Food Fad Friday: Getting Cultured with Kefir

The fermentation craze is still going strong!  We are officially obsessed with—gasp!—rotting food, and for good reason; fermented foods are tasty and good for the gut because they contain probiotics, a group of living cultures that help balance the intestinal flora. You may have heard of kefir. After all, it’s been hanging out with the popular fermented crowd now for a while; but do you really know kefir?

What It Is

Originating in the Middle East, the name kefir is believed to mean “feel good” in Turkish. Kefir is sour, foamy, and creamy, but slightly thinner in consistency than yogurt. It is not a sweet drink in its pure form, but several kinds can be found in the market today, some with added sweeteners and flavors.

Kefir is made by adding kefir grains to any type of milk. Similar to a starter dough for bread, kefir grains are a cauliflower-like mixture of live yeast, bacteria, and sugars that ferment milk, leaving behind probiotics—live cultures that are beneficial to the health. Fermentation is the breakdown of sugars by yeast that results in the formation of gas, alcohol, and even small amounts of vitamin B12 and riboflavin. Although alcohol is a byproduct of the process, most kefir sold in the supermarket today is non-alcoholic. Additionally, because the kefir grains ferment milk, the majority of lactose is broken down, making the drink usually well tolerated by those who are lactose intolerant, although tolerance will vary by individual.

What the Hype’s All About and What Studies Have FoundKefir

According to the Natural Medicines Database, people use kefir for indigestion, lactose intolerance, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, and high cholesterol levels in the blood, but these are only anecdotal uses, not scientifically proven. A research review by Prado et al. states that kefiran, the main sugar in kefir, has also been found to have antitumor, antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

Research is still mixed on whether kefir helps with antibiotic-related diarrhea or if it has any effect on cholesterol levels. However, studies are proving to be a little more promising when it comes to kefir and gut health. One study by Unno et al. found that drinking kefir “ … could alter microbial community structure in the human GI tract, simultaneously maintaining the stability of microbiota.” Studies have also found kefir to boost the immune system, while reducing inflammation in the gut.

Should I Stock Up Now?

When it comes to kefir, more studies need to be done to determine its true benefits. Although some studies found it’s good for the gut, there is still a need for more science to back up some of the alleged benefits. In the meantime, look for other foods that do have proven health benefits like yogurt, lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Even though kefir may not yet be a cure-all, there are still important nutritional benefits to consuming it. One 8 oz. serving of low-fat, plain kefir contains an average of only 110 calories but has 11 g of protein, and a good dose of calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B12, magnesium, and vitamin D.

So whether you are drinking kefir for the taste or the health benefits, because it’s chock-full of nutrients, you can’t go wrong.

This blog post was written by Sunamita da Silva, Sodexo Dietetic Intern.

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