Kefir: The Not-Quite-Paleo Superfood | Chris Kresser
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Kefir: The Not-Quite-Paleo Superfood

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One of the key components of a strict Paleo diet is the complete elimination of dairy products. Unfortunately, this may lead to many dairy-tolerant individuals missing out on some of the most nutritious and beneficial foods on the planet. One dairy product that not only offers a wide range of vitamins and minerals, but also provides a variety of probiotic organisms and powerful healing qualities, is kefir (pronounced /kəˈfɪər/ kə-FEER).

The word “kefir” is derived from the Turkish word “keif”, which literally translates to the “good feeling” one has after drinking it. (1) Traditional cultures have attributed healing powers to kefir for centuries, but it has only recently become the subject of scientific research to determine its true therapeutic value.

What is Kefir?

Kefir is a fermented milk product that originated centuries ago in the Caucasus mountains, and is now enjoyed by many different cultures worldwide, particularly in Europe and Asia.

It can be made from the milk of any ruminant animal, such as a cow, goat, or sheep. It is slightly sour and carbonated due to the fermentation activity of the symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that make up the “grains” used to culture the milk (not actual grains, but a grain-like matrix of proteins, lipids, and sugars that feed the microbes). The various types of beneficial microbiota contained in kefir make it one of the most potent probiotic foods available.

Besides containing highly beneficial bacteria and yeasts, kefir is a rich source of many different vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids that promote healing and repair, as well as general health maintenance. (2) Kefir contains high levels of thiamin, B12, calcium, folates and Vitamin K2. It is a good source of biotin, a B vitamin that HELPS the body assimilate other B vitamins. The complete proteins in kefir are already partially digested, and are therefore more easily utilized by the body. Like many other dairy products, kefir is a great source of minerals like calcium and magnesium, as well as phosphorus, which helps the body utilize carbohydrates, fats and proteins for cell growth, maintenance and energy. (3)

Kefir has positive effects on gut and bone health

It is a potent probiotic, consisting of both bacterial and yeast species of beneficial flora, and may help protect against gastrointestinal diseases. It has also been demonstrated to improve lactose digestion in adults with lactose intolerance. (4) In addition to providing the gut with healthy symbiotic microflora, many studies have also demonstrated the anti-fungal and antibacterial properties of kefir. (5) Certain bacteria strains from the kefir culture have been shown to help in treating colitis by regulating the inflammatory response of the intestinal cells. (6)

As we know, vitamin K2 is one of the most important nutrients that is greatly lacking in the American diet, but there are some vitamin k2 food sources.  (7) Vitamin K2 is a product of bacterial fermentation, so kefir is a likely a good source of this nutrient, especially if made with milk from pastured animals. (8) Vitamin K2 plays a key role in calcium metabolism, where it is used to deposit calcium in appropriate locations, such as in the bones and teeth, and prevent it from depositing in locations where it does not belong, such as the soft tissues and the arteries. (9) Since kefir is high in calcium and phosphorus and also contains vitamin K2, drinking kefir is likely beneficial to bone health, providing the essential minerals needed for bone growth as well as the vitamin K2 needed to effectively deposit those minerals in the bone.

Kefir modulates the immune system

Certain compounds in kefir may play a role in regulating immune function, allergic response, and inflammation. One study found that kefiran, a sugar byproduct of the kefir culture, may reduce allergic inflammation by suppressing mast cell degranulation and cytokine production. (10) Another study found that certain bacteria in the kefir culture inhibited IgE production, helping to moderate the body’s allergic response. (11)

Research has also demonstrated that kefir may have an anti-tumor effect. In one study, kefir consumption inhibited tumor growth and induced the apoptotic form of tumor cell lysis, suggesting that kefir may play a role in cancer prevention. (12) When applied topically, kefir and its polysaccharide compounds have even been shown to be effective antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agents for improved wound healing. (13)

As kefir clearly has a wide variety of health benefits, you may be interested in including this fermented dairy beverage in your diet. Cow, goat, or sheep dairy are all good choices, and all types of kefir are generally very low in lactose. Raw milk kefir would be the ideal choice for anyone looking for maximum nutritional quality, but may be challenging for most consumers to find.

Kefir is becoming more mainstream for health-conscious Americans, so you may be able to find full-fat, plain kefir at your local grocery store. Look for a brand with minimal additives and extra ingredients. Good commercial products include Redwood Hill Farm’s Traditional Goat Kefir and Lifeway’s Organic Whole Milk Plain Kefir.

Making your own kefir at home

Finding high quality kefir at your local store may not be an option for you. In this case, you can make your own kefir at home. Making kefir is surprisingly simple, and Cheeseslave has a great instructive blog post on how to make kefir at home. You can buy kefir grains online at sites such as Culture for Health, and provided you take care of the culture, it should last indefinitely. Making kefir from raw dairy products is ideal, but if you don’t have access to raw dairy, you can use organic full-fat dairy, preferably from a grass-fed animal. For those who cannot tolerate any form of dairy, kefir can be made from coconut milk, coconut water, and even just sweetened water, which will provide many of the benefits found in dairy kefir.

Kefir is a great source of vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and a variety of other unique compounds that can greatly contribute to your overall health and wellbeing. I highly recommend including this nutritious superfood in your diet, even if it doesn’t fall under strict “Paleo” guidelines!

567 Comments

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  1. I have only been making kefir for a couple of weeks and have developed extremely itchy eyes over the past couple of days. I do have a few allergies to some pollens,cats and rabbits! I wonder if I may be allergic to kefir. I am loving drinking it but will give up if advised as I don’t want to be causing my system any irritation. Advice greatly received.

  2. I love kefir and enjoy both milk and water kefir and appreciate the wide ranging benefits including reducing inflammation … however as someone with an autoimmune disease (coeliac disease) I’m a little concerned as studies on the effect of kefir on the immune system suggest it may increase CD4 expression and shift Th cell response towards Th-1, which tends to be dominant in many autoimmune diseases such as CD. I know the Th-1/2 theory is perhaps a bit reductionist and indeed CD autoantibody production may be Th-2 driven, but when the aim of autoimmune support is immune balancing I do wonder about kefir and other probiotic rich foods and supplements which may further stimulate an already over reactive immune system. Hmmm… any thoughts very welcome

  3. I have an alpine dairy goat and I make my Kiefer with her milk. I don’t pasteurize so it is raw, but I have noticed my Kiefer milk is much thinner than when I use store bought cow milk. I know the fat is much different in both milks but I worry the Kiefer doesn’t have as much to “eat” bc my goat milk doesn’t have the fat content cows milk does. I hope this makes sense, I just feel like my Kiefer grains slow down growing after a LONG time on the raw goat milk, I will usually do some cows milk once a month to keep them “slimy” and plump. Any other goat milk Kiefer fans on here?

    • Yes…..I have been making Goat kefir for at least six months…..Even though it is pasturized(cannot find raw)….It has cured my hy-pyloric issues…..I feel so much better now…..I use it to make bisuits (with organic sprouted flour)…yummy,also when I can save enough kefir grain…..great for baths and foot soaks….My dog loves it…(sparingly of course)……..Today I am buying non homogenized cows milk…..wondering if this would be better over pasturized g. milk………..Thinking goats milk may be a whole lot better for me then cows(regardless the prep work)…..Would you know Kim?……..Grateful ,Jess

      • I’m glad the kefir is working for you, Jess. Non-homogenized milk is better, imo. Raw milk is best. I just switched to raw, am making it myself daily, and love it much better than the commercial stuff I bought before. It is more digestable.

    • For what it’s worth, I purchased a gallon glass container with a bottom pour spigot.
      As you know the whey protien separates from the casien protien.
      Once my 2% pasteurized cows milk separates completely 50/50, I drain away the whey protien from the bottom not disturbing the thick casien protien that remains on top.
      I pour out the now really thick casien protien Kefir into my Vitamix blender and spin it up.
      I then reintroduce my now super thick creamy Kefir to a 1 quart Mason jar.
      I place a 1/4 inch slice of orange in the jar and place in the fridge to thicken even more.
      I like really thick velvety smooth casien Kefir.
      I have been told that kefir whey protien only lasts 45 minutes in the digestive system whereas casien protien keep you full for up to four hours which it does.

  4. Where I live, water kefir is much more popular than milk Kefir.

    it makes a pleasant fizzy drink and can be flavoured with fruit etc. I make a “ginger beer” with ginger essence.

    I know that it uses different grains, and presumably the bacterial strains are also different. Bacterially, is this type of kefir as beneficial as milk kefir?

    • Jennifer, milk kefir contains between 30-50 strains of probiotic bacteria whereas water kefir only 10-15. Also, dairy milk kefir, especially raw dairy, comes with all its natural good bacteria, enzymes and minerals not present in water kefir. You’ll probably find this article useful, as it explains the differences in much more detail:
      Which is Better – Water Kefir or Milk Kefir? – Cultured Food Life
      https://www.culturedfoodlife.com/which-is-better-water-kefir-or-milk-kefir/
      Good luck.

    • @ Jennifer: I personally believe people should start with water kefir and then work up to milk based kefir. It’s much easier on the gut, if gut issues are a reason you are launching your tastebuds into the kefir kingdom. I actually prefer the water kefir, whether it’s “fizzy” or not. I only let mine “brew” for about 24 – 26 hours, this way it has less “taste or flavor” for those just beginning this trek. Leaving it longer, as much as 48 hours at the most, it will be stronger as it sits longer.

      But, that’s just me. I prefer to start anything new to my health on a very slow basis. I think that’s always better for our body.

  5. Hey Chris

    Great article on Kefir. I am lucky enough to be able to use raw cow’s milk, at least here in the UK them is some degree of sanity about raw milk 🙂

    I see a lot of people with cause/effect observations about their use of Kefir. Constipation being one. Of course, not everything agrees with everyone, we all need to conduct our own n=1 experiments, but I’m intrigued at how something that is potentially positive for the gut biome cause constipation etc?

    Be interested to hear your views.

    • Hi Stephen,

      The difference could well be the type of raw milk, either A1 from Holstein, Friesian, Ayrshire and British Shorthorn, or A2 from Jersey, Guernsey, Charolais and Limousin. A1 can be problematic for many people, causing constipation for one thing, whereas A2 is not. You can read all about the difference in this Mercola article:

      http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/07/09/the-devil-in-the-milk.aspx

      A1 cows tend to produce more milk so are more economically viable. For that reason almost all supermarket milk will be A1. Cows that produce A2 milk are less productive so their milk tends to be reserved for butter and cheese making, i.e. added value products to make the milk production viable. Our source of A2 Jersey milk is in Dorset:

      Modbury Farm Shop at Burton Bradstock
      http://www.modburyfarm.co.uk/

      You can find other raw milk suppliers in England, in Wales, in both North and South Ireland, but not in Scotland where it’s banned, here:
      http://rawmilk.simkin.co.uk/index.html

      Hope this helps.

      • Excellent article, thank you. I’ve been drinking kefir for nearly two years and feel quite good. It is my main staple food, as well as super green powder. I drink 2-3 quarts of kefir/day, depending on the season and my activity level. I also eat fresh berries and salad greens from the garden. I don’t feel the need for much else. Food is an obsession in this world. Many peoples’ days and social lives revolve around eating. An enormous amount of energy is invested in the food industry. From the time the thought germinates in the mind of the farmer (or CEO of a megacorporation), to the time it comes to the meal plate of the consumer is tremendous. Think about it. Who benefits? Then there is the clean-up, and waste products. It is all rather ridiculous, imo. What would people do if they weren’t focused on food? They would have a lot more energy, money, time and better health – physically, mentally and spiritually. Simplifying the diet with kefir as the main source of nutrition frees a person from a complicated life, and frees the stomach from chaos. The gut-brain connection is direct, so improve the gut systems, and improve the brain processing systems.

        • I drink about a quart of kefir a day and like to ferment it until it’s very tart (few, if any sugars left) and a little fizzy. At this point, the whey separates from the protein and fat, and the latter become fairly firm curds. I don’t drink it when it’s at the soft, custardy stage. I love drinking the whey more than anything, and sometimes I feel like the cheese part is too much, especially if I’m not hungry at all. Has anyone tried separating out the curds and making some type of interesting cheese spread or something else? I would love to hear some ideas.

          • I’m in love with this stage of kefir where the curd is very separated from the whey. I’m not totally sure how it gets that way, since most my kefir containers are waiting a few days before I eat the content but it’s rather rare to get a container where the whey separated. Possibly when the heat in the room is quite high the whey separate faster. However the other containers I have in the same space did not have that happening to them.
            Sometimes I use the cream of this, even when this is not well separated from the rest, I use the cream on my body or face.

        • Kristi

          Wish the whole world could read your message….well written………….so true

          Keep on sharing

          Grateful,
          Jess

    • Can I buy kefir product in Melbourne. Vic. Can I have a phone number to a shop?

      SOUNDS LIKE A GREAT PRODUCT.

      • Hello Linda,

        Yes, Blue Bay, cheese producers from Mornington Peninsula produce Kefir Milk and sell it at various Farmers Markets and Deli’s. They also sell Kefir from their own Deli in Frankston. We have been buying their Kefir and cheeses for well over 10 years now.

        Cheers
        Connie

        Blue Bay Deli
        8 Young Street
        Frankston VIC 3199
        Phone: (03) 9783 1714
        bluebaycheese.com.au

    • Re. Constipation: when I eat lots of kefir compared to the rest of my diet, I get constipation. However when I increase fiber type food to a certain point, the constipation disappear. If I eat too much fiber food and too little fiber type food, I get too runny stools. So the easy fix is find a middle stand point between the fiber and non fiber foods. Animal type foods have no fiber and veges, seeds, etc. have plenty.

      • Constipation might be caused by excessive calcium in milk. I recommend magnesium supplements to balance the calcium

    • That’s strange, kifir acts as a laxative to my kids. If they have half a cup in a milkshake with berries, within 2 hours they have a trip to the loo for a clear out!

      • not strange if a person is ALLERGIC to “Casein” (the protein in cow, sheep, or goat). I’m allergic since birth. I wasn’t breast fed (I forgive mom) and I’m 45 now with many autoimmune issues & chronic fatigue, lyme etc, not strong digestion. I try to add Goat Cheese/ kefir to add a variety of probiotics, but gives me joint pain and kefir gives me a headache, stuffy nose and triggers my asthma where I need Antihistamine—Kefir is very high in histamine. 🙁 But, Coconut Water Kefir Agrees with me 🙂

    • Constipation might be caused by excessive calcium in milk. I recommend magnesium supplements to balance the calcium

  6. I started drinking homemade milk kefir (300 ml twice a day) for about 2 months and put on a lot of weight (6 Kgs). The same seems to be happening to the others who started drinking Kefir with me. I stopped and my weight stabilised. I want to start drinking it again, but i’m scared. Any suggestions/advice? Also, I haven’t found any website that mentions weight gain as a side effect of Kefir. They mainly speak of weight loss. Lastly, can Kefir help tackle my candida issue or there is a possibility that it may worsen things? I looks forward to your response, please.

    • Hi Karan,

      Are you sure you’re making your kefir correclty, as it sounds like there’s still lots of lactose remaining in the finished product? Here’s how I make mine from raw Jersey milk with up to 30% cream, you may have to fine tune the quantities and times for your milk:

      Kefir Instructions
      In the package you’ll find some soft kefir grains, looking a bit like over-cooked cauliflower, in raw, whole milk. Follow these instructions to make kefir.

      1. Place 70g (2.5 ounces) sieved grains in a one litre (one quart) glass jar.
      2. Fill with fresh, raw, whole milk.
      3. Cover with a lid or cloth.
      4. Leave for 24 hours at room temperature (20 degrees C, 68 F) or until whey starts to separate from the milk.
      5. Pour through a stainless steel sieve, gently rubbing the grains with a wooden spoon to separate out all the thicker kefir.
      6. Place 70g grains back in the jar, discarding or freezing any extra, see below.
      7. Refill with fresh, raw, whole milk.
      8. Stir, cap with a lid or cloth and leave for 24 hours as before.
      9. Whisk kefir to disperse any solids.
      10. Drink immediately or keep in fridge for second ferment.

      Do not heat the milk, room temperature is fine.
      The kefir grains will grow with each batch and, if left in the milk, the kefir will take less time to ferment, so you can do one of four things:
      (a) place the fermenting kefir in the fridge to slow down the process to keep it in sync with your consumption;
      (b) use only 70g in each new batch and freeze the balance in a zip-lock bag, both to keep for yourself as a backup and to give to others who may wish to start making kefirl
      (c) add the balance to your smoothie for a probiotic boost;
      (d) discard the balance, although that seems a waste.
      You will soon learn how your kefir grains work best and can vary the times and procedures accordingly.
      If the milk does start to separate in to curds and whey, just stir the whey back in or use the whey as a starter culture to ferment vegetables.
      The longer the kefir ferments the more sour it will become.
      It will continue to ferment very slowly after sieving, but will keep for several days in the fridge.
      Any milk can be used, but the healthiest option is to use fresh, raw, whole milk.
      There’s no need to wash the jar after each ferment, once a week is sufficient.

      • I holiday cultured food for Life website and started making kefir about six or eight months ago. I top off my smoothies with it in the morning and actually crave it. I do a first for meant like you said and the second ferment I do on the counter. Usually takes about 6 hours but I’m considering leaving it longer to use it more lactose. My husband was just diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and I’m following the doctor axe website in order to try to find out how to reverse the condition. I’m hoping that kefir is an allowable food since I’ve converted him to a juicer now!

    • Hi Karan,

      I also had the same experience when I started drinking 500ml of kefir *on top of my regular diet*, which, at the time, also included lots of starches like oatmeal and sourdough bread. Now I have cut out the starches, and use about 400-500ml of kefir with added cream as my entire lunch. My weight is back to normal and I don’t gain anything.

      So it could have been either that the kefir on top of the diet was simply providing me with too many calories, or that the rich fatty kefir in combination with all those starches was a recipe for disaster.

      Hope this provides some further clues 🙂

    • Full-fat milk does have a lot of calories, and despite what Paleo folks say about only consuming full-fat milk products, I don’t think it should apply to a fermented product like kefir. I use 1% milk in my kefir, only because I like to drink a lot of it, and it would be way too filling if I used full-fat milk. Despite what some hardcore, old-school Paleo people may tell you, fat IS fattening when consumed in amounts beyond what your body can use. When adding extra fat to your diet, some people will automatically reduce calories elsewhere, and that’s what we all hope for (and what we’ve been told would happen), but unfortunately it isn’t a guaranteed response. Trust me, I’ve been mostly Paleo since the mid 90s, and have experimented with low-carb/high fat since the 80s.

      I also recommend fermenting FULLY past the custardy stage until your kefir is quite sour (the sugars will be reduced considerably). At this point, the whey and the curds will be fully separated, and unless you blend them somehow, they will not be a smooth drink like the kefir you buy in the store. At this point you will also get a TON of probiotics from your kefir.

      • I just started making my own kefir and it is getting better and better each time. I use Kalona non-homogenized whole organic milk from grass fed cows. It is rich and yummy but it doesn’t feel like it is too filling. It feels nourishing and life-giving.

    • I have had candida issues.
      I started consuming kefir for 2 months before I developed problems. The symptoms started slow with stomach pain, then becoming acute within 3 weeks from the onset of the original pain. I asked many doctors and wasn’t finding an answer. The symptoms were consistent with gall stones or pancreatitis. An ultrasound and upper endoscopy revealed the only problem was an irritation to the lining of my stomach and an increased production of stomach acid.
      I now believe the stomach pain stemmed from a combination of two things, 1) Benadryl, that I had used for an extended period of time and 2) consuming kefir. I have had two people in the medical field tell me a potential side effect of kefir is that it relaxes the muscle closing the stomach off from the esophagus. As that muscle relaxes it allows stomach acid to travel up the esophagus more easily. I am finally healing, slowly, now that I have removed those two items from my diet. Just pulling one out or the other didn’t not have the same effect as eliminating both sources to the problem.
      I have now suffered for 4 months as I have tried to decipher the root of the acid reflux.
      I hope my experience helps others identify a stomach problem that may be caused by kefir. It was particularly hard to identify because the symptom development was gradual.
      I believe after I am well I could tolerate an occasional kefir consumption. Best of luck!

    • Hi Tony…did you get an answer to your question? I am intolerant to casein, but interested in kefir? Can casein intolerant people tolerate yogurt if they can tolerate kefir?

  7. Water kefir cannot be made with milk kefir grains. They are different than milk kefir grains. You should update the last paragraphs to reflect that. Just FYI.

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