This post was last updated on July 16, 2019.
Loaded with multiple health benefits, yogurt has long been in dietary vocabularies. Since kefir and yogurt are both cultured dairy products, they are often considered the same thing. While kefir does taste somewhat like yogurt, there are a few differences that set them apart. When it comes to your gut health, yogurt contains friendly bacteria that help to maintain a clean digestive system.
However, yogurt contains transient bacteria that pass out of the digestive tract. Kefir, on the other hand, contains a larger range of bacteria and yeast, some of which can build colonies in the intestinal tract, thereby providing long-term health benefits for your gut similar to the way probiotic supplements work.
In this post, we'll discuss more of the differences between yogurt and kefir (including which is the better probiotic food), as well as where this fermented drink got its start, how it's made, how to consume kefir, benefits, and side effects.
Pronounced "kee-fer", kefir is a cultured milk product that originated in the Caucasus Mountains and is frequently consumed in Eastern Europe, Southwest Asia, and Russia. The name is a derivative of the Turkish word “keyif” translated to “feeling good” after drinking it. With a consistency of drinkable yogurt, kefir has a tart and tangy taste. This milk drink is slightly fizzy due to the carbonation created during the fermentation process.
How is Kefir Made
Kefir is made using kefir grains which are not like typical varieties of grains such as wheat or rice. Kefir grains are a blend of bacteria and yeast and do not contain gluten. Milk from cows, goats, and sheep, as well as non-dairy milk like coconut milk and rice milk, can be used to make kefir—if you are lactose intolerant or simply want a dairy-free/lactose-free option then these are perfect for you so you can still reap all the benefits without the unwanted side effects.
Making kefir involves combining the milk with kefir grains, then allowing the mixture to culture/ferment in a warm area to get a kefir drink. If making kefir at home, you can simply use a clean glass jar to store the mixture as it ferments at room temperature—choose a warmer spot to allow it to sit for about 24 hours, but could take less or more.
Another option is water kefir. If you choose to go this route, make sure you use water kefir grains as they are specifically intended for making water kefir. (1) Otherwise, the process is similar to making regular kefir. The ingredients you'll find in all recipes are kefir grains, water (use non-chlorinated filtered water or coconut water), and sugar (the kefir grains feed on this as the mixture cultures so don't about the sugar content). Many also recommend adding dried fruit like raisins to the mixture to provide minerals for the grains. Once it's ready you just let it sit out for 24 hrs minimum.
Both regular and water kefir grains can be reused. After straining, add to your new batch as your starter culture. Keep in mind that
How to Consume Kefir
Typically sold in the form of a beverage, there are a few different ways you can consume kefir. Drink it directly or make a smoothie with blended fruits. You can also pour it over your chosen cereal and granola. Owing to the similarity in taste, kefir can be used as a substitute for yogurt in most dishes. You can typically purchase kefir at health food stores and even many regular grocery stores.
Kefir vs. Yogurt: Which is the Better Probiotic Food?
While kefir and yogurt both contain valuable amounts of calcium, potassium, protein, B vitamins (especially vitamin B12), and probiotics, kefir does have an edge over yogurt. Kefir has a thinner texture than yogurt which makes it great as a quick on the go drink. Your gut naturally contains more than 400 different species of bacteria. Probiotics are essential for good gut health as they support and balance your gut.
When compared with yogurt, kefir has approximately three times the number of probiotic cultures. In general, yogurt is made with a few different types of probiotic bacteria. Kefir is made using many bioactive compounds including approximately 30 types of probiotic yeasts and bacteria. This is evident in the total probiotic count per serving offered by each product. While most probiotic yogurts comprise of approximately one billion probiotic organisms in every serving, a half-cup of kefir contains 40 billion of them. Clearly, kefir packs a better probiotic punch. (2)
Benefits of Kefir
Kefir is a nutritionally dense probiotic supplement that offers a host of health benefits. While nutrients like calcium (good for bone health), proteins (good for strong muscles), and potassium (good for heart health) are good for health, the strongest advantage that kefir has to offer is its probiotic element. (3)
From reducing bloating, constipation, high cholesterol, and blood pressure, to treating inflammatory bowel conditions, eczema and food allergies, probiotics offer a number of health benefits to people of all ages. It is also known to be helpful in treating and preventing diarrhea, gastrointestinal infections, vaginal and urinary tract infections, etc. Studies hypothesize that a healthy gut with diverse bacteria has more benefits than previously imagined.
- In 2017, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology compared the cholesterol levels amongst a female sample group consuming either low-fat milk or kefir. At the end of eight weeks, women who drank kefir showed lower levels of total, and specifically bad, cholesterol levels. (4) This may be attributed to the probiotics in kefir which likely affect how the body creates, absorbs, and uses cholesterol.
- Another study in 2015 studied the effects of kefir on blood sugar levels of diabetic patients showing that those who consumed the probiotic drink had reduced fasting blood sugar levels over 3 months. (5)
- A study also shows the use of kefir to treat peptic ulcers in the small intestine and the stomach. (6)
- A study by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed that kefir can improve lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion. (7)
Side Effects of Kefir
Designated as the “21st-century yogurt”, kefir has many health benefits but may also have some side effects. Most commonly, side effects like abdominal cramping and slight constipation are possible when you start drinking kefir because your body is still getting used to the influx of probiotics. These side effects usually dissipate after a few days or weeks and there are ways you can ease these symptoms until your body adjusts.
Probiotics are safe for children of all ages, and even breast milk contains good bacteria for the gut. However, children under the age of one should not drink cow’s milk and similar product. Consult with your child's pediatrician to learn more about the right probiotic supplements for your child. Kefir is safe for children after the age of one, but you should consult a health care professional to be completely safe.
You should also choose plain kefir whenever possible. Flavored kefir can include a lot of added sugar which is tied to many health problems, particularly high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 Diabetes. The risk increases when high amounts of sugar are consumed at a young age.
People with conditions like AIDS or autoimmune diseases should consult their physician before consuming kefir. Similarly, those who have eliminated caseins from their diet might want to give kefir a miss as it is made with caseins. Another option would be to choose kefir made with a non-dairy type of milk.
Kefir is a great source of natural probiotics. A single serving of kefir offers a healthy nutritive dose of vitamins and probiotics. It is safe for daily consumption, and is known for having “microbiological, technological and therapeutic properties of a natural probiotic beverage”. (5) In addition to other fermented foods and probiotic supplements, kefir can be a wonderful addition to your daily diet to support your gut health, immune system, and overall health.
- Lewin, Jo. "The health benefits of kefir." BBC Good Food. Last modified February 2019. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/health-benefits-kefir.
- Beck, Leslie. (2017, March 26). "What's the difference between yogurt and kefir?" The Globe and Mail. Last modified May 2018. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/ask-a-health-expert/whats-the-difference-between-yogurt-and-kefir/article7904569/
- Prado, Maria R., Lina Marcela Blandón, Luciana P. S. Vandenberghe, Cristine Rodrigues, Guillermo R. Castro, Vanete Thomaz-Soccol, and Carlos R. Soccol. "Milk kefir: composition, microbial cultures, biological activities, and related products." Frontiers in Microbiology 6, (2015): 1177. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2015.01177.
- Fathi, Yasamin, Naeimeh Ghodrati, Mohammad-Javad Zibaeenezhad, Shiva Faghih, and Shiva Faghih. "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." Journal of Clinical Lipidology 11, no. 1 (2017): 136-146. doi: 10.1016/j.jacl.2016.10.016.
- Ostadrahimi, Alireza, Akbar Taghizadeh, Majid Mobasseri, Nazila Farrin, Laleh Payahoo, Zahra Beyramalipoor, Eyramalipoor Gheshlaghi, and Morteza Vahedjabbari. "Effect of Probiotic Fermented Milk (Kefir) on Glycemic Control and Lipid Profile In Type 2 Diabetic Patients: A Randomized Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial." Iran J Public Health 44, no. 2 (2015): 228–237. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4401881/.
- de Oliveira Leite, Analy Machado, Marco Antonio Lemos Miguel, Raquel Silva Peixoto, Alexandre Soares Rosado, Joab Trajano Silva, and Vania Margaret Flosi Paschoalin. "Microbiological, technological and therapeutic properties of kefir: a natural probiotic beverage." Brazilian Journal of Microbiology 44, no. 2 (2013):341–349. doi: 10.1590/S1517-83822013000200001.
- Hertzler SR and SM Clancy. "Kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion." J Am Diet Assoc. 103, no. 5 (2003): 582-7. doi: 10.1053/jada.2003.50111.