What Is Kefir and It’s 16 Health Benefits? Better Than Yogurt!
While you may have heard about probiotics, you may be less familiar with kefir.
It can be pronounced keh-feer, kee-fur, or kef-fur. No matter which way you say it, it’s pretty popular in natural health circles.
That’s because it contains nutrients as well as friendly bacteria that can help you maintain a healthy gut.
Is kefir just one of those passing fads with health claims that don't pan out, or could it contribute valuable nutrition to your diet?
We’ll help you decode the hype so that you can decide for yourself.
What is Kefir?
Kefir is a fermented beverage made from what kefir drinkers and producers call “grains.”
However, these grains are not grown from plants. They are not a cereal or anything that resembles a grain from the food pyramid.
Kefir grains are made up of yeasts and bacteria (1). They are small, translucent, whitish, jelly-like orbs that look a little like tiny pieces of cauliflower.
There are two types of kefir, water, and milk.
Water kefir grains are comprised primarily of Lactobacillus brevis, Streptococcus lactis and Saccharomyces cerevisiae (2).
However, other bacteria and yeasts have been found in and on water kefir grains (1).
When added to a mixture of sugar, water, and dried fruit, the water kefir grains ferment the beverage by consuming the sugars and minerals and releasing beneficial bacteria that can then colonize your gut.
Water kefir grains are also referred to as Tibi, sugary kefir grains and gingerbeer plants (1).
Milk kefir grains consist primarily of Lactobacillus kefiri bacteria (3).
Milk kefir grains are added to milk. As they consume the lactose, they release probiotics and other compounds into the beverage (4).
After about 24 hours, the grains are strained from the liquid.
You can drink the beverage that now contains probiotics, and you can use the grains to make another batch of kefir.
The grains last indefinitely as long as they are “fed” the proper ratios of liquid, nutrients and sugar.
Different studies have found different types of bacteria in both water and milk kefir grains (3).
However, more research has been conducted on milk kefir than water kefir (1).
You can make either type of kefir at home if you can get your hands on the grains, which are often sold online and may be available at health food stores.
Milk kefir is often sold commercially in prepackaged bottles. This makes it more accessible and convenient for many people.
Because milk kefir is more commonly available and better researched, we’ll be addressing it more than water kefir in this article.
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16 Evidence-Based Health Benefit of Kefir
The following are 16 evidence-based health benefits of kefir:
1. Kefir Is Nutritious
Milk kefir is usually made with milk from a cow or goat. Some people make it with non-dairy milk, such as coconut or almond milk.
If milk kefir cultures are continually used with non-dairy milk, they will eventually die. This will not happen if they are used to ferment dairy milk.
Although sugar is used to make water kefir, there is little sugar left in the final beverage, because the grains consume the sugars to ferment the liquid.
Milk kefir has a sour taste that is similar to yogurt. While it is usually thicker than milk, it is thinner in consistency than traditional yogurt.
- Protein: 6 grams
- Calcium: 20% of RDA
- Phosphorus: 20% of RDA
- Riboflavin (B2): 19% of RDA
- Vitamin B12: 14% of RDA
- Magnesium: 5% of RDA
- Carbohydrates: 7g
- Fat: 6g (around 60% saturated)
- Calories: 104 kcal
Many of the nutrients found in the finished kefir depend on the milk from which the beverage is made.
The kefir grains add bioactive microbes, enzymes, and amino acids to the finished beverage (4).
If you make the kefir yourself, the final nutrient profile will vary depending on the fermenting time as well.
Kefir made with non-dairy liquids will not contain the same nutrients, such as calcium and magnesium, as kefir made with milk.
2. Kefir Contains More Probiotic Than Yogurt
Probiotics are microorganisms that can improve your health when they’re consumed (10).
Most people associate probiotics with improved digestion and more regular bowel movements (11).
However, ingesting probiotics also provides other health benefits, including the following:
- Reduced inflammation (12)
- Reduced risk of allergies (13, 14)
- Improved immunity (15)
- Improved skin condition (16)
- Lowered blood pressure (17, 18)
- Weight management (19)
You might think of yogurt as a popular food that contains live active cultures. Many yogurts do contain probiotics.
The yeasts provide additional amino acids and vitamins (22).
3. Kefir Can Colonize the Gut
Experts say that if probiotics don’t make it through the stomach acid to the gastrointestinal tract, they won’t be able to provide health effects.
It is thought that kefir’s milk base reduces the acidity of the stomach and allows the beneficial bacteria to be carried into the large intestine (22).
Probiotic in #kefir colonizes the intestinal tract, a benefit #probiotic #yogurt cannot provide
Test tube studies have subjected the probiotics in kefir to acid with a similar pH to that of stomach acid, and the probiotics survived.
The microbes in kefir have even been shown to adhere to cells similar to those on the walls of your gut, therefore colonizing it and helping to protect against harmful bacteria.
4. Kefir Can Soothe the Digestive System
Fermented dairy products that contain lactic acid bacteria favorably alter the microbiota of the gut (23).
Sometimes, kefir is referred to as a functional food. This means that it has a positive effect on your health beyond basic nutrition.
Along with its other health benefits, kefir can help treat diarrhea (24).
Certain factors, like taking antibiotics, can make it harder for the immune system to fight off pathogens.
Probiotics help restore the balance of flora and healthy mucosa in the gut that optimize digestion (25).
The yeasts that are found in kefir can reduce diarrhea caused by certain bacteria, antibiotics and irritable bowel syndrome (23).
The probiotics in kefir have also been found to treat:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (26)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (27)
- Digestive problems caused by H. pylori, a bacterium that is linked to cancer (28, 29)
5. Kefir Can Protect Against Infection
Although antibiotics wipe out infection-causing bacteria, they can wipe out the beneficial bacteria too.
This can lead to an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut and a possible overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria and yeasts.
Some of the bacteria in kefir, including the Lactobacillus kefiri found in milk kefir, can fight against infection.
One study even found that applying kefir topically helped prevent infection and encourage wound healing.
This activity may be due in part to kefiran, a kind of sugar found in kefir (32).
6. Kefir May Improve Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance
Lactose intolerance occurs when your body is unable to properly digest certain milk sugars (33).
Kefir has no problem breaking down milk sugar. In fact, kefir grains "eat" the lactose in milk, converting it to lactic acid.
This results in a beverage that contains less lactose than milk. The enzymes found in kefir can further help the body process the milk sugars.
Research had found that when people consumed yogurt, they experienced less gas than when they drank milk.
The group that drank kefir experienced even better results than the group that ate yogurt (34).
If you are lactose intolerant, you may be able to benefit from the health-boosting properties in milk by fermenting it with kefir grains.
You can also make dairy-free kefir by making it with non-diary milk such as with coconut milk or other nut milk.
Kefir can even be made into a frozen treat similar to ice cream.
7. Kefir Can Protect You from Cancer
Cancer is caused by the cells in the body mutating and growing in an uncontrolled manner. A tumor is one example of this.
Studies show that the good bacteria found in kefir can impede the growth of tumors.
Kefir has been studied for its role in protecting against colorectal cancer. In test tube studies, it has been found to encourage the destruction of tumor cells (36).
Kefir was also found to help encourage cancer cell death in leukemia research (37).
Another study compared kefir’s potential cancer-preventing effects with those of yogurt.
The study came to the conclusion that kefir extract was much more effective at lowering the number of breast cancer cells (38).
However, some in vitro studies showed that kefir did not reduce the ability of cancer cells to mobilize and infiltrate the body.
Still, kefir has antioxidant effects, which can help reduce the risk of cancer (39).
8. Kefir May Help Prevent Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a condition characterized by low bone mass and deterioration in the structure of the bone tissue.
This can lead to fragile bones and an increased risk of fracture (40).
A global problem, osteoporosis affects more than 200 million people and is responsible for 1.5 million fractures (41).
One of the most successful ways to maintain bone health and reduce the risk of osteoporosis is to consume enough calcium (42).
Calcium isn’t the only nutrient that can help prevent osteoporosis. Vitamin K2 has been found to play a vital role in helping the body use calcium.
Making kefir with full-fat whole milk can increase the amount of vitamin K that you consume and provide benefits to your bones.
Studies have found that kefir can improve bone mass and structure in postmenopausal women (47). They attribute this to kefir’s ability to boost the body’s calcium uptake.
Therefore, even though a glass of milk and a glass of dairy kefir may contain the same amount of calcium, kefir may improve your bone health more than the milk.
9. Kefir Can Improve Symptoms of Allergies and Asthma
Asthma is caused by inflammation and allergens.
In fact, many allergic reactions are caused by inflammation due to an overactive immune system.
It was found that kefir significantly suppressed inflammatory markers of interleukin-4, T-helper cells, and IgE immunoglobulins. This, in turn, had an anti-inflammatory effect.
10. Kefir Can Helps You Lose Weight and Fat
Among kefir’s diverse strain of bacteria, it can contain Lactobacillus gasseri, Lactobacillus paracasei, Lactobacillus amylovorus, Lactobacillus fermentum, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus (20, 21, 50, 51).
Lactobacillus gasseri increases the size of fat molecules, so you absorb less fat from your meals (52).
Taking Lactobacillus gasseri can reduce weight, BMI, abdominal visceral fat, waist and hip circumferences.
In fact, in a study belly fat was reduced by 8.5% in 12 weeks of supplementation (53).
Lactobacillus paracasei increases levels of circulating ANGPTL4, a protein serum hormone that regulates fat burning. As a result, fat storage is reduced (54).
Lactobacillus amylovorus and Lactobacillus fermentum
In a study, those who supplemented with either Lactobacillus amylovorus or Lactobacillus fermentum reduced their body fat by 3-4% in 6 weeks (55).
Lactobacillus rhamnosus have shown significant results for women. When taken, it helps the body release leptin, the obesity hormone.
This hormone increases satiety, and in 3 months increases weight loss by 50% (56).
11. Kefir Helps Preserve Food
This is an indirect health benefit. Fermenting food tends to prevent the growth of illness-causing bacteria.
Just like in the gut, if the good bacteria are growing in fermented foods, the bad bacteria have trouble thriving (57).
Fermentation has been used for centuries to help preserve food (58).
Kefir may not kill salmonella, E. coli and listeria. However, breads made using kefir instead of yeast stay fresher longer (59).
12. Kefir Can Help You to Detoxify Your Body
In our modern age, toxins surround us. We consume them through our diets and absorb them through cosmetics and other products.
Aflatoxins are common toxins that we are exposed to in food. They are spread through mold and tend to contaminate groundnuts.
Peanut butter, for example, would be a common culprit, especially if the nuts were not roasted as part of processing.
While purchasing properly processed peanut butter can reduce your exposure, it is hard to avoid exposure to these toxins entirely.
You may also find aflatoxins contaminating grains such as corn, soy or wheat, as well as vegetable oils such as cottonseed, soybean and canola oil.
The lactic acid bacteria in kefir enable kefir to bind aflatoxins, which is the same thing as killing them (62).
So if you regularly drink kefir, you may be able to detoxify your body of aflatoxins and other fungal contaminants.
13. Kefir Has Cosmetic Benefits
Kefir may have benefits for your skin as well.
The lactic acid content of kefir can inhibit the growth of bacteria which causes acne while the lactic acid, peptides, and whey contained in kefir can lighten skin (62).
Skin lightening products can help to reduce the appearance of birthmarks, moles, and lentigo spots so that they more closely match the surrounding area of skin. This may also work with vitiligo.
Some people also lighten their skin for general aesthetic reasons (this is common in Asia).
So if you want to lighten your skin or treat acne, kefir may help you to achieve a more even skin tone and clearer skin overall.
14. Kefir Speeds up Wound Healing
The anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties of kefir have benefits for wound healing.
Kefir gel that was incubated for 96 hours "yielded superior results in terms of inflammation, scar formation, and wound re-epithelialization."
The researchers postulated that the probiotic properties of kefir might also have played a role.
Non-healing wounds are often subject to disruptions in the microbial communities, which are supposed to be present in the human body.
The probiotic qualities of kefir may normalize these disruptions, restoring a healthy balance.
This, in turn, facilitates swift wound healing.
14. Kefir May Treat Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms
If you have ever attempted to quit nicotine cold turkey, you know that the withdrawal symptoms can be quite intense.
A few problematic symptoms include anxiety, depression, and issues with cognitive impairment.
One animal study (64) looked into whether kefir would be able to help alleviate any of these symptoms due to its high tryptophan content.
Human research is still required to prove anything definitive, but the initial results from the animal trials are promising.
The researchers concluded that kefir could indeed theoretically be incorporated into a diet for patients suffering from nicotine withdrawal symptoms, and may effectively help to reduce anxiety, cognitive impairment, and depression.
15. Kefir Can Improve Cognitive Function and Possibly Reverse Dementia
You now know that it is possible that kefir can reduce problems with cognitive function associated with nicotine withdrawal.
But it may be that those benefits are more general.
An animal study (65) tested the retention of spatial training on rats, and concluded "Oral administration of kefir can improve spatial learning and consolidation of memory in rat."
Another study (66), also on rats, noted that acetic acid bacteria like those found in kefir contain alkali-stable lipids (ASL) which may be able to reverse the cognitive decline associated with dementia.
These results warrant further studies on human participants. But for now, the results are promising.
16. Kefir Can Fight the Effects of Aging
Aging and age-related diseases are strongly linked to damage from oxidative stress (67).
Both milk and soymilk kefir are high in antioxidants, so much so that they may be 'among the more promising food components in terms of preventing mutagenic and oxidative damage' (68).
This means they may help to prevent a range of age-related diseases such as cancer or dementia, and may also serve to extend lifespan.
Now that you know all about the amazing health benefits of kefir, let’s go over a few basic kefir recipes you can enjoy at home.
First, I will teach you how you can make your own raw milk or water kefir, and then I will share a few additional recipes with you.
How to Make Raw Milk Kefir
This is a basic recipe for making about 2 cups of raw milk kefir.
- 1-2 tablespoons milk kefir grains
- 2 cups of fresh milk (you can use any kind of milk you want; it does not have to be cow’s milk. You can even go with a vegan option like rice milk)
- Pour the kefir grains into a glass jar.
- Add milk until the jar is about three quarters full.
- Stir the milk and grains with a plastic or wooden spoon.
- Cover the jar.
- Do something else for 24 hours. The mixture will gradually sour and thicken.
- Strain the kefir to remove the liquid from the grains.
- If you wash the fermenting jar and store the grains, you can use them again.
- Drink the kefir, or put it in the fridge and chill it.
If you prefer, you can also store it at room temperature for a couple of days (make sure you cover it so it remains uncontaminated). You can then chill it and serve it.
Many people prefer the flavor of milk kefir after it has had some time to sit like this.
This process also allows some time for biosynthesis, leading to a higher folic acid and vitamin B content.
How to Make Water Kefir
This is a basic recipe for making water kefir.
Water kefir is less expensive than milk kefir, and some people find it easier to drink. It is versatile and goes great in many recipes.
It is of course a great option if you are avoiding dairy (though rice or soy milk kefir work for that as well).
- 1/3 cup water kefir grains
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 5-6 cups filtered water
- Lemon or vanilla extract to taste (optional)
- Pour a cup of water into a pot and add the sugar.
- Heat the mixture to a near boil, but make sure it does not actually boil. Your goal is to dissolve the sugar.
- Turn off the heat and wait for this mixture to cool.
- Now add 3 more cups of water. Transfer the mixture to a glass jar.
- Add another 1-2 cups of water.
- Add the kefir grains. Cover the jar with a lid.
- Wait 24 hours as the mixture thickens and sours.
- Strain the water to separate it from the grains. Make sure that you are using a plastic strainer (not a metal one).
- Add lemon or vanilla extract to the mixture if you want to enhance the flavor.
Note that you can reuse the kefir grains, so save them for another round.
Did you notice you have to add sugar to this version but not to the milk version? That is because the kefir bacteria are feeding on the lactose in the milk, which is a sugar.
How to Make Kefir Frozen Yogurt
Here is a recipe for a delicious, healthy frozen dessert made out of kefir. This may be an excellent way to eat kefir if you are usually bothered by the sour taste.
- 225 ml plain unsweetened yogurt
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 bottle of milk kefir
- 1 cup half & half
- 1 egg yolk
- Nuts (optional)
- Berries of your choice (optional)
For this recipe, you also need an ice cream maker.
- Start by stirring the half and half, sugar, and yogurt into a pot.
- Heat to a near boil while continuing to stir until the sugar dissolves.
- Add the egg yolk and whisk it in.
- Pour in the milk kefir and continue to stir.
- Remove from heat and cover.
- Put the pot inside the refrigerator.
- Wait 5-10 minutes for the mixture to cool in the fridge.
- Remove from fridge and pour the mixture into your ice cream maker.
- Finish making your frozen yogurt in the ice cream maker; it should take around 20 minutes.
- Add berries and nuts to the top as you like.
How to Make Kefir Cheese
Here is one of the simplest kefir recipes you are going to find; there is only one ingredient needed!
- 4 cups of milk kefir
Additionally, you will need 1 cheese cloth, a plastic strainer, and a glass jar.
- Place the cheese cloth in the strainer, then place the strainer in the glass jar.
- Pour the milk kefir inside.
- The cheesecloth and strainer will capture the solid matter. The whey (liquid) will drip through into the jar.
- Walk away for 12-24 hours while this process continues.
- After the dripping stops, look inside the cheesecloth, and you will find kefir cheese.
- Remove the cheese and put it inside an airtight container.
- Refrigerate the cheese.
Do not throw away the whey; store it in the fridge in a separate glass jar. You will find it useful for making fermented drinks.
As a tart and creamy cheese, kefir cheese is sometimes likened a bit to goat cheese in flavor. It can also be described as sitting somewhere between cream cheese and sour cream in terms of taste.
How to Make Strawberry Kefir Smoothie
Here is a simple, smooth, sweet recipe for a healthy kefir beverage you are going to love.
- 1 cup of kefir
- ½ cup of strawberries (fresh or frozen)
- 1-2 tablespoons of honey
- Ice cubes (optional)
- Add all the ingredients to a blender.
- Blend everything together until the mixture is smooth.
- Pour it into a glass, and it’s ready to drink.
This recipe makes about two servings. Once you learn how to make it, you will have a pretty good idea how you can alter the recipe to make other types of kefir smoothies using other fruits (blueberries, bananas, etc.). The basics are pretty much the same.
Q: How much kefir water/milk should I drink?
Around 1-2 cups of kefir water or kefir milk per day is a good amount to aim for.
If you have difficulty with this, you can start out by drinking less and work your way up to that amount.
Alternately, if you are having a hard time with the milk kefir (because it is so heavy), you can consider switching to the water kefir. You may find you can drink more of it.
Q: Why do I experience side effects when I drink kefir?
First of all, if you are drinking milk kefir and you happen to be lactose intolerant, or you have a milk allergy, that would produce side effects.
If that is the case, stick with soy or rice milk or another form of milk you can tolerate, or drink water kefir.
You may also notice that you experience some digestive side effects when you drink kefir, even water kefir.
You might have loose stools, bloating, queasiness, or general discomfort in your digestive tract. Headaches and general body aches sometimes manifest as well.
You should not find these side effects concerning, even though they are unpleasant.
The healthy bacteria in the kefir are in the process of getting rid of the unhealthy bacteria in your gut and creating a healthier balance.
That transition can be uncomfortable (you may experience similar side effects with yogurt or other probiotic products), but it usually means progress is being made.
Over time, you will probably notice a decrease in these symptoms as your body adjusts to a healthier balance of gut flora.
In the meantime, you can reduce the kefir dosage and increase it as your body adjusts.
Q: How can I store kefir grains?
You can re-use kefir grains.
To do this, you will need to store them. Begin by rinsing them with un-chlorinated water.
Next, you will have to dry them, so put them on a piece of unbleached parchment paper. Let them dry there for 3-5 days. In a humid climate, you may need more time.
After the grains are dry, transfer them into an airtight plastic bag (you can also use a sealed glass jar). Add a bit of dry milk powder (enough to cover them).
Finally, put the sealed bag or jar inside the freezer. The grains should keep for up to two months.
Q: How can I revive kefir grains?
Sometimes kefir grains develop issues.
They may get slimy or syrupy, develop a white film, shrink, or start to smell odd. This usually means that something has gone wrong involving contamination, nutritional deprivation or overcrowding.
You may be able to save these grains and restore them to their normal productivity and health.
Start by rinsing the grains - something you should only do when rehabilitating them.
You can do this inside a shallow bowl of water with the help of a plastic strainer.
You can lightly brush them around with your fingers to loosen up and remove yeast or contaminants from the surface of the grains.
Pour out the cloudy water and then rinse them again. Do this until you get water that is more or less clear.
Next, get a glass jar and placing some sugar water inside (the sugar needs to be fully dissolved).
You may find it useful to add some minerals. Options you can try include unrefined sea salt, baking soda, unsulfured blackstrap molasses, or liquid mineral supplement.
Add the kefir grains to the jar and cover it. Put them in the fridge for 1-2 weeks. Allow the grains to rest and nourish themselves.
Finally, remove the kefir grains from the resting solution of sugar water. Put them in a new sugar water solution to see if they have recovered.
If not, you can try repeating the process a second time. Sometimes this is enough to get them back on form.
Q: How long do kefir grains last?
If they are being stored in the freezer, you can keep them that way for a couple of months.
If you are actively feeding and straining them every 24 hours, they can last indefinitely.
Q: Where did the first kefir grain come from?
Bizarrely enough, nobody knows.
They seem to have originated in the Northern Caucasus Mountains. There are myths and legends, but no hard historical or scientific data.
What Is a Kefir Culture Starter Kit?
As you have probably ascertained, kefir is something of a commitment if you want to keep it alive.
You need to be feeding and straining it every 24 hours if you want to keep re-using the grains.
You can freeze them for up to a couple of months, but then you need to resume the daily feeding and straining unless you want to replace them.
If you do not want to keep up with this process, you might consider buying a powdered kefir starter culture instead.
This is a single use item, though it may be re-cultured several times. Make sure to re-culture within 7 days if you want to get the best results.
After that, you have to buy new powdered kefir.
While kefir grains obviously are more cost-effective over the long run, it makes more sense to buy the single-use powder cultures if you are only going to be drinking kefir occasionally.
Which product is right for you?
That depends entirely on how committed you are to drinking and caring for kefir.
If you only will have kefir now and again, go with the starter kit. If you want to drink kefir every day, then go with kefir grains.
Recommended Kefir Products
When it comes to buying kefir products, remember that quality is more important than volume.
You will be able to reuse the same kefir time and again, so one package which includes enough for you to use each day should last you indefinitely.
What is important is a high-quality mixture of live active cultures - just like when you purchase yogurt.
Shop for an organic product. If there are additional ingredients (i.e. milk powder, sugar), make sure they are non-GMO.
You may want to pay special attention to the customer service for kefir products. Why? It is very common to screw up your first batch or have questions. Knowing a team is standing by to answer those questions can make a big difference.
Here are a few kefir products we recommend:
- Water Kefir Grains by Cultures For Health
- Milk Kefir Grains by Cultures For Health
- Kefir Grains by Lifetime Kefir
- Yogourmet Freeze-Dried Kefir Starter Kit
Kefir is good for your health.
The probiotics and yeasts in milk kefir are more plentiful and varied than those found in yogurt, and research consistently shows that these compounds have health benefits.
Water kefir also contains beneficial bacteria and yeasts.
You can purchase commercially made kefir or make it yourself at home with “starter” grains.
Powdered bacteria cultures are also available to ferment your own kefir, but these will not live indefinitely the way grains will.
If you’re not used to the sour taste of kefir, you can add honey or fruit. You can find hundreds of recipes online for making your kefir taste amazing.
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