As researchers continue to discover the remarkable health benefits of probiotics, a whole new mindset on fermented foods has awakened. You may have long been into fermented vices like beer and wine, but let’s focus on healthier fermented goodies.
Probiotics for gut health have hit the market in a big way, and there’s a lot of research that supports the idea of introducing “friendly” bacteria into the gut. But, popping a daily pill (often a very expensive daily pill) doesn’t need to be the only way. There are plenty of easily accessible, and delicious, foods out there that are “probiotic” in nature.
A food item needs to be fermented to be a probiotic. That’s because the process of fermentation is all about the bacteria.
Something can’t ferment – be it wine grapes, or sauerkraut cabbage – unless bacteria is involved.
Some of the best fermented foods you can grab at your local supermarket include: yogurt, pickles, miso, sauerkraut, tempeh, sourdough bread, and kombucha. Also, certain cheeses, like cheddar and gouda, make the cut on a lesser scale, as they’re kick-started using lactic acid.
Then there’s a little somethin’ known as kefir.
What Is Kefir?
Kefir is a fermented, creamy milk drink. It’s native to the Caucasus Mountains, an area which divides Asia and Europe and was once part of the former USSR.1
While it has some similarities to a drinking yogurt, kefir is a little more sour and “fizzy.” That’s because the fermentation process produces carbon dioxide. It’s much like the fizz you’d find in kombucha.
If you’re aware of kefir, you may have heard that it’s made from “kefir grains.” However, kefir grains aren’t grains at all – they’re actually the mother of all starter cultures.
You can think of a starter culture as a substance that’s filled with microorganisms that then triggers fermentation into action. Kefir grains, which look a little like cottage cheese, are filled with millions of friendly little bacteria and yeasts.
Can I Make Kefir Grains?
Here’s where things take a cloak-and-dagger turn: You can’t make kefir grains – they must be “acquired.” Kefir “grain” is said to have been handed down over many generations, and attempts to reproduce the “grain” have continuously failed. Though you can multiply your acquired grains and pass them on, you can’t make them from scratch.
No other dairy product is cultured from anything similar, making kefir not only unique, but adding a fair amount of intrigue and mystery to the drink.
So, where in the world does one acquire this golden goose of the fermentation world? Well, like anything hard to come by – the internet. However, you’ll want to make sure you’re buying kefir grain from a legit source.
Or you can make life easier and use a powdered culture starter – though purists will insist that it only mimics real kefir and is not the real thing.
Scientists are still pondering whether all kefir grains have originated from a single original starter culture in the Caucasus Mountains.
So, for now, the mystery continues …
Is An Ancient Hand-Me-Down Mother Culture Worth The Trouble?
Yes! Kefir contains such a complex community of microorganisms that, according to scientists, it “represents one of the most unusually specific symbiotic systems in nature between bacteria and yeasts.” 2 It’s a huge microbial love fest in every glass!
So, what are some of the top benefits of kefir?
1. It’s a Good Source of Calcium
Because Kefir is made from milk, it contains a big hit of calcium. In fact, it has more calcium than yogurt.3,4 You need calcium daily to build strong, healthy bones and teeth. It also helps your blood to clot, muscles to contract, and nerves to be able to send their messages.5
2. It Has Far More Probiotics Than Yogurt
Kefir is made up of around 30 strains of friendly bacteria. This includes lactic acid bacteria, like Lactobacillus and Lactococcus, and sometimes acetic acid bacteria.
Kefir contains around three times more probiotic bacteria than yogurt. That’s because kefir is fermented with up to 20 different types of bacteria and yeasts, while yogurt uses only a few.6
Lactobacillus kefiri is completely unique to kefir, and it has proven to be quite the warrior microbe. In one study, it showed that it may prevent the growth of such bad guys as salmonella (which causes food poisoning), Streptococcus (which causes strep throat), and prevotella (which causes infections in wounds, the urinary tract, and the gums).7
3. It’s Rich in Disease-Fighting Yeasts
Kefir also stands out from yogurt because it contains a large population of yeasts. This is completely exclusive to kefir, and the yeast seem to function in perfect harmony with the bacteria. They even boost their probiotic effects.
A commonly found yeast, S. boulardii, has shown that it may improve stomach bugs caused by Clostridium. It may also reduce irritation in the gut, which is a trigger for many chronic conditions.8
Bacteria rely on these yeasts so badly that, though kefir grain is very stable, it completely crumbles if yeasts are removed. This is part of the reason why kefir grains are impossible to make –their structure (and this relationship) is so complex that it can’t be replicated.
4. It May Be Tolerated by the Lactose Intolerant
Studies have shown that, like yogurt, kefir may be tolerated by those suffering from lactose intolerance issues.9 This is because the bacteria help to digest the lactose in the milk. Because kefir has a broader range of probiotics and nutrients than yogurt, it may be the better alternative.10
Can I Make My Own Kefir?
Absolutely. It’s really very simple.
Kefir is traditionally made with cow’s milk, but it can also be made from goat, sheep, or buffalo milk. In fact, you can even make soy or coconut kefir. So, pick your poison.
- Place your recently acquired “kefir grains” into a glass jar, then fill with milk.
- Screw on the lid and store it in a cool, dark place for 12-18 hours.
- Strain the kefir liquid, leaving the grains behind in the strainer (cheesecloth is great for this).
- Place the finished kefir in the fridge.
- Don’t throw out those magical grains! You will reuse them again. No rinsing necessary, and if you do, NEVER rinse with chlorinated water … or it’s bye, bye good bacteria.
- Every time you make kefir, your “grains” will grow, and you’ll be able to pass them on to friends and family!
Kefir grains need to be cared for. You can store them in milk, in the fridge, for several weeks without using them. But then, get them back at it!
Make It Your Own
Kefir can be an acquired taste. So, if you aren’t sold on the flavor, blend it up with some fruit or honey. Berries work great. As with milk and yogurt, you can make it your own by experimenting with flavors and ingredients.
Now, time to get “grain” sleuthing.
For more health wisdom from Eastern philosophies and the Urban Monk, keep reading here:
10.Devlin, N. River Cottage Gluten Free; Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books