Is Kefir healthy? Should you be having it?

September 9, 2019

You may have seen the latest ‘buzz product’ on your supermarket shelves or heard people talk about the ‘sour milk’ that’s good for you – so what is it and does it live up to the hype? Is kefir healthy?

What is kefir?

Kefir is a fermented milk drink; it tastes a little like sour yoghurt and has a bit of fizz to it due to its fermentation. Kefir came from the mountainous areas below Russia (known as Causcaus) and people have been drinking it for centuries. (1)

How is kefir made?

kefir grains on a blue dish
kefir grains: kefir’s starter culture

Kefir is made with a starter culture – kefir grains – gooey little white grains full of bacteria that are mixed with milk to start the fermentation process. The lactobacillus bacteria eat away at the milk sugars and ferments them, just like in wine or beer.

What are the benefits of kefir?

Apart from the benefits you get from milk (calcium, protein and a whole lot of micronutrients) there does seem to be the following POSSIBLE benefits from the kefir. Like in many studies, initially research is conducted on animals to make sure it is safe for humans. Keep in mind that we cannot assume any that benefits seen in animals (rats/mice) will also be seen in humans

Possible benefit 1 – Anti-inflammatory / healing properties:

One study done in mice showed using the kefir grains as a topical (directly on skin) treatment increased healing on burns or tissue damage. (2)

Possible benefit 2 – Cholesterol lowering properties:

One study compared women with high cholesterol drinking each day either:
– 2 cups of low-fat milk
– 4 cups of low-fat milk or
– 4 serves of kefir

Both the kefir group and the ‘4 cups of milk’ group had significantly decreased cholesterol levels. At this stage is it unknown whether kefir either decreases absorption of cholesterol or changes how it is used in the body. It is also unclear whether it was just dairy improving cholesterol levels or whether the milk just took the place of displaced other cholesterol increasing foods. (3)

Possible benefit 3 – Anticarcinogenic properties:

Kefir may increase the cell death (apoptosis) of cancer cells and act as an antioxidant. Studies have been done in both animal and human models. These studies have shown positive results in colonic cancers, leukaemia, breast and connective tissue cancers (sarcoma). However, it is early days and no recommendations have been devised. It is certainly not a treatment for cancer. (4)

Possible benefit 4 – Improvements in gut health:

The bacteria in kefir are probiotic, meaning it can have a positive benefit on our gut bacteria, decreasing diarrhoea, bloating and possible even the incidence of IBS.  

Possible benefit 5 – Improve ability to absorb lactose:

Kefir itself is very low in lactose as its’ bacteria digests the sugar. Additionally, a small human study indicated that kefir also improves our ability to digest lactose. (6)

**Remember**, most of these benefits have not yet been shown in humans yet so it is a game of wait and see. BUT given that kefir appears to do no harm and you would like to give it a go, (or even make your own) – go for it!

How to get some kefir into you:

Disclaimer. Adding kefir doesn’t mean that your smoothies will turn out like this

The problem I found with kefir is that I didn’t enjoy the taste drinking it by itself. This was disappointing as I’d bought a big bottle with the recommendation of being consumed in just 3 days (!) – so I tried kefir in every which way:

  • poured on top of porridge
  • as the base for a smoothie
  • mixed into yoghurt with some berries
  • You could cook with kefir but it is likely to kill all the good bacteria so try and consume it cold.

References

  1. Fermented Foods in Health and Disease Prevention. H. Kesenkaş1 et al.
  2. Microbiological, technological and therapeutic properties of kefir: a natural probiotic beverage. de Oliveira Leite AM et al.
  3. Kefir drink causes a significant yet similar improvement in serum lipid profile, compared with low-fat milk, in a dairy-rich diet in overweight or obese premenopausal women: A randomized controlled trial. Yasamin Fathi. et al
  4. Kefir: a powerful probiotic with anticancer properties. Sharifi M et al.
  5. Milk kefir: nutritional, microbiological and health benefits Damiana D. Rosa et al
  6. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 May;103(5):582-7.kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion. Hertzler SR, et al.

pic credits:

very pretty blue smoothie Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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