What is Kefir & Why is it Good or You? | U.S. Dairy

What is Kefir?

  • Article
  • August 22, 2016

What is kefir and why is it good for you?

Kefir is a fermented milk beverage that originated in the Caucasus Mountains thousands of years ago. Kefir is derived from the Turkish word” kief,” which means “good feeling.” And there’s a reason for that!

Kefir made through milk fermentation contains a variety of live and active cultures – microorganisms linked to gut health benefits. The bacteria in dairy kefir can help improve lactose digestion, making lactose easier to tolerate. Kefir is made by two types of fermentation: the fermentation of sugar via milk sugar known as lactose (lactic acid fermentation), and the fermentation of yeast via kefir grains (alcoholic fermentation). Kefir is traditionally made from cow’s milk, but it can be made with goat, sheep or buffalo milk. It is slightly thick, like a smoothie, and has a tart flavor with an effervescence like a sparkling beverage.

To understand kefir, one must know what fermented foods and probiotic foods are; let’s take closer look.

Fermented foods are made by extensive and controlled microbial growth. During fermentation, “starter cultures” of bacteria, yeast and molds convert nutrients like starch or sugar into an alcohol or acid.

Fermented foods may or may not contain live cultures – it will depend on whether they survive after the fermentation process is over. These live and active cultures can improve food safety and lengthen shelf life. Microbial growth can also enhance taste, texture, digestibility and may help improve nutritional quality. And while they’re topping the trends lists today, it’s estimated that humans have been eating fermented foods for over 10,000 years. 

What about probiotics?

Probiotics must meet the definition set forth by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization: “Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit.” Because many of the live microbes in fermented foods have not been tested for a specific health benefits, they cannot be called probiotics.

  • Fermented Food Examples: Natural cheese, tempeh, fresh kimchi, dill pickles, sauerkraut, canned sauerkraut, kombucha, most soy sauces and most wine and beer. These are not probiotic foods.
  • Probiotic Food Examples: Yogurt that specifies on the ingredient list that it contains a specific probiotics strain (e.g., B. Bacterium 12); or yogurt with live cultures L. Bulgaricus and S. Thermophilus if you are lactose intolerant. And kefir made with dairy can contain probiotics, just check the ingredient list.

 

You can read more about how to distinguish fermented foods and probiotic foods here.

Whether it is a fermented food or a fermented food that also is a probiotic food, both are options that are part of healthy eating patterns to support well-being.