Sophia Kamveris, MS, RDN
Kefir's Health Benefits
Grocery store shelves are packed with a variety of yogurts but what about its close cousin, Kefir? More popularly found in health food stores, Kefir is a fermented beverage that can be made from sheep, buffalo, camel, goat, or cow’s milk. I’ve always struggled with the correct pronunciation, so here’s the lowdown on it. While most might accent the first syllable and say KUH-fear, it’s actually kuh-FEAR. So, now you know!
Kefir has its traditional roots from the herding regions of Russia (as far back as the 18th century) and Turkey and was a way to preserve milk for a few days for lack of refrigeration. The term kefir is derived from the word kef, which means “pleasant taste” in Turkish but ironically, it has more of an acidic taste. It’s made when a starter that is produced by the bacterial fermentation of kefir grains (a combo of yeast-like strands and lactic acid) is added to a milk base. The mixture is fermented at ambient temperatures, generally overnight. Once it sets for 24 hours, the starter is strained out so it can be reused. The characteristic aroma and flavor of kefir depends on its animal source or by the addition of sugars like honey, sucrose, or pomegranate juice.
As you know, fermented foods are rich in probiotics; substances that are believed to protect us against infections. They have been widely studied; particularly for their influence on gastrointestinal (AKA, gut) health. Kefir grains contain up to 61 strains of bacteria and yeast, including its own unique bacterium called Lactobacillus kefiri, which may help to protect us against Salmonella, Helicobacter pylori and E. coli bacteria.
Along with its probiotic benefits, Kefir exhibits many health benefits owing to its antimicrobial, anticancer, and anti-diabetic effects. The microbiota may also have anti-viral, immune boosting effects that suppress infections from viruses. A recent research article entitled Kefir: A protective dietary supplementation against viral infection, (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33186795/) notes that the antiviral properties of kefir may play a role in reducing the 'cytokine storm' that contributes to COVID-19. Cytokines are proteins that are secreted by specific cells of the immune system— they help to boost anti-inflammatory activity by stimulating the movement of healing cells towards sites of inflammation, infection and trauma in the body.
And like its dairy counterparts, kefir is a good source of calcium, magnesium, and potassium, which have a role in bone and heart health. Lactose intolerant individuals can often tolerate kefir and yogurt better than milk as the lactose sugar molecule is broken down into lactic acid bacteria, reducing the lactose load. As a result of the fermentation, very little lactose remains in kefir.
There are plenty of varieties to try out on the market, but feel free to experiment with some recipes on the Internet and make your own homemade kefir to you own liking.
In good health,