Based on what most Americans think of as the Russian diet—reputed to consist mostly of caviar and potatoes washed down by copious amounts of vodka—we are unlikely to hold it up as a model of healthy eating. But less well known is the Russian devotion to kefir, a dairy beverage that is a veritable font of good health.
Kefir, mostly unknown in the United States until recently, is a cultured dairy beverage that contains high levels of probiotics, beneficial microscopic organisms that help maintain a healthy balance of intestinal flora. The drink is alleged to have a wide variety of healing properties, including digestive aid, gastrointestinal tract health, immune support and elimination of the yeast candida. "In Russia, from the time you're born until you die, you eat kefir every day—it's the one holistic food they use as a functional food daily," says Julie Smolyansky, president and chief executive of Lifeway Foods, a leading producer of kefir in the United States. "With the amount of drinking and unhealthy foods that are eaten in Russia, I think kefir is what helps them to maintain their health."
According to tradition, kefir originated among the shepherds of the Caucasus Mountains and was renowned for its healing powers. One legend has it that kefir was the gift of the prophet Mohammed himself, given to the Muslims living in the Caucasus Mountains. It was said that if kefir was given away to others, it would lose its strength. Today, kefir is still highly prized as a foundation of good health by the Russian descendants of those Caucasian shepherds.
Kefir is highly nutritious, according to George Economy, president of Sauk Centre, Minn.-based Helios Nutrition Ltd., another leading U.S. manufacturer of kefir. "Kefir contains multiple strains of microorganisms, specific types of lactic acid bacteria that are collectively called kefir cultures, which are a naturally occurring colony of beneficial bacteria," Economy explains. "The word kefir is derived from the Turkish word for 'good feeling,' and scientists believe that its high levels of vitamin B12, probiotic cultures, dairy peptides and tryptophan contribute to a 'good feeling.'"
Kefir is made by first pasteurizing milk, then adding kefir grains. "Our kefir is cultured over a 24-hour period in culturing tanks, during which time the live probiotic kefir cultures double in number every hour," Economy explains.
While at first glance kefir might seem identical to drinkable yogurt, there are some significant differences between the two. First of all, unlike yogurt, kefir contains beneficial yeasts. There are also important differences between the number and variety of other microbes contained in the two products. "The biggest difference between yogurt and kefir is that they use different cultures," Smolyansky says. "If you're eating kefir for probiotics and active cultures, kefir has far more than yogurt and is the gold standard—yogurt can't really compare on that level."
Bacteria that's good for you
In the folklore of Russia and Eastern Europe, kefir is thought to help prevent and heal myriad diseases, Smolyansky says. One well-documented health claim for kefir is its ability to help prevent yeast infections, including those arising from antibiotic use. "If you're taking antibiotics, a common side effect is a yeast infection," Smolyansky says. "Drinking kefir will help prevent that, and can also help to prevent diarrhea caused by taking antibiotics, especially in children."
Economy says that several health authors, notably Donna Gates, who wrote The Body Ecology Diet (2006, Body Ecology), recommend kefir to consumers with candida yeast infections because of the mix of beneficial cultures in the product. "We have consumers who have notified us of the beneficial aspects of kefir in controlling candida," Economy says. "Yet, kefir alone is not a magic bullet; an overall healthy diet must be followed."
Kefir is also known to help improve immune function. "Half your immune system is found in your gut, which contains more than three to four pounds of live bacteria," Economy explains. "So a healthy intestinal ecosystem that's aided by kefir helps support a healthy immune system."
Some studies, including one conducted by German researchers Wollowski, et al, in 2001, have also shown that probiotics such as those contained in kefir can help prevent colon cancer. And one additional benefit, according to Smolyansky, is that kefir is even good for those who usually can't tolerate dairy products. "The cultures in the kefir use the lactose as food, so these cultures have consumed and digested the lactose for you, making it a good product for those who are lactose intolerant," Smolyansky explains.
Not only can kefir be enjoyed as a drink, but it can also be used in various recipes. Economy recommends using kefir as a replacement for buttermilk in salad dressings, as a base for smoothies, poured over cereal or fresh fruit, or in place of milk for making waffles or pancakes. Economy warns, however, that cooking kefir kills the beneficial organisms. Smolyansky even likes making her family's borscht recipe using kefir, which she says makes a great replacement for the traditional sour cream.
Kefir is now also being offered in a variety of flavors that continue to broaden its appeal. "Our newest flavor is pomegranate, and that's been a great success so far," says Smolyansky. "We've also previously introduced strawberry, blueberry, cherry, raspberry and strawberry-banana. And we've diversified our line to offer both low-fat and fat-free versions, as well as organic kefir." Helios Nutrition also offers a range of flavored kefirs, including peach, raspberry, strawberry and vanilla.
"The biggest new trend that we're seeing with kefir is increasing consumer interest in the gluten-free and low-glycemic index properties of kefir," Economy says. Economy also says that Helios has seen an increasing consumer interest in kefir for weight management as well as meal replacement.
Kefir's wide-ranging health benefits are catching on quickly with natural foods store consumers. According to SPINS, from November 2004 to November 2005, natural kefir and drinkable yogurt sales (the two categories are tracked together) in natural foods stores were $6.1 million, a whopping 55 percent increase over the previous year's sales. Both Lifeway and Helios have seen that enormous growth reflected in their own kefir sales. "Our sales growth has been between 20 and 30 percent over the past few years," Smolyansky says.
"Helios Nutrition is one of the fastest growing companies among the top 10 yogurt and kefir companies, with an annual sales growth of more than 58 percent, according to SPINS," says Economy. He says the organic niche of the kefir market is also growing rapidly. "The organic kefir/drinkable yogurt category grew by 43 percent during the last six months [of 2005] from the prior year, compared to 21 percent for all yogurt/kefir sales. The growth rate for organic kefir/ drinkable yogurt is one of the highest of any food category."
According to Erin Fowler, editor and consumer research analyst at Chicago-based Mintel, the kefir market will likely continue to grow. "As people become more aware of the benefits of a probiotic product like kefir, there should be a huge opportunity for growth," Fowler says. "However, taste can be a big obstacle to a purchase of kefir—it's not a flavor that appeals to everyone. The kefir companies are encouraging people to make it into smoothies or to somehow combine it with fruit, even bake it into muffins. I think that's wise because it urges people to learn how to enjoy its benefits without stumbling on the taste."
Fowler says that according to her research, health benefits seem to be the main driver motivating a kefir purchase. "People who love it the most are people who want to treat their health disorders the natural way," she says. "I think the category seems very up and coming, but there is an issue about how much people really want to know about their digestive tract. But if the kefir manufacturers can take advantage of the healthy snacking-on-the-go trend, while transcending taste issues, there should be a real opportunity for growth in this category."
Lynn Ginsburg is the author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin's Press, 2003).
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 9/p. 32-33