An interesting and ancient fermented food that apparently comes with a list of health benefits, yet very few downsides. But what is Kefir? And are there any precautions that should be taken when consuming it?
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What Kefir is… Technically
The name “kefir” comes from the Turkish word “keif,” which means “good feeling.” And refers to an ancient yogurt-like food that is traditionally made from milk fermented using kefir grains. Kefir grains are a specific type of mesophilic symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Or mesophilic SCOBY. Similar to what makes kombucha. The mesophilic simply refers to a SCOBY which grows best in moderate temperature. Meaning their optimum growth temperature is between 20°C and 40°C.
The grains themselves appear as a white or yellowish jellylike substance. They look very similar to cottage cheese or cooked cauliflower and range in size from about three millimeters to 30 millimeters in diameter. Contained inside the SCOBY cultures are a combination of bacteria, yeast, milk proteins and complex sugar. When fed, these cultures join with the milk and feed on its natural sugars. Allowing them to multiply while also creating the fermented drink bioproduct known as kefir.
Where do the Grains Come From?
Kefir grains are naturally occurring, living micro-organisms. They are not man-made but were rather discovered by man thousands of years ago but how they were discovered is a mystery. Although historians believe kefir originated in the Caucasus Mountains in Eastern Europe, near present-day Turkey. Kefir has even been linked to the longevity of the Caucasian people, who were known to live long and healthy lives. And because of their ability to preserve and enhance milk, Caucasian people treated the grains like precious jewels. Even wanting to keep them secret from the rest of the world.
However, at the turn of the twentieth century, stories about kefir leaked out to the Russian people. Who eventually came in possession of the grains and distributed them. From there kefir spread across the globe.
Texture and Taste
Often compared to greek yogurt, kefir has a slightly sour or tangy flavour with a thick milky texture. However, the consistency is thinner than that of greek yogurt and more like that of drinking yogurt. Sometimes your kefir may taste slightly carbonated because of the gases produced by the microbes during the fermentation process.
Although you will notice that each batch of kefir may taste a bit different. This is because the flavour will depend on many factors, such as length of time as well as the room temperature. I found with my kefir, the longer or hotter, the more fermented it would be. And as a result the more sour and sometimes fizzier it would taste.
If you want to play around with flavour you can put your homemade kefir through something of a second fermentation process. Simply strain out your yogurt as usual, and then add a natural flavour of your choice, such as banana or strawberry slices, or maybe some honey. And then let it sit overnight.
Is Kefir Lactose-Free?
You can make water kefir which won’t have any lactose in, however, the grains are very different and cannot be used as or converted to milk kefir grains. The traditional kefir is made using a type of milk. Be it dairy milk such as cows or goats, or a non-dairy option such as coconut or rice milk.
The kefir SCOBY actually consumes most of the lactose in milk during the fermentation process. So the final product will have a significantly reduced lactose content. In some cases up to 99% of the lactose is consumed. But it does not make the final product completely lactose-free. So anyone with a severe intolerance or allergy to lactose should avoid kefir. Whereas someone with a more mild intolerance, such as myself, should be able to consume kefir with no problems.
When using non-dairy milk with your kefir, your kefir will be lactose-free. However, it is important to note that the grains will still need some form of sugar to consume. So you will need to add some sugar to your milk.
Source of Vitamins and Minerals
- Magnesium: helps with nerve impulses and promotes good heart health.
- Potassium: helps our cells absorb nutrients.
- Phosphorous: assists the body in effectively storing and using energy.
- Calcium: promotes strong bones.
- Vitamin A: important for our eye health.
- B vitamins: crucial for a wide variety of things, for example, neurological health.
- Vitamin C: helps the body absorb iron and plays an important role in wound healing.
- Vitamin K: crucial for blood clotting.
Kefir contains more than 30 different species of probiotics. Which are the good bacteria that are believed to improve gut health, which in turn improves a multitude of other body functions.
Although some say that research on probiotics is still in its early stages and not yet 100% reliable. But many studies have shown positive results with kefir. And I also like to think of it in terms of the proof being in the pudding. In other words, if your body responds well to it then it’s probably doing you some good.
Here are some of the benefits that may be reaped through consuming probiotics:
- Digestive support: kefir can help with maintaining a good balance of different bacteria species within the digestive system. It also contains tryptophan, which is an amino acid with relaxing effects, believed to help the body process food.
- Weight loss: some studies have begun to link kefir consumption with assisted weight loss. This could be due to the digestive health promoted by fermented products.
- Lower Cholesterol: fermented food, in general, contains high levels of probiotics believed to aid the body’s ability to process and use cholesterol. These may also positively affect how the body produces cholesterol.
- Blood sugar control: a study involving people with type 2 diabetes showed that kefir consumption may lower fasting blood sugar levels.
- Heart health: scientists believe that the good bacteria in fermented foods like kefir may promote cardiovascular health.
- Anticancer properties: researchers suspect that kefir has the ability to inhibit the growth of tumors.
- Antibacterial properties: the good bacteria in fermented foods help the body fight against any bad bacteria floating around.
- Healthy Immune System: a healthy gut also promotes a healthy immune system.
As far as the research has shown, kefir is generally safe to consume. Provided it is made and stored safely. But it is crucial to realise that store-bought kefir could have anything in it. From added sugars to artificial flavourants and sometimes even gluten. So before you assume that having the word kefir on the packaging means it is healthy, check the label. Pay special attention to the sugar content. Especially if you are a diabetic. Also, if you are sensitive to lactose or dairy, take note of the potential lactose content. My advice, as usual, is to make your own at home. Just be sure to process and store it in a clean and safe environment.
One other notable downside is that fermented foods, such as kefir, may cause some digestive discomfort. Especially if it is the first time someone is consuming it. And some people may experience side effects like bloating and gas.
The Bottom Line
Scientists are still learning about fermented foods, and are not yet 100% sure about all the benefits and risks. What we do know, is that it has been used for thousands of years. And even been referred to as a gift from the gods.
But we also know, is that generally, our bodies will inform us of how it feels about something, provided we are listening. My experience with kefir is a good example of this. When I first started consuming kefir, I did feel a little stomach discomfort and it took me a while to get used to the sour taste. But it improved the way my body felt on so many levels. Even boosting my mood. And after just a few days of drinking it, I developed a love for the taste and even started to crave my daily dose of kefir. At one point I got a little carried away and allowed my grains to grow substantially so that I could have kefir twice or even three times a day. Following this, I would start feeling bloated and uncomfortable when I consumed it. So, even though I still loved the flavour, I went back down to once a day. And my body returned to optimal performance levels.
So give it a try, give your body a chance to become accustomed to the taste and effects. And pay attention to the little signs your body gives you. Then adjust how much kefir you consume, if any at all.