If you're not familiar with milk kefir, this fermented drink is a bit like a runnier version of Greek yogurt. It's thick, tangy and sour, and goes great in fruit smoothies. And while some consider it an acquired taste, the centuries-old drink has a cult-like following that's starting to make waves in the mainstream food market.
You see, milk kefir's a rock star when it comes to gut health. It trumps yogurt's levels of probiotics because, according to a review study in Pharmacology Online, it contains "several strains of friendly bacteria not found in yogurt — lactobacillus Caucasus, Leuconostoc, Acetobacter species and Streptococcus species."
Plus, due to the fermentation process that takes place during its production, whereby healthy bacteria predigest the lactose and proteins in milk, milk kefir tends to be a safe option for individuals with lactose intolerance. Not to mention, kefir can actually be made with any type of milk — soy, coconut, goat, sheep or cow — so the probiotic benefits can be enjoyed safely by vegans or individuals with food allergies.
But here's the deal: As kefir gains steam as the latest, greatest be-all, cure-all superfood, companies are rushing in to capitalize on the trend. There are benefits and drawbacks to this swarm of commercialization, but one thing is clear. Any health food that makes it to the big leagues of major grocery store chains runs the risk of being downgraded to health food lite, essentially providing some, but not all, of the benefits of the original.
Kefir is no different.
Adrienne Hew, a certified nutritionist, says, "Commercially available kefir is often loaded with sugar and flavorings, but even when it's not, it appears that most, if not all, producers are using some combination of skim and/or nonfat dry milk [to produce the kefir]. Nonfat dry milk is essentially a waste product of the worst order. It's milk that has either been infected by disease or way past its expiration date on supermarket shelves. That milk is then dried at super high temperatures to kill pathogens, but in the process completely degrades the value of the milk product. Skim milk contains nonfat dry milk to turn its blue color to white once the cream has been removed."
So yeah, kefir made with extra sugars and degraded milk probably isn't quite as good as the original made from fresh, whole milk and zero additives. That said, Bianca Osbourne, a professional chef and holistic nutritionist says, "Though I often worry about the mass production of wellness products, I find that for people who are new to getting healthy, they need to be rewarded for their efforts, and one of the rewards is convenience."
Mass-produced kefir is certainly convenient — you just grab a bottle in the grocery store. And aside from its potential sugary, milk-degraded state, it does still contain gut-boosting probiotics (although more studies certainly need to be done to ensure these convenience drinks live up nutritionally to their homemade counterparts).
But here's the thing you need to know: Making your own kefir is easy. Like, really easy. And a whole lot cheaper than paying major markups at the grocery store. All you need to do is purchase milk kefir grains, which are really just cauliflower-looking colonies of yeast and bacteria.
While making a batch of kefir does take 18 to 24 hours, all but about five to 10 minutes of that is just letting the kefir ferment at room temperature on your counter. The only real "work" is pouring milk over the grains to get it started, then separating the kefir from the grains with a sieve after the fermenting process is complete.
I've done it, and I'm lazy, so while it might seem easy to grab a $5 bottle of kefir from the store, this is one health food you may want to consider actually making at home.
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