Kefir Basics and Health Benefits
You may have noticed containers kefir popping up in the dairy section of your local grocery store, or frozen into popsicles, or mixed into dips. It might be labeled as a “cultured drink,” or “drinkable probiotics.” It might be made from cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, or things that aren’t even milk, like coconut. So what is kefir? And why should you care? Let us explain and share our top reasons for adding it to your diet.
What Is Kefir?
Kefir is a fermented beverage originally from the Caucasus (somewhere around southern Russia or Georgia) that's been around for at least a few hundred years. It’s often compared to yogurt, and certainly it can be used in many of the same ways, but it’s not actually made the same way yogurt is. Kefir is made with something called kefir grains. Kefir grains aren’t grains, but a culture of yeasts and bacteria that look a bit like cauliflower.
Kefir grains are in the same basic family as the stuff that makes kombucha, rather than the straight bacteria used to make yogurt. The kefir grains are added to any of several kinds of beverages; most commonly cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and alternative milks like coconut, soy, and oat. Kefir grains are pretty amazing in that they will actually ferment and thicken non-dairy stuff like coconut milk. Typically the fermentation process takes anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, as opposed to American-style yogurt, which only gets a couple of hours to ferment. This results in more probiotics and less lactose than traditional yogurt.
Kefir Is Full of Probiotics (and Lower in Lactose)
Thanks to the longer fermentation period used to make kefir versus yogurt, it has more of those beneficial probiotics than American-style yogurt. More fermentation time means more healthful bacteria to promote a happier gut.
As a bonus, the longer fermentation period also means that kefir has a much lower lactose level than yogurt. The longer it's fermented the more the lactose is broken down. In fact, most people with lactose intolerance issues can drink (or eat) kefir with no problems.
Related: Make Instant Pot yogurt
Kefir Is Nutrient-Rich
Beyond the probiotic benefits, kefir is full of nutrition. Here's the scoop on kefir nutrition (from the USDA Nutrient Database) based on one cup of plain, lowfat kefir:
- 104 calories
- 2.5 g fat
- 9 g protein
- 12 g carbohydrate (11 g sugar)
Micronutrients of note:
- Calcium: 316 mg (about 24 to 31 percent of daily needs depending on age)
- Phosphorus: 255 mg (about 36 percent of daily needs)
- Vitamin A: 416 micrograms (or 1383 IU) (about half of your daily needs)
- Riboflavin (a B vitamin): 0.328 mg (about a quarter of daily needs)
Kefir Is a Versatile Ingredient
Kefir is broadly similar to yogurt; much thinner than Greek yogurt, and even a bit thinner than American-style yogurt. That makes it great for drinking, that's right, it's most commonly used as a beverage. Usually, drinkable yogurt is simply watered down with either sweetened milk (more fat and sugar, less probiotic bacteria) or...water, which isn’t adding any nutrition. But kefir naturally is a drinkable consistency.
American-style yogurt, though it can absolutely be great, can be difficult to find in any form that hasn’t been sweetened and flavored. Kefir, like Greek yogurt, tends to retain the tart-yet-creamy flavor. Because it’s fermented differently than yogurt, the process often creates little bubbles of carbon dioxide, which means kefir sometimes tastes just a little bit fizzy, in a nice way. Its consistency makes it great for uses like milkshakes, in pancake batter (in place of buttermilk), as a marinade for meats, or in trendy acai bowls.