Welcome to a place all about kefir. Kefir is a probiotic drink with lots of health benefits. Despite having been around for hundreds of years, kefir is still relatively unheard of in the UK. If you’re new to kefir and are curious about what it is, what it does and where to get it, you’re in the right place.
On this page we’ve put together an overview of all the essentials you need to know about kefir. If you are still little confused at the end, don’t worry—we have plenty more information about kefir elsewhere on this site. A lot of what we discuss here is explained in more detail in other articles.
What is kefir?
Kefir is a fermented drink normally made using milk. It’s quite similar to a yoghurt drink, but has a slightly lumpy texture and a mild fizziness. Kefir is thought to have originated in the Caucasus Mountains region, and is popular in Russia and Eastern Europe. It has only recently achieved some popularity in Western Europe and North America as a result of its health properties.
Kefir is an excellent source of probiotics, or good bacteria, which can have numerous health benefits including improving digestion, skin quality, fighting bad bacteria and reducing inflammation.
What does kefir taste like?
Kefir has quite a distinctive taste. It is slightly sour and has a creamy texture. Many people find kefir very refreshing and liken it to drinkable Greek yoghurt. Unlike some yoghurt drinks, kefir doesn’t have a sugary, sweet taste. That’s because there is very little sugar in kefir. Now, this can make kefir a little difficult to drink at first, but the taste quickly grows on you and kefir really becomes rather moreish.
Of course, thanks to the lack of sugar in kefir, it is also a fantastic dairy replacement for people on diets. Anyone looking for a healthy alternative to dairy products such as yoghurt will love kefir. It offers the same full-feeling that milk products provide but it is a lot better for you thanks to the lack of sugar and healthy bacteria that it contains.
Before you open your bottle of kefir, give it a good shake. As you open it, you may notice a slight fizzing noise. This is completely normal and nothing to worry about. In fact, this fizzing is in keeping with traditional kefir and the reason why kefir is often called the champagne of yoghurt drinks! The fizzing is caused by the yeasts in the kefir that produce CO2.
Types of kefir
There are two main types of kefir: milk and water kefir.
This is the most traditional type of kefir. Milk kefir is traditionally made by combining milk kefir grains with a dairy milk such as cow milk, goat milk or sheep milk. However, you can also use milk substitutes such as coconut, soy and rice milk.
Water kefir is made by combining water kefir grains (which are different to milk kefir grains) with a liquid containing sugar such as sugar water, coconut water or fruit juice. The sugar acts as a fuel for the good bacteria, helping them replicate.
Water kefir grains, also known as tibicos, are dairy-free, so water kefir is a good choice for vegans and others who want to enjoy the benefits of kefir without consuming dairy.
Can lactose intolerant people drink kefir?
Kefir could be a great drink to replace milk if you are lactose intolerant. As kefir is fermented, like yoghurt, it contains a load of bacteria that aid lactose digestion, and it generally doesn’t cause symptoms of lactose intolerance like milk would. Kefir actually has more good bacteria than yoghurt so it is more beneficial to you and your digestion system than yoghurt or milk. Although both yoghurt and kefir are great sources of potassium, calcium and protein, kefir contains a far wider array of digestion-boosting bacteria than yoghurt.
During a recent study explained here, a group of 15 women and men, all who were lactose intolerant but otherwise healthy, we were given five test foods to eat: 2% milk, plain kefir, plain yoghurt, raspberry-flavoured kefir and raspberry-flavoured yoghurt. They ate each test food after a 12 hour fast. Eight hours later, they began hourly tests to measure the hydrogen in their breath. This is the measure of too much gas in the digestive tract. They were also asked to note any symptoms of lactose intolerance they had during the 8-hour period.
When the results came in, it was great news for kefir! The people in this study reported few or no symptoms after sampling the yoghurt and the kefir-style yoghurt. Gas was the only thing they reported. However, when drinking kefir, the participants of the study reported half as much gas compared with drinking milk. They had also lowered the hydrogen levels in their breath too.
While kefir is usually made with dairy milk, lactose-free alternatives are widely available. Non-dairy versions of kefir are typically made of rice milk, coconut milk or coconut water.
The origins of kefir
Nobody knows exactly when and where the first kefir grains originated. It’s thought that kefir originated in the Caucasus Mountains region, which forms the border between Russia and Georgia.
Kefir probably originated as a culinary accident. The mysterious thing about kefir is that nobody knows how to create kefir grains from scratch. The kefir grains we have today have all been propagated from older strains, possibly dating back to when kefir was first consumed.
One theory is that the first kefir grains originated as bacteria in the mouth or digestive system of a sheep! Another theory mentioned here is that kefir grains arose spontaneously in goatskin bags used to ferment milk.
Legends in the Caucasian Mountains region say that kefir was a gift from the gods. The Caucasus region is known for having one of the highest percentages of centenarians in the world. Some people think kefir might contribute to their longevity, but there’s no evidence for this.
Etymology of kefir
According to Miriam Webster, the word ‘kefir’ has been used in Russian since at least 1884, though kefir itself is probably much older than this.
The etymology of the word ‘kefir’ is unknown, but it’s thought to come from the Old Turkic word köpür, meaning “milk froth” (source). Some websites say it comes from a Turkish word meaning “good feeling”, though we couldn’t find an authoritative source for this.
How is kefir made?
Kefir is traditionally made by combining kefir grains with whole cow, sheep or goat milk. Kefir grains are not actually grains at all, they just look a bit like grains. Kefir grains are a delicious combination of bacteria and yeasts living on a substrate that is made up of a variety of dairy components.
The kefir grains are soaked in milk, covered and left to ferment while the good bacteria grows. After about 24 hours the grains are strained out, leaving drinkable kefir. The grains can be kept and used to produce more kefir in the future.
The health benefits of kefir
Here’s a quick breakdown of all the health benefits that kefir has and why you should be drinking it!
Kefirs health benefits include the following:
- Excellent source of loads of nutrients
- Powerful probiotic, even more powerful than yoghurt
- Antibacterial properties
- Can improve bone health
- Helps with various digestive problems
- May help relieve symptoms of asthma and certain allergies
- May prevent cancer
This is just a quick look at the health benefits of kefir; we have a much more detailed page about the health benefits of kefir here.
Where can you buy kefir?
Kefir isn’t as widely available as yoghurt and yoghurt drinks, but it’s becoming easier to get hold of all the time.
Here are a few places you can buy kefir in the UK:
- Supermarkets: Larger supermarkets usually sell kefir, though you might find it in the Polish/Eastern European food section rather than with yoghurt or health foods.
- Health food shops: Health food shops often sell kefir—look in the refrigerated section.
- Online: You can order kefir grains online to make your own kefir
Can you make your own kefir?
Yes! Making your own kefir is quite straightforward as long as you have some kefir grains. It’s not possible to make kefir grains from scratch, but you can order kefir grains for about £5-£15 online – see where to get them here.
Things to do with kefir
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you may think that kefir isn’t the product for you due to its slightly sour taste. However, you can buy kefir that is sweetened with fruit. Or, you can add your own fruit to kefir for a delicious breakfast. You can also use kefir in a smoothie where you can create any number of fruity numbers that provide the perfect balance of sweet, natural and healthy! If that still isn’t enough sugar for you, try adding some honey to your kefir for even more naturally occurring goodness and a touch of sweetness.
Kefir can be used in all these ways and plenty more. In fact, this is only really touching the surface of what kefir can be used for. We have plenty of other uses for kefir in other articles, from baking to protein shakes, kefir has a place in just about everything.
One final use for kefir that we’ll mention here is really just a by-product of the drink itself. Drinking kefir regularly helps to reduce cravings for sugary foods! We have no idea why kefir has this ability, but it does. So, this furthers helps when dieting. Cravings can really cost you a lot on a diet, and so by including kefir into your diet (perhaps a small glass a day), you will be able to get to your goal weight in no time!