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Kefir outshines yogurt in offering health benefits

by Doris Penner

The longevity of certain groups in eastern Europe is sometimes attributed to their diet of fermented and sour milk. Products such as yogurt and kefir—based originally on milk from sheep or camels—contain all the nutrient goodness of milk as well as so-called friendly bacteria known as probiotics which work their magic in the digestive tract. We are well acquainted with yogurt and are aware of its health-promoting properties, but kefir is rather new in Canada. The word is out that while kefir is similar to yogurt, it is superior in the health benefits it offers. Is this, in fact, true?

Kefir and yogurt are both cultured milk products rich in protein, calcium, B vitamins and potassium. Both are produced by inoculating cow’s milk (in western societies) with various bacilli or live cultures which produce acidity and a thick smooth texture. These live organisms known as probiotics become part of the intestinal flora, a community of more than 400 species of bacteria. In the gut the probiotics help inhibit growth of unfriendly, disease-causing bacteria and stimulate the body’s immune response.

Thinner consistency

Kefir has a thinner consistency than yogurt and is usually sold as a beverage. It has been described as a semi-liquid “sparkling yogurt with its own distinct and deliciously mild, naturally sweet, yet tangy flavour, with a refreshing hint of natural carbonation.” You can drink it, pour it over cereals and granola, substitute it for buttermilk in recipes or blend it with fruit to make smoothies. It is available plain or in various flavours such as raspberry, strawberry and blueberry.

The main difference between kefir and yogurt lies in the way it is produced which consequently determines health benefits to a degree. To make kefir, a complex mixture of lactobacillus bacteria and yeasts—known by the folk term “kefir grains”—is added to milk and fermentation takes place (yogurt is created by a much simpler mix of lactic acid bacteria). The small amount of carbon dioxide, alcohol and aromatic compounds produced by the cultures give kefir its distinct tangy fizzy taste.

Because of the unique culture added to milk to make kefir, it typically contains three times more probiotics than yogurt. A higher probiotic count per serving means potentially greater health benefits for the digestive system—alleviating conditions such as bloating, gas, constipation and inflammatory bowel disease. Vitamins such as B12 and K may be produced in the gut and it is thought probiotics in kefir may facilitate this process.

Lactose intolerance

Those dealing with lactose intolerance—which means a deficiency of the enzyme lactase to digest the sugar lactose found in milk—might well be able to ingest kefir without bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhea. In other words, the bacteria in kefir have already broken down lactose so it is accepted by people with an intolerance to milk products (those with a severe case of lactose intolerance should still tread carefully).

While kefir has been touted as helping lower elevated cholesterol and blood pressure as well as guarding against colon cancer, studies have been very limited and more rigorous trials need to be undertaken to verify the claims.

If you enjoy yogurt, you might wish to give kefir a try, knowing that your digestive health will receive a boost. Overall it is best to opt for plain low-fat versions which have the least amount of calories and saturated fat. For a change, try a flavoured version but remember, it is possible to add your own fruit to the plain version. If you choose organic kefir you are assured cattle producing the milk have been fed an organic diet without chemicals or synthetic fertilizers and the end product contains no antibiotics, bovine human growth hormone or other artificial drugs.

Kefir is available at health food stores and some supermarkets.