MANY years ago, when the great Ballymaloe LitFest was a highlight of the gastronomic year, I sat in on a panel discussion on something called Kefir.
Kefir is a fermented drink made using kefir grains, or cultures, and is said to have originated high in the mountains between the Balkans and Europe. These strange milky grains can multiply at an alarming rate, and can be industrially produced or shared between avid fermenters.
I was deep in my Kombucha phase at the time, in love with the idea of a Mother Culture, SCOBY, and something that can be naturally born of the wild yeasts and bacteria that are all around us – even on us. Kefir, on the other hand, to me seemed less ephemeral and more industrial.
But my scepticism was misplaced, and now both water and milk kefir feature almost daily in my diet.
Today, it is easy to buy some version of kefir. Ireland, with its vast dairy industry based on grass-fed cows resulting in milk naturally high in nutrients, is well placed to lead innovation.
As a fermented food, kefir carries with it all the hubris of the interest in food marketed as beneficial to health – especially gut health.
I like to be sceptical about anything new and trendy in food, I want to be convinced there is good science behind the health claims. So, I went in search of answers. Many thanks to Professor Emeritus of Food Microbiology at UCC, Gerald Fitzgerald, who pointed me to recent research in Ireland, Brazil, and Spain.
What is Milk Kefir?
Milk that has been fermented using kefir grains/cultures.
What is the difference between Kefir and Natural or Live Yogurt?
Textually and taste wise, there isn’t much difference at all.
What is different is the type, range, and number of good bacteria. Yogurt typically contains two strains of bacteria (Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. Bulgaricus); Kefir will have multiples of that.
Bacteria in kefir is better at reaching the gut than yogurt?
Yes and no! Bacteria in yogurt has a harder time getting to the gut intact. Professor Fitzgerald says this is compounded by the bacterium themselves and each person, too:
“It can depend on the particular strain of [bacteria] Streptococcus thermophilus used, the actual numbers present in the yoghurt and even the physiology of the gut in each individual consumer.
“Also, some Streptococcus thermophilus strains may be protected by a coating of extracellular polysaccharide which may reduce the impact of the environmental threats encountered during passage through the intestinal system.”
It used to be thought that such bacteria were killed off in the mouth, our saliva is a natural anti-bacterial, but that thinking has since been revised. However, research does support the belief that cultures in kefir can reach the gut and have an impact on the gut microbiota.
What is the gut-brain axis?
The gut is sometimes referred to as our ‘second brain’, and how healthy our gut is affects how well our brain functions.
A 2020 study by de Wouw & Walsh et al using two particular strains of bacteria found in kefir was shown to positively impact reward-seeking behaviour, a type of behaviour linked to depression.
The study also showed that the microbiota, the community of good and beneficial bacteria that live in the gut and support immunity as well as brain function, are positively influenced by bacteria found in kefir.
What are the other health benefits of Kefir?
A 2021 study by Peluzio et al concluded kefir showed: “Promising effects as immunomodulatory, hypocholesterolemic, antihypertensive and glycemic control are expected.” In other words: improved immunity, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and controlled blood sugar levels. This is good news for anyone with high cholesterol, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes – all the non- communicable diseases related to diet.
So, the health claims on kefir are right?
Probably. Both the 2020 and 2021 studies agree that more research needs to be done to fully understand how applicable their findings are by engaging in larger-scale human trials. But they also agree their initial findings are promising indeed.
The 2021 study, which looked at kefir as a possible alternative in countries where access to expensive medical care for diseases such as diabetes is limited, said: “The use of fermented foods with probiotic activity is a nutritional alternative to drug treatments, and kefir, due to the absence of harmful effects regarding its consumption - in animals and humans - low cost, ease of preparation, and microbiological composition - rich in bioactive compounds, metabolites, and peptides - stands out as a potential food with functional benefits.”
So, where does Ireland fit into this?
Ireland is one of the world’s leading producers of milk, mainly from grass-fed cows, but also goat and sheep milk. Any milk can be used for milk kefir, including plant-based milks, although the nutritional content of animal milk is higher, and fermentation increases bioavailability of those nutrients.
Where to find it?
In Cork, three dairy businesses have created milk kefir products, and I have tasted and tested them all…
Irish Yogurt, Clonakilty – Spoonable Kefir
Available in three flavours – Natural, Strawberry and Summer Berries, and made using fresh milk from family farms in West Cork. Fat free and high in protein, this kefir contains 16 different strains of live cultures. It has a creamy texture and great flavour, too. Enjoy with granola and fresh fruits for breakfast.
Glenilen Farm, Drimoleague – Gut Health Kefir
Available in Natural, Passion Fruit and Vanilla flavours, Glenilen produce their Gut Health Kefir from milk from their family farm in West Cork.
The kefir contains 14 different strains of live cultures, and in every 100g there are 320 billion bacteria!
Mix the Natural Kefir with garlic, ginger and spices and paste over a whole chicken. Leave to rest for two hours before roasting. The live cultures break down the proteins to create a deliciously moist, tender, and flavourful roast chicken.
Orchard Cottage Dairy, Ballinhassig – Goat Milk Kefir
A small mixed organic farm, Orchard Cottage Dairy has quietly nurtured a reputation for outstanding quality raw and pasteurised goat milk for cheese, yogurt, and now, kefir. Just goat milk and kefir cultures – nothing more - this is kefir as it would have been made thousands of years ago.
For the ultimate breakfast smoothie, blitz 150ml of kefir with a ripe banana and two heaped tablespoons of Nutshed Chocolate Peanut Butter.