, but instead uses starter cultures consisting of some of the known organisms that are part of the traditional kefir symbiosis, but not all of them. Instead of kefir, a kefir-like beverage is produced without the use of grains. Sandor explains some of the reasons in his book:
- Quantity. Using kefir grains result in a quantity limitation. Companies can only produce as much kefir as they have grains.
- Consistency. In commercial production, there is the need to produce a consistent product. Due to the complexity of kefir grains, there will be variations in the final product, which is often not acceptable in the commercial marketplace.
- Alcohol. The alcohol content in kefir can range from a few tenths of a percent (negligible) to as high as three percent. (Um, no wonder I love my morning smoothie!). The maximum allowable alcohol content for non-alcoholic beverages is 0.5 percent. Regulatory and legal challenges would arise from trying to determine alcohol content with each batch. Additionally, alcohol fermentation tends to take over after lactic acid fermentation has occurred, so this process might occur during the distribution phase.
- Fermentation time. In The Gut and Psychology Syndrome, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride says commercially available fermented dairy products are not fermented long enough to make them suitable for individuals with gut issues, and so she recommends home fermenting. She also adds that some commercially fermented dairy products are then pasteurized after the fact, and therefore contain no live cultures.
A popular manufacturer of commercial kefir states on their website that their kefir contains 10 strains of bacteria plus two of their own exclusive probiotics, for a total of 12 live and active cultures per cup. If you are buying store-bought kefir, this is certainly nothing to feel bad about. (By the way, if you can find an organic, full fat, unflavored kefir, that is definitely the ideal for store-bought.) But if you want to venture into the world of making your own, you could be getting 30 live and active cultures, not to mention any yet-to-be-discovered goodness that could be in there!
If you’d like to make your own kefir, you’ll need to find some kefir grains. You can often find them locally for free (or very inexpensive) on Craigslist or through your local Weston A. Price chapter (find a local chapter here), or you can order them online (buy kefir grains here).
Whether you decide to make kefir or buy kefir, your body will thank you. Soon I’ll post my favorite kefir smoothie recipe that I eat most mornings for breakfast. Until then, I’ll be researching how to make my kefir more alcoholic… kidding. Sort of.
-AshleyPAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: To support my blogging activities, I may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog. Thank you for supporting our efforts at Whistle Pig Hollow!