The 2,000-year-old femented dairy beverage isn't going anywhere

By Rebecca Firkser
May 29, 2018
Photo by @lifewaykefir via Instagram

Walk through the refrigerated section of the grocery store and you’ll find dozens of drinks, spreads, shakes, and condiments promising to fill your gut with good bacteria. If you’re too busy with coconut yogurt and probiotic-fortified kombucha, you might miss kefir, a fermented and cultured dairy milk that’s been around for thousands of years. With origins in 19th-Century Russia, kefir is tart and slightly effervescent as a result of the probiotic cultures.

“Kefir is the champagne of dairy,” said Julie Smolyansky, CEO of Lifeway Foods. Smolyansky grew up drinking the beverage in Russia, before she and her parents were among 48 refugees allowed to settle in Chicago in 1976. Smolyansky’s parents missed the kefir they drank in their old home, so they started Lifeway Foods to bring those familiar flavors to their new country. Explaining that kefir survived as a product for so long due to folklore about the drink’s “mystic healing powers,” Smolyansky told me that we now have the science to support those myths praising the power of good bacteria. Primarily renowned for its ability to strengthen the gut’s microbiome, kefir and other fermented dairy products can lead to a stronger immune and digestive system. Smolyansky also mentioned new scientific findings which link fermented foods to improving mental health, research like this 2014 study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology.

“Modern lifestyle has created a greater need for probiotics like kefir because of the overuse of antibiotics, hand sanitizers, and antibacterial soaps destroying all our natural and important microflora,” Smolyansky said. “Many doctors believe this is why we have [an] increase in autoimmune disorders and food allergies, along with other epidemic disorders we haven’t seen in recent times.” Smolyansky also noted that travel, stress, and other environmental conditions impact our gut bacteria, and she has found that replenishing that microflora with probiotics like kefir to be beneficial.

With the rapidly growing popularity of dairy-free beverages and yogurts by people who have no complications digesting dairy, Smolyansky worries that bone health could be a major concern, especially for women, in the future.

“'Influencers' and ‘wellness enthusiasts’ sharing their various extreme elimination diets [leave] consumers feeling pretty confused about what to eat, creating a similar dietary panacea we’ve seen in other decades,” Smolyansky said. Though she doesn’t support trend diets, kefir is almost entirely lactose-free and can be consumed by those who are lactose-intolerant. Further, Smolyansky wants to stress that even non-fermented milk-based products shouldn’t be written off simply because they contain dairy.

When it comes to drinking kefir, Smolyansky is a purist, preferring to drink plain kefir straight from the bottle. However, kefir can be used in place of milk or yogurt in anything from smoothies to salad dressings to baked goods. Smolyansky thinks her kefir works especially well when strained into labneh for breakfast. She tops it with granola, drizzly peanut butter, and fruit. For a more laid-back breakfast, Smolyansky recommends smearing kefir labneh over waffles (made with a kefir batter, of course) and listening to the playlist she created exclusively for the dish.