KEFIR - the wonder food (and the bee in my bonnet)

My milk-based kefir-grains Strained kefir and kefir grains in water.

[Pictures acknowledged with thanks to Dom's Kefir in-site]

Twenty-five years ago, while living in Hong Kong, and on a flight to Seoul, Korea, I sat next to a charming German named Manfred, who lived and ran a company in Manila, Philippines. He it was who told me about a product called Kefir that he and his partner produced at home from milk, and he claimed that it possessed the most remarkable healthful and curative properties.

Some weeks later, having taken his business card, I contacted him when making a business trip to Manila and met him again together with his delightful partner.  They insisted I take with me, back to Hong Kong, a sample of this product.  A very small (half walnut-sized) white culture, resembling a small piece of cauliflower, in a jam jar, immersed in milk.  They also gave me a typewritten information sheet, telling me how to make the product from the culture, how to partake of the product, how to keep the culture healthy, how to dispose of it as it grew larger over a short period, and how to use it to cure various illnesses.

This information sheet (author unknown) which is often distributed with fresh grains when they are given to friends, informs one that the people from the Caucasus drink Kefir instead of water and eat thickened Kefir in place of a dessert. Their life expectancy lies between 110 - 150 years (the latter not being a rare occurrence). They do not have cancer, tuberculosis or digestive disorders. Professor Dr. Kanschlikow devoted a large part of his life to Kefir research and has observed its healing effect on the following disorders: catarrh, digestive nodes, stomach ulcers, anemia, all kinds of eczema, astral nodes, bilious complaints, hepatitis, diarrhoea, constipation and high blood pressure. Kefir prevents the decay of residual influence on the process of convalescence and may even be administered as a substitute for mothers milk.  Kefir may be taken daily, preferably with the evening meal (also as a sweet alone). In case of serious illness, a dose is recommended of a litre a day. Kefir is not only a medication but also a special nourishment. It may be used instead of sour cream for salads and sauces.  

[I use it regularly in place of dahi when making my "authentic" Indian curries.]

Apart from a six-month period when a somewhat bitter ex-wife refused to let me have any of the culture, preferring to flush it down the loo, until my son was able to "smuggle" some to me, I have taken it daily ever since.  I am reminded of a meeting with an aged Chinese gentleman in Taipei, many years ago, when he insisted on giving me a large supply of a particularly aromatic Chinese tea, for which he also claimed special healthful properties.  I take it all the time, he told me.  And then (he had a wicked sense of humour), "You wouldn't believe I am 35 years old, would you?"  But the fact is that I do attribute my youthful zest and energy to this product.

Here are some quotes from various Internet sites.  The sites themselves will be found at:  

Kefir is a cultured, creamy product with amazing health attributes. Its tart and refreshing flavor is similar to a drinking-style yogurt, but it contains beneficial yeast as well as friendly 'probiotic' bacteria found in yogurt.  For the lactose intolerant, kefir's abundance of beneficial yeast and bacteria provide lactase, an enzyme which consumes most of the lactose left after the culturing process.     

In addition to beneficial bacteria and yeast, kefir contains minerals and essential amino acids that help the body with healing and maintenance functions. The complete proteins in kefir are partially digested and therefore more easily utilized by the body. Tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids abundant in kefir, is well known for its relaxing effect on the nervous system. Because kefir also offers an abundance of calcium and magnesium, which are also important minerals for a healthy nervous system, kefir in the diet can have a particularly profound calming effect on the nerves. Kefir's ample supply of phosphorus, the second most abundant mineral in our bodies, helps utilize carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for cell growth, maintenance and energy.  Kefir is rich in Vitamin B12, B1, and Vitamin K. It is an excellent source of biotin, a B Vitamin which aids the body's assimilation of other B Vitamins, such as folic acid, pantothenic acid, and B12. The numerous benefits of maintaining adequate B vitamin intake range from regulation of the kidneys, liver and nervous system to helping relieve skin disorders, boost energy and promote longevity. 

The benefits of consuming kefir regularly in the diet are numerous. Easily digested, it cleanses the intestines, provides beneficial bacteria and yeast, vitamins and minerals, and complete proteins. Because kefir is such a balanced and nourishing food, it contributes to a healthy immune system and has been used to help patients suffering from AIDS , chronic fatigue syndrome, herpes, and cancer. Its tranquilizing effect on the nervous system has benefited many who suffer from sleep disorders, depression, and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).  

The regular use of kefir can help relieve all intestinal disorders, promote bowel movement, reduce flatulence and create a healthier digestive system. In addition, its cleansing effect on the whole body helps to establish a balanced inner ecosystem for optimum health and longevity.  

     Kefir can also help eliminate unhealthy food cravings by making the body more nourished and balanced. Its excellent nutritional content offers healing and health-maintenance benefits to people in every type of condition.


History of Kefir

Kefir is a fermented milk similar to yoghurt.
  It is one of the oldest cultured milk products in existence, enjoying widespread popularity in Russia and the Caucasus. The history of kefir making and the legends connected to this amazing food are described below.

Amongst the people of the northern slopes of the Caucasian Mountains there is a legend that Mohammed gave kefir grains to the Orthodox people and taught them how to make kefir. The 'Grains of the Prophet’ were guarded jealously since it was believed that they would lose their strength if the grains were given away and the secret of how to use them became common knowledge.

Kefir grains were regarded as part of the family's and tribe's wealth and they were passed on from generation to generation.
  So, for centuries the people of the northern Caucasus enjoyed this food without sharing it with anyone else they came into contact with.
Other peoples occasionally heard strange tales of this unusual beverage which was said to have ‘magical’ properties. Marco Polo mentioned kefir in the chronicles of his travels in the East.

However, kefir was forgotten outside the Caucasus for centuries until news spread of its use for the treatment of tuberculosis in sanatoria and for intestinal and stomach diseases. Russian doctors believed that kefir was beneficial for health and the first scientific studies for kefir were published at the end of the nineteenth century.
However, kefir was extremely difficult to obtain and commercial production was not possible without first obtaining a source of grains.

Commercial manufacture of kefir on a large scale began in Russia, in the 1930s. However, it is difficult to produce kefir by conventional methods on a commercial scale.  Traditionally, kefir was made in cows or goats milk in sacks made from the hides of animals. Occasionally it was also made in clay pots or wooden buckets or oak vats and in some areas sheeps milk was also used. Usually the kefir sacks were hung in the sun during the day and brought back into the house at night, when they were hung near the door. Everyone who entered or left the house was expected to prod the sack with their foot to mix the contents. As kefir was removed more fresh milk was added, making the fermentation process continuous.

By the 1930’s kefir was being made as a set-type product which entailed growing a quantity of grains milk and then straining out the grains and adding the cultured milk to a larger batch of fresh milk. The mixture was incubated and, when set, allowed to cool.  Unfortunately, this type of product was not as good as the one produced using the tradition home-style method. During the 1950’s workers at the All-Union Dairy Research Institute (VNIMI) developed a new method for commercial kefir production which gave a drink similar to that produced in the home by traditional methods. The kefir was produced by the stirred method. Fermentation, coagulation, agitation, ripening and cooling, were carried out in a large vessel, and then the kefir was bottled.

In 1973 the Minister of the Food Industry of the Soviet Union sent a letter to Irina Sakharova thanking her for bringing kefir to the Russian people. Presently, kefir is the most popular fermented milk in Russia. Various reports have stated that it accounts for between 65% and 80% of total fermented milk sales in Russia with production of over 1.2 million tons per year in 1988. The average yearly consumption of kefir in the Soviet Union was estimated at approximately 4.5 kilograms per person per year in the early 1980s. Currently kefir is being manufactured on a commercial scale in Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia and various of the former soviet union states, Denmark, the United States, France, West Germany, Canada and parts of southeast Asia.

Why Eat Kefir?

If you think that the only thing that can heal is a drug then you may see Kefir as a powerful drug. Considering the therapeutic value of Kefir some may think it's a drug but it definitely is not, it is simple living food. A drug is something that people take to help for a certain period of time in a disease, like a pain killer against pain. Healthy living food is something to preserve our health and life - to maintain our healthy body. Attempts to see if something is a drug or a food does not need millions of dollars of expense. One can make a test very simply and easily. If you take something, and you can live in good health without negative side effects, then it is a food. The term drug is used for something that you take only in very small dosages, and where you can't live in good health if the drug is your only intake.

Drugs are based on sickness, not on healthiness.  For maintaining health or to regain health, only living matter can help in the longer term.

When I studied Agriculture over 30 years ago, one of our teachers warned that by over-use of antibiotics we will develop resistant strains against those antibiotics that they are not effective anymore. It was a monk who was not educated in veterinary medicine. On the other side our professional teacher for veterinary medicine had scientific evidence about different antibiotics. He explained, backing it up with scientific proof, that antibiotics don't harm, not even in the long term. We hear similar stories of developing resistance from chemical industries producing sprays against all sorts of plants and insects. The chemical industry produces new products every few years, stronger and more effective, and now,when we look back to the old monk we must confess that he was right, not only with antibiotics but with all of modern agriculture.

How many resistant strains of unfriendly bacteria and viruses do we have now? Think only about TB, the nearly forgotten illness. According to reports in the last 12 months, 3,000,000 people worldwide die from TB. The antibiotic treatments which worked very efficiently years ago are now useless with these new resistant strains.

If you think agriculture and drugs of modern medicine have nothing to do with Kefir you should think again.

A well balanced intestinal flora is a key for successful treatment of illness. Antibiotics are not very selective as to which bacteria they eliminate. They kill and destroy the balance. When taking antibiotics, a brief improvement may be noticed because the antibiotics kill the unfriendly bacteria that make us ill which is the reason they are taken. But they kill the friendly bacteria as well and disturb the balance. With a disturbed intestinal flora the body's immune system suffers and we are more open to develop new illnesses. Antibiotics are taken again, and again, and ...... it's an endless downwards spiral.

Coming back to the old monk, he saw the discovery of penicillin as gods blessing when it's used in cases where penicillin is the only answer in a life or death situation. He recommended that in these cases after antibiotic treatment, sour cream, butter milk, yoghurt (natural only of course) should be taken to rebuild the intestinal flora.

In short, friendly bacteria can aid in:

  • allergies
  • arthritis
  • cancer
  • bowel problems
  • colitis
  • gout
  • migraine
  • rheumatism
  • stomach disorders
  • building up the body's own immune system and detoxifying it.
  • playing a vital and important role in the development of a healthy digestive tract in babies.
  • controlling high cholesterol levels and in this way protecting you from cardio vascular damage. Bowel function is enhanced. Some literature recommends that against constipation, a fermentation time of only 24 hrs works like a mild laxative. Kefir fermented for 48 hours has a balancing effect.
  • People with candida albicans may be worried about the yeast's in Kefir. Experience shows that the disease is an imbalance of intestinal flora and friendly bacteria. Yeast helps to rebalance the intestinal flora and fight candida albicans.
  • Lactic acid fermentation enhances the digestibility of milk based foods. People who cannot otherwise digest milk, can enjoy the vital calcium rich Kefir.
  • During fermentation the bacteria produces the enzyme lactase and in this way predigests and enhances the protein quality in the milk for a better absorption and digestion.
  • Scientific studies in different countries show that friendly bacteria have an anti-tumour potential and act as anti-carcenogenic (anti-cancer) agents.
  • The symptoms of anxiety are reduced.
  • They produce specific antibiotic substances and eliminate unfriendly bacteria.
  • Instead of trying to treat acne externally, with the help of friendly bacteria in the intestine acne disappears by itself in many cases.
  • Friendly bacteria manufacture B vitamins such as B3, B6 and folic acid.
  • In Russia, Kefir is commonly used to aid in TB treatment.
  • Doctor Drasek saw the potential of Kefir before the second world war and the cure of catarrh of the breathing organs, stomach cramps, chronic intestine infections, liver infections, gall problems, and bladder problems and recommended it to people for recovering after heavy illness. It is used as well against pregnancy eczema and female ailments.
  • Cardish-Umbricht uses Kefir as an aid in nearly all illness and as treatment especially for internal ulcers, asthma, bronchitis, all types of scleroses, gall, liver and kidney infections, stomach and intestinal problems like diarrhoea and constipation, anemia, rashes and eczema. The dosage she recommends is one litre per day. For skin disorders a dosage of 1/2 a litre is recommended plus additional washings with Kefir of the problem areas. Kefir is rubbed in the skin and left over night.