Meet Yogurt's Feel-Good Cousin, Kefir

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Kefir, pronounced just like the first name of actor Kiefer Sutherland and not to be confused with kaffir, a type of lime, is a cultured milk. “So many people don’t know what it is,” says Jennifer Lynn Bice, owner of Redwood Hill Farm and Green Valley Organics, who starting making kefir on her family farm back in 1978. “It’s like a sister or cousin to yogurt in that it starts out with milk and we add beneficial bacteria or cultures.” Bice says the process leaves kefir liquidy and drinkable, whereas yogurt remains spoonable. The differences don’t stop there.

“For a product to be designated yogurt it has to be made with real milk, but it also has to have two cultures, or two probiotics: lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus,” explains Bice. Unlike yogurts, kefir contains a higher level of live cultures or probiotics. “You see people drinking shots of probiotics, but like [with] so many other things, you can get the same benefits from eating it in natural food — if you’re eating the right food.”

Why should you include these live cultures as part of your daily diet? Probiotics protect you from bad bacteria that may enter the body by way of foodborne illnesses, colds and flus. Another bonus: Kefir is derived from the Turkish word keif, which translates to a “good feeling” or “state of ecstasy.” Bice says, “After you drink kefir, it gives you a little euphoria and feels good in your digestive system.”

Are you ready to strengthen your immune system and rev up your body’s engine? Here are three kefir options, from sweet to lactose free.

Five Acre Farms

Varieties: Plain and Maple

Why It’s Different: Each batch of Five Acre Farms kefir is made at Sunrise Family Farms in Norwich, N.Y., where they use only local whole milk. ‘We start with fresh, creamy local whole milk and leave it alone,” explains Five Acre Farms spokesperson Caroline Gentile. “We don’t take anything out and add nothing but carefully selected live, active cultures and, in the case of the maple variety, pure, local maple syrup.”

In addition to the wholesomeness of the product, Sunrise Family Farms believes firmly in supporting the local economy. Sunrise’s Charlie Reinshagen (a second-generation farmer), Sandy Grant (a fifth-generation farmer) and their partner, Dave Evans (a third-generation farmer), work with 10 local dairy farms employing a total of 50 full-time workers. “We couldn’t be prouder to be making great-tasting dairy products and creating local jobs,” says Grant.

Redwood Hill Farm

Varieties: Goat’s Milk

Why It’s Different: “You’re getting a bigger bouquet of cultures and probiotics than you would get in yogurt,” says Bice, given that Redwood offers more than 5 billion probiotics per serving. Second, Redwood’s kefir is made with fresh goat’s milk sourced from family dairy farmers as well as their own 350 grass-fed goats. “Most people think milk is milk and has the same flavor,” says Bice. “Most milk is comingled, but we have single source and we talk directly to who is raising the animal.”

It’s no surprise that Redwood was also the first goat dairy in the U.S. to be Certified Humane. “We ensure the animals are given a good life and that it’s not a factory farm,” says Bice. Those who suffer from milk allergies may find Redwood Hill Farm solves their problem.

Green Valley Organics

Variety: Lactose-Free

Why It’s Different: If you can’t tolerate lactose but want to try kefir, go with Green Valley Organics. No chemicals are used in the process and the nutritional composition of the cow’s milk has not been altered in any way. Instead the lactase enzyme is added in the process along with the proprietary blend of 10 probiotics. Each strain is selected for its complementary role, which contributes to the kefir’s tangy, smooth texture.

Kiri Tannenbaum is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and holds an M.A. in food studies from New York University where she is currently an adjunct professor. When her schedule allows, she leads culinary walking tours in New York City and is currently at work on her first book.