While looking in the dairy case at your local market, you may have seen kefir on the shelf next to the yogurt. If you wondered what it is and whether you should give it a try, we have the scoop!
Shelby Miller, MS, Natural Grocers’ Manager of Scientific Affairs & Nutrition Education, explains, “Both yogurt (regular and Greek) and kefir are essentially fermented milk products that can be flavored in several different ways. Both provide beneficial probiotic bacteria to support our health.”
Regular yogurt is made by adding live cultures to warm milk. The warm liquid is ideal for allowing the bacteria to grow and thicken to create yogurt. Regular yogurt has more whey (a liquid containing natural sugar) than Greek yogurt. It has more calcium and probiotics than Greek yogurt.
Greek yogurt is also cultured milk, but it is usually thicker, creamier, and has a tarter taste than regular yogurt due to the absence of whey. The whey removal results in Greek yogurt having less sugar and more protein per serving than regular yogurt.
Kefir is also cultured but it is done at room temperature using kefir grains, which combine bacteria and yeast. Kefir grains (which resemble cauliflower and are not like typical cereal grains) contain bacteria and yeast. Because of the natural yeasts, kefir can have a fizzy texture. Kefir grains can be used to ferment sheep, goat, coconut, cow, soy, or rice milk to make kefir milk. Kefir milk (the most popular form of kefir), is thin and drinkable. It has a sour taste, which some describe as a cross between regular yogurt and buttermilk. Kefir has more probiotics than either regular yogurt or Greek yogurt.
Kefir has actually been around for a long time. A popular drink in Europe and Asia, it has recently caught on in the United States.
Scott Hirst, co-owner of Live Kefir Company, explains, “I think kefir has gotten more popular because a lot more people, especially the younger generations, are looking to improve their health in all sorts of different ways, looking at different cultures and other countries around the world, and taking bits from their diets which improve health.”
As more people have added kefir to their diet, grocers have expanded the product offerings beyond just kefir milk. “There are many kinds of kefir,” says Miller, “Kefir yogurt, kefir soda, kefir water, even kefir lotion. You can even make your own kefir such as with one of the kefir starter kits, just like sourdough starters – a practice that also gained popularity in 2020.”
A comparison of nutritional labels shows that yogurt and kefir are fairly similar in calories, fat, and protein. Miller says, “I don’t think either is better or worse – rather they’re different and can both be supportive of your individual health goals. Fermented foods like Kefir are supportive of the gut microbiome. All probiotics are good for our immune systems and digestion.”
Regular yogurt, Greek yogurt, and kefir are all “winners’ in different nutrient categories. If you are looking to add protein to your diet, Greek yogurt provides the most protein per serving. For people that want to add bone-building calcium, regular yogurt has the most.
But if your primary goal is to add more probiotics to your diet and you like the taste, kefir is the way to go. Hirst explains, “Generally yogurts contain far less colony-forming units of beneficial bacteria.” Kefir is said to have three times as many probiotics per serving compared to yogurt. Adds Hirsh, “Kefir grains are a living ecosystem with an extremely diverse bacteria and yeast composition. The kefir grain is quite a harsh environment, so it produces bacteria which is robust, so it can survive the stomach and reach the microbiome in our lower gut.”
Don’t worry if you prefer the taste or thickness of regular or Greek yogurt as they are both nutritious choices too. Experts advise sticking to plain yogurt since flavored yogurts (even vanilla) tend to have added sugar, additives, and food coloring. If you want a sweeter tasting yogurt, use plain as a base and then add in fresh berries or bananas, dried fruit, cinnamon or a little honey.
If you do want to try kefir, start slowly. Miller explains, “Side effects like bloating and intestinal cramping can occur. To avoid this one should start by trying a small amount (of kefir) and eventually these side effects should go away with continued use.”
For people that are intolerant to dairy, Miller says there are several non-dairy kefir varieties that are water-based, like kefir water products, or that use non-dairy milks like coconut milk.
In addition to drinking kefir, there are other ways to add it to your diet. “Great uses for kefir include adding it to smoothies, using plain kefir in a cold soup like gazpacho, and in homemade salad dressing recipes,” says Miller, “and it can serve as a leavening agent, or can replace buttermilk in baking.”