Kefir: Ancient elixir of the Caucasus
I start every morning by pouring myself a glass of unsweetened whole milk kefir and add to it two tablespoons of POM Wonderful (pure pomegranate extract). I stir it up and it looks and tastes like a rich and beautiful berry smoothie. It is the perfect way to start the day.
Kefir (kee-fer) is a fermented, probiotic milk drink from the Caucasus Mountains in the former Soviet Union. The name kefir loosely translated means “pleasure” or “good feeling.” Due to its health-promoting properties, kefir was once considered a gift from the gods. Fortunately it is being rediscovered and recognized for its many health and beauty benefits.
Kefir can best be described as a sort of liquid, sparkling yogurt, with its own distinct and deliciously mild, naturally sweet, yet tangy flavor—with a refreshing hint of natural carbonation. Its unique taste and almost mystical reputation as a longevity elixir explains why people all over Europe are making kefir (along with similar fermented drinks) their beverage of choice. Sales are even beginning to rival top soft drink brands.
Unlike yogurt, which is created from milk by adding certain lactic acid bacteria, kefir is made by combining milk with a pinch of “kefir grains”—the folk term coined to describe a complex mixture of yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria. The small amount of carbon dioxide, alcohol, and aromatic compounds produced by the cultures give kefir its distinct fizzy, tangy taste.
Kefir also contains unique polysaccharides (long chain sugars) called kefiran, which may be responsible for some of its health benefits. Much of the Russian research on its health benefits remains un-translated, and Western research is in its early stages—but the results to date support kefir’s impressive folk reputation.
This mildly self-carbonated beverage continues to be popular in the Caucasus, Russia and southwestern Asia, and recently gained wide popularity in Western Europe. In the United States, most natural food stores and the “whole food” chain markets found in urban areas—such as Whole Foods Market—carry kefir. Given the ever-increasing popularity of yogurt and yogurt drinks here, I predict it won’t be long before the big U.S. supermarket chains follow suit. However, as with yogurt, beware of products laden with sugars and fructose. Buy plain, unsweetened kefir and flavor with mixed berries or the fruit of your choice.
Kefir’s health benefits
In addition to kefir’s ancient reputation as a healthy drink, it has been famously credited with the extraordinary longevity of people in the Caucasus. Hospitals in the former Soviet Union use kefir—especially when no modern medical treatment is available—to treat conditions ranging from atherosclerosis, allergic disease, metabolic and digestive disorders, and tuberculosis to cancer and gastrointestinal disorders.
A number of studies conducted to date have documented kefir’s ability to stimulate the immune system, enhance lactose digestion, and inhibit tumors, fungi, and pathogens— including the bacteria that cause most ulcers. This makes a lot of sense as scientists have since discovered that most ulcers are caused by an infection with the bacterium, Helicobacter pylori and not spicy food, stomach acid or stress, as physicians erroneously believed for years.
Scientists are now discovering that a great many inflammatory diseases (including certain types of heart disease) can be triggered by a bacterium. And that provides all the more reason to enjoy kefir as part of your daily diet.