Kefir is a type of fermented milk that contains about 40 different species of probiotic (health-benefiting) bacteria and yeasts and myriad other nutrients. It’s made from kefir grains which aren’t actually “grains” at all – they are little lumps of bacteria and yeast that look like tiny cauliflower florets, living together in perfect harmony, bound together in a kefiran matrix ( kefiran is a carbohydrate that provides additional health benefits too).
Although you mightn’t have heard of it until recently, the orgins of kefir lie in the distant past. The first records of its existence are from about 2000 years ago, in the Caucasus region ( between Georgia and Armenia) . Milk was kept in goat-skin bags, and from the bacteria and yeasts in the milk and skin bags, arose kefir grains and fermented milk. Apparently the grains were used for bargaining by tribes of the region. Kefir has been part of everyday life in Eastern Europe and the Middle-East since then and the kefir grains we use today are distant relatives of those same ancient cultures.
For well over a hundred years, there is thought to have been a link between fermented foods, gut bacteria and health. Here is the west, however, we have chosen to ignore this, preferring to preserve, mass produce and process our way into the 21st century. Finally, however, it seems that some of us are realising that it’s easy to put this right!
Kefir is a relative of that most famous fermented milk; yoghurt – but it contains many more types of bacteria that yogurt which typically has between 2 – 4; think yoghurt on speed J. It’s also much easier to make as it works at room temperature and unlike yoghurt, doesn’t need the milk preheated to denature the milk proteins. Your kefir grains will include species including Lactobacillus sp, Lactococcus sp, Leuconostoc sp, Streptococcus thermophiles, Kluyveromyces sp and Saccharomyces sp.
Within our gut exists the microbiota – that’s a population of about 2.5 kilos of many different bacteria and yeasts that play essential roles in almost all of our daily functions. There are trillions of them. Our western diet and lifestyle can mean the microbiota is not in its best state, which can affect everything from your immune system to digestive transit to state of mind. The number and diversity of microbes in kefir can help in three main ways.
- By providing a pre-digested nutrient rich food source that’s already full of bioactive peptides which are attracting much research at the moment as stimulators of the human immune system, as well as vitamins B2, B12, K, calcium and phosphorous, magnesium, zinc and some vitamin A and also D from the fortified milk.
- Survival of the passage through the upper parts of the intestines and stomachs by some of the probitoics helps to stimulate your pre-existing gut bacteria
- It is thought that some of the bacteria in kefir may actually able to colonise your gut and replace some of the less helpful types of bacteria you may have.
Hard Evidence for the benefits of kefir.
Below is my beautiful (K) hi-tech diagram showing the many potential health benefits of kefir. These have all been shown to happen “in vitro” (in a laboratory model) in at least some scientific studies, but very few effects have yet been absolutely proven or disproven in humans. I think that that this huge array of potential benefits is what an optimally-working gut should be doing anyway so would urge you not to get too excited! I suspect that the benefits of kefir are different for everyone – depending on the state of your own personal gut flora. Anyway, several studies are underway, but they can be years in the making and sometimes people put a spin on these things depending on where the funding is coming from (cynical but true). In the meantime, if any of these benefits are real, it’s probably worth drinking 100 mL or so of kefir a day. What is exciting though, is that so much research is being done in this area. I’ve lots more information on all of these areas of research – if you would like to know something specific please do get in touch.
Everyone who regularly drinks kefir has their own anecdotal evidence for how it’s made them feel better: In this family, it’s an enormous, huge, reduction in the number of days of coughs/colds/fevers, we all have regular non-smelly bowel movements (sorry!), my son has completely stopped using his steroid inhalers for asthma and chronic rhinitis (though perhaps he’s just grown out of it). We all have a vastly reduced desire to eat chocolate, cake and sweets. I think it just raises the threshold at which you become ill, so we still are ill sometimes, but much less often.
How to make Kefir.
It works like this: the bacteria and yeasts in the kefir grains ferment milk to make kefir. When it’s done, the grains are removed and put in fresh milk to make another batch. In the meantime you can eat/drink the kefir you have already made. Simples, right (unless you are my husband )?…
Click here for instructions for making milk kefir.
And then click here for fine tuning and troubleshooting the kefir-making process.