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Kefir has recently become one of the hottest superfoods on the market—and there are many ways to enjoy it, from kefir grains to kefir milk. We'll give you the lowdown on all of that, as well as kefir benefits.

By Betty Gold and Kristin Tice Studeman
Updated March 05, 2021
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Due to the rising nationwide focus on gut health and fermented foods, kefir—a cultured milk drink—has recently become one of the buzziest superfoods out there.

There are lots of options to enjoy it—including kefir grains, kefir milk, coconut kefir, and kefir yogurt—plus lots of questions. (Starting with what, exactly, is it?).

Here, a helpful rundown on everything you need to know.

What Is Kefir?

Kefir is a fermented milk drink, made from a combination of bacteria and yeast fermentations, that originally hails from the Caucasus area (the mountainous region dividing Asia and Europe). It is usually made from cow's milk, but can also be made from goat or sheep's milk, as well as non-dairy milk.

Kefir is deliciously tart and tangy, very similar to yogurt. It's both creamy and drinkable, which makes it a great alternative (or addition) to your morning smoothie, because you can drink it on-the-go just as easily. And because of the fermentation process, kefir is sometimes slightly effervescent. You can find it in its various forms in the milk or yogurt aisles of your local grocery store and health food stores.

What Are Some Kefir Benefits?

Kefir, in all its various forms, has numerous health benefits due to all of the probiotics (good bacteria) it contains. In addition to being excellent for your digestive system, probiotics are key to maintaining a well-balanced gut microbiome. Because 70 to 80 percent of the cells that make up the immune system are located in the gut, the probiotics in kefir have been shown to strengthen your immune system, as well as combat inflammation.

"Research is finding that probiotics such as those found in kefir support a diverse gut microbiome and are associated with appropriate immune response," explains nutrition expert Caroline Margolis, RDN. "This response causes a decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines concentrations and significantly increase anti-inflammatory cytokine concentrations, which then decreases inflammation in our bodies and reduces the risk of virus-related complications."

A number of scientific studies have also proven that kefir can improve bone health, and might even help to fight cancer. Some people who are very lactose intolerant have found that eating kefir every day has been beneficial in regulating their digestive systems (milk kefir can be up to 99 percent lactose-free). Finally, kefir is high in protein, calcium, and vitamin D. A serving of milk kefir provides 30 percent of your daily calcium needs.

To make sure you're reaping the maximum benefits from your beverage, choose a product without excess added sugar (remember that milk contains naturally occurring sugar, so be sure not to confuse this with sugar that has been added to your drink for flavor). Also, check the label for a minimum of nine live and active cultures. We recommend Lifeway Kefir, whose products all offer 12 different strains of live and active cultures and 25 to 30 billion Colony Forming Units (CFU).

FYI, the average yogurt can have anywhere from one to six strains with six billion CFU, so if you're looking to boost your gut health, kefir is probably the smarter option.

Types of Kefir

Kefir Grains

Kefir is made using "starter" grains (a complex combination of bacteria, yeasts, milk proteins, and complex sugars), which help to ferment the milk. These kefir grains are not like rice grains or other regular kinds of grains—they do not have any gluten in them. They range in size from a small nut to pieces that are bigger than your hand. They are removed from the liquid kefir with a strainer and then used again to make more kefir. You can also buy the kefir grains online and make your own kefir at home.

Kefir Milk

Kefir milk tastes a bit more tart, tangy, and fresh than yogurt, and you can find it in endless delicious fruity flavor options. However, unlike yogurt, it is a liquid and you drink it rather than eating it with a spoon. It is usually sold in the yogurt aisle of grocery stores and health food shops.

Water Kefir

Water kefir is a probiotic drink that's made with water kefir grains. Water kefir grains are used to culture sugar water, juice or coconut water. The amount of sugar in water kefir depends on how long it is allowed to culture (as it cultures, the grains take the sugars and convert them into carbon dioxide, yeasts, bacteria, and acids). It also depends on how much a brand has sweetened it with fruit juice or fruit.

The main difference between milk kefir and water kefir is obvious: Water kefir contains no milk (great if you are lactose-intolerant, have a dairy allergy, or are vegan). Water kefir also contains fewer strains of bacteria and yeasts than milk kefir, but still promotes healthy gut bacteria.

When buying water kefir at the market, make sure to check the label and review the sugar levels—lots of water kefirs are filled with sugar; however, Cocobiotic and Healing Movement both make great coconut water kefir that isn't too sugary. Perhaps the easiest way to get water kefir that's low in sugar, however, is to make your own; here are some helpful instructions.

Coconut Kefir

While kefir is typically made with cow's milk, it can also be made with non-dairy milk like coconut milk, plus date paste and kefir grains. This is a great kefir option if you are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy. (Remember: Kefir's unique cooking process makes it nearly lactose-free anyway, but this is a good way to be sure there is no lactose at all in your kefir.)