What Is Kefir and Why Is It Good For You?

Here's why you're seeing it in the dairy aisle.

various kefirs on background
Photo: Allrecipes Illustration

Kefir, not quite milk but not quite yogurt, has been populating more and more space in supermarket dairy refrigerators thanks to its health benefits. But if kefir isn't milk or yogurt, then what is it, and why is it so good for you? We break down what you need to know about kefir, including what it's made of, what makes it good for you, the similarities and differences between kefir and yogurt, and how you can use kefir in cooking.

What Is Kefir?

Kefir is a beverage made from fermented milk and kefir grains. Despite their nomenclature, kefir grains are actually cultures or collections of bacteria and yeast, and when they're fermented with milk they're an excellent source of probiotics such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Lactobacillus helveticus.

Kefir has a texture that is somewhere between milk and yogurt's; although it's thicker than milk, it's still drinkable so it's treated as a beverage. Kefir has a sour taste and a somewhat fizzy consistency as a result of the fermentation process.

Is Kefir Good for You? What Are the Benefits of Kefir?

Kefir is best known for its probiotic properties. Probiotics are a beneficial bacteria that boosts gut health, which is connected to other organ systems in your body. More diverse bacteria creates a healthier gut, which promotes overall health.

For example, your immune system is located in your gut, and healthy gut bacteria promotes a healthy immune system. "Gut health balance, encouraged by fermented foods, can reduce inflammation in the body, increase energy, and improve cognitive health," says Lisa Richards, nutritionist and author of "The Candida Diet."

Since it's made with milk, kefir contains the same vitamins and minerals, such as calcium and iron, that you'd find in milk. So if you drink milk or eat yogurt for health reasons, you may want to consider kefir.

"The fermentation process gives kefir its rich probiotic content which is the primary reason kefir has immune boosting benefits," says Tricia Best, registered dietician at Balance Once Supplements. "Probiotics actively repopulate your gut with healthy bacteria which are needed for proper immune function. It has been said that the immune system is housed in the gut, and this is relatively true. The gut's microbiome plays many vital roles in the body and when it is out of balance nearly every body system is impacted."

What's the Difference Between Kefir and Yogurt?

Kefir and yogurt are somewhat similar in their composition and taste, but in terms of nutrition, kefir is like a nutritionally enhanced version of yogurt.

"In comparison to yogurt, kefir contains three times more probiotics, most kefir contains 12 various types of probiotics, typically measuring at 15-20 billion CFU (colonizing forming units), while yogurt contains around 5 probiotic species and only contains approximately 6 billion CFU," says Henry Harrison, Vice President of Outreach at Blue Biology. "Furthermore, kefir contains less fats and offers a wider range of bioactive compounds, including organic acids and peptides that contribute to its health benefits and key vitamins and minerals such as phosphorus, calcium, riboflavin, magnesium, B12 and vitamin D."

Kefir and yogurt differ structurally as well. Kefir has a thinner texture and is low in lactose, and many people with lactose intolerance use kefir as a substance for milk or yogurt.

However, if you're buying kefir or yogurt that's high in sugar, their nutritional benefits decrease because sugar is a source of many issues that probiotics work against — in fact, high sugar consumption promotes the growth of bad bacteria.

How to Use Kefir

You can use kefir in places where you'd typically add milk, yogurt or even mayonnaise. It's popular as a liquid base for smoothies and for soaking overnight oats, but you can also stir a bit into your pancake batter or salad dressings. You can also use kefir as a substitute for milk when you make sourdough bread or homemade ice cream. Of course, you can always drink it plain, too.

Try these recipes made with kefir:

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