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The Many Wonders of Kefir

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I first learned about kefir a few years ago when my mom and I were shopping at Whole Foods and saw it in the dairy section. She had heard of it…that it was similar to yogurt but drinkable…and that it contained healthy probiotics. At this time I was just starting to learn about the importance of probiotics and having enough healthy flora in the gut, but I am not a huge yogurt fan so I let her purchase it and I passed.

She started mixing it with healthy whole grains and fruit for breakfast and adding it into her fruit smoothies and she soon reported that she noticed a huge improvement in her digestion and how she felt overall.

I still had not tried it, because the idea of drinkable yogurt still did not appeal to me, and I also am not a huge milk fan; so the idea of a yogurt/milk hybrid-type beverage was just not doing it for me.

My mind started to change…

In my own personal journey back to wellness, I learned a lot about probiotic nutrition and the importance of fermented food in keeping the digestive tract working well and keeping the immune system strong. I also became dairy-free (for the most part), and learned to substitute nut milks, nutritional yeast, and other natural non-dairy products into my meals. Since I now had all these dairy-free options, and I was already taking funky-tasting liquid probiotic supplements, I decided that it was time to experiment with making my own kefir.

There are non-dairy kefirs available, but they often contain added sugar (which I also don’t want in my diet) and they are quite pricey. They are also pasteurized, which kills all the “good” bacteria along with the bad, so they do not offer as much of a health benefit as one you would make yourself from a live culture. Plus, I’m all about experimenting with cooking and preparing new foods these days and I figured this would be a good foray into fermented foods.

I purchased a kefir starter kit from Body Ecology and several unsweetened nut milks as well as pure coconut water. I started with a batch of almond milk kefir and coconut water kefir and was pleasantly surprised that it was a success! I gave it to my kids with their breakfast, and they both enjoyed it more than milk (and were relieved that they didn’t have to take the other yucky-tasting probiotic), and I used it as a base for my green smoothies instead of water. I found I enjoyed the extra bit of sweet tartness it added to my smoothie, and my husband (not a smoothie fan at all) even said he could see himself having the smoothie made with the kefir. So I’m going to keep making it and trying out different milks to see what I like best.

Why kefir?

Kefir is a fermented milk product that is made with live active cultures (similar to those found in yogurt) as well as beneficial yeasts which help keep the not-so-beneficial yeasts (Candida albicans) in check. Dairy kefir is easier for people to digest than milk or even yogurt, since the lactose and milk protein (casein) are digested by the friendly bacteria and beneficial yeasts during the fermentation process. It also contains enzymes that help us digest any remaining and lactose. Even though many typically dairy-intolerant people can digest milk kefir, some still have difficulty. That is why it is great that it can be made with non-dairy milks and coconut water.

Kefir is very nutritious as well. It is very high in essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus which are easily absorbed by the body since they are partially digested in the fermentation process. This is not the case with regular milk or even yogurt. It is also rich with amino acids, and Vitamins B1, B12, biotin, and Vitamin K. These nutrients work together with other vitamins we get from food to help them absorb more effectively.

Kefir can also help aid common digestive issues such as excessive gas, IBS, constipation, diarrhea, and intestinal disorders. It also promotes an overall healthier digestive tract, which can strengthen immunities and improve the overall health of the entire body.

Start slowly.

When adding fermented foods or probiotics to your diet in general, it is important to start slowly. Some people report discomfort such as bloating and digestive issues when they first start on kefir. This is because when the new friendly flora are “moving in” and kicking out the not-so-friendly inhabitants of the digestive tract, a detoxification/cleansing occurs. The symptoms will subside, but it is better to start with small doses, like one tablespoon in the morning, and gradually increase to 1 cup two to three times a day.

Kefir is very versatile.

Other than in breakfast cereals and smoothies, kefir can be used in several ways. It is fantastic in dips in place of cream cheese, mixed into a hummus or tzatziki, or in homemade salad dressings. It can also be blended with fruits and frozen as ice pops or if you happen to have an ice cream maker, it makes a fabulous and smooth ice cream.


Extra kefir tips:

Kefir is very easy to make at home (make sure you follow the manufacturer’s directions on the culture starter EXACTLY and sterilize all pots, utensils, jars, lids, tongs and anything else the kefir will come into contact with thoroughly to prevent pathogenic bacteria from entering the batch), and it is very inexpensive to do so. If you are buying it from the store, make sure you are buying a high quality preferably organic kefir with no additives, and try to find one that is unpasteurized (this is tricky in the US).

If you are making a non-dairy kefir, make sure you buy one that does contain some sugar (vanilla or original formula milks contain some sugar). The cultures need to digest the sugars as part of the fermentation process. I made the mistake of making a batch with unsweetened almond milk and it did not ferment properly. I ended up with lumps of unfermented bacteria in spoiled almond milk. That culture could not be used to make the next batch and the whole thing went to waste. So if you are using a homemade nut milk or an unsweetened packaged milk, you will need to add a little sugar. See the manufacturer’s instructions/FAQs for more details.

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About Rachael Pontillo

  • Natalie

    Pasteurized kefir does not necessarily mean that the probiotics are dead, Lifeway kefir uses pasturized milk, then cultures it – so it’s pasteurized, but the probiotics are very much alive when they’re consumed. I also wanted to point out that probiotics don’t survive in non-dairy beverages – so those probiotic juices, soy drinks and coconut drinks are basically a waste.

    • Hristina

      I don’t know, so don’t quote me on this, but when you make sauerkraut (in which the ingredients are only cabbage and salt), it ferments and contain probiotics. Not the same strains as in fermented dairy, but it still contains probiotics, which remains alive at the right temps. So probiotics can stay alive in non-dairy, but not necessarily the same strains?

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/rachael-pontillo/ Rachael Pontillo

    They can survive fine in non-dairy batches if you make them at home and are very effective…but I agree that the store-bought ones are probably a waste. I also agree that there are higher quality choices than others at the store but it is hard to know which is which if you are new to healthy eating and fermented foods in general. Thanks for your comment!

  • Igor

    Probiotics are useful additives to your normal gut digestive biotics, but they disappear in a couple of weeks, so regular use is required.