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 Kristin Tice Studeman
Updated November 26, 2018

Due to the rising focus on gut health and fermented foods, kefir (a fermented milk drink) has recently become one of the buzziest superfoods out there. There are lots of options to enjoy it—kefir grains, kefir milk, coconut kefir, kefir yogurt—and 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. It tastes tart and a little sour, similar to yogurt 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.

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 even more tart and sour than yogurt. (If that doesn’t sound up your alley, companies such as Green Valley Organics Lactose-Free Kefir comes in all different flavors, although our vote is for plain kefir milk, either low-fat or whole milk.) 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 and makes for a great addition to a smoothie.

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. (Note: 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.)

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. A number of scientific studies have proven that kefir can have a positive impact on digestion and gut issues, improve bone health, the immune system, and might even help to fight cancer. Additionally, some people who are very lactose intolerant have found that eating kefir every day has been a huge help in regulating their digestive systems.