Kefir: Nutritional Facts & Health Benefits
A jar of kefir with a spoonful of kefir grains.
Credit: joannawnuk | Shutterstock

Kefir is a fermented milk product that comes from the Caucasus Mountains in Eastern Europe. It is popular Eastern Europe, Russia and Southwest Asia. The drink that is cultured from kefir "grains." 

"These are not grains in the conventional sense, but cultures of yeast and lactic acid bacteria that resemble a cauliflower in appearance," said Jennifer Fitzgibbon, a registered oncology dietitian at Stony Brook University Cancer Center.

The culture is created using a base of animal milk, soybean milk, coconut milk, fruit juices, and sugar and molasses solutions. Kefir grains are introduced to the base, which becomes fermented. The grains are then strained before the drink is packaged. The resulting product tastes like liquid yogurt and has many health benefits. 

One of the most publicized reasons to drink kefir is because it contains probiotics and prebiotics. "Kefir contains about 30 different microorganisms, making it a much more potent source of probiotics than other fermented dairy products," Fitzgibbon said.

Probiotics are microorganisms that can help with digestion and may offer protection from harmful bacteria, according to the Mayo Clinic. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that probiotics use as fuel. Kefir has both of these. It also contains calcium, protein and B-vitamins. Here are the nutrition facts about kefir:

There have been many other studies on how kefir can aid in human health. For example, researchers in Brazil found that a topical gel made from kefir helped wounds heal faster in rats, and researchers at the University of Bucharest found that it has antibacterial properties. Another study by researchers in Turkey found that consuming kefir may boost the immune system. Researchers in Japan believe that the drink may also have antitumor properties. 

"A recent study in animals found this fermented milk probiotic decreased inflammation, markers of pre-diabetes and obesity," said Dr. Jennifer Jackson, an internist from Ascension Via Christi Health. Other studies, such as one by researchers in Brazil and one published in the European Journal of Nutrition, back up the idea that kefir may be an anti-inflammatory.

Though it is made from a type of yeast, kefir may also help fight harmful yeast. "Kefir, especially homemade kefir, can be a great tool for fighting off excessive yeast in the system," Dr. Vincent Pedre, author of the book "Happy Gut" and an internist in New York City. "If you are a woman that suffers from recurrent yeast infections or easily gets a yeast infection after being on antibiotics, homemade plain kefir (with either goat's milk, organic dairy or coconut milk) will help restore the proper balance of good bacteria in the gut. Anyone can make their own kefir with kefir grains, which can be purchased online or at your local health food store."

Those that have trouble digesting milk may also find relief by drinking kefir instead of traditional milk. "The lactic acid bacteria have already pre-digested the lactose in kefir. People with lactose intolerance can often eat kefir without problems," Fitzgibbon said.

The word kefir comes from the Turkish word "keyif." The original word means "feeling good" after its ingestion, according to a paper published by the Brazilian Journal of Microbiology.

Rebecca Shenkman, director at the Villanova College of Nursing's MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education (COPE), offers this buying tip: "Choose plain flavor for less sugar and calories or fresh fruit flavors for extra taste."

Kefir has also been used to make beer, which may also have many health benefits.

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