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Contributed to the Food Reference Website by Anna
Anna Huddleston

Breakfast at a vacation-style “sanatorium” or lunch at the factory canteen, kefir was always there on the steel shelves of the coolers to greet the hungry comrades back in the Soviet times. Same as hardboiled eggs, a daily portion of this tart, creamy dairy drink was mandatory to insure the workers good health and happy mood. Kefir was consumed even if a yellowish crust was forming on top, which was considered the sign of high fat content and thus the indicator of the superior quality of the product. As the country changed and the three-course lunches gave way to Happy Meals, the kefir-filled glasses grew somewhat rare. But the love for this healthy drink was deep imbedded into the Russian mentality and as the industries began to slowly revive, so did kefir.

No wonder the Russians hold this culture-processed drink so dear. According to the legend, Mohammed gave the kefir “grains” as a gift to the Orthodox, with comprehensive instruction on how to use them. In exchange, the Orthodox promised to keep the gift a secret. Legends aside, the shepherds in the Caucasian mountains have known the drink for centuries, as it was an easy and effective way to preserve milk. It is known that they would leave small amounts of kefir in their leather sacks to cause the fermentation of the fresh milk. Some sources claim that Marco Polo mentioned this technique in his diaries. Surprisingly, the drink wasn’t introduced in Russia until early 1900’s, when the Tsar commissioned two Caucuses-based cheese makers to bargain out some precious “grains”.

So what is it in kefir that makes the tsars take risks and is worth such close guarding? What is commonly known as the “grains” are white clusters the size of wheat kernels. They consist of casein and gelatinous colonies of microorganisms, the most plentiful of which are Saccharamyces kefir, Torula kefir, Lactobacillus caucasicus and Leuconnostoc species. Some of these cultures can be found separately in many cultured milk products, yet is it only in kefir that they grow symbiotically and provide the reported health benefits of the product. Another difference between kefir and yogurt, for example, is that the kefir cultures will migrate into the body and spread around the intestines to help them function better and to restore the damaged tissues.

Inspiring regularity is just one of the benefits of kefir the Russians brag about. Some drink it for its easily digested proteins, some consume it as a major food group while dieting. It is rich in B vitamins, Folic acid and reportedly helps to maintain healthy colon and the entire digestive system. Even the lactose intolerant can safely indulge in it. It is also known as a great hangover cure. Most, however, like kefir for its refreshing, crisp taste and for its reputation as the healthy drink. In old Soviet movies the image of three people sharing a carton of kefir was considered an antidote to the same group disappearing a bottle of vodka.

Some ten years ago, kefir could only be found in thick glass jars with purple caps and a little later in tall cartons with little green clovers. But as the industries started to pick up, every dairy plant thought it a must to offer their own version, which now range from 0,5 liter plastic packets to tall easy-to-drink bottles. The kefirs are also diversified by the fat content (Russians are getting fat-conscious too), and flavors. Facing this abundance of choices, the consumers became more sophisticated and now carefully pick the brands and make sure that the “bifido” content – the amount of the actual live culture – is high. Foreign brands, such as Danone and Nestle, often fade in the light of domestic products, especially if produced by a local dairy. Seems like the closer to home, the more popular the kefir.

Still somewhat a novelty, kefir slowly makes its way into the U.S., where the most likely places to find it are the whole food stores, specialty grocers and the kosher sections of supermarkets. Most of dairy sections offer Helios and Lifeway Kefir brands. Even though it may say on the bottle that the product contains live cultures, it is often impossible to tell its percentage because there are no strict regulations and the manufacturers are not required to list it. It is also important to buy the kefir that hasn’t been pasteurized, since the process kills all the bacteria – disruptive and healthy. Flavored kefirs might be lower in actual bacteria content, because same as people, the bacteria would rather munch on sugar in the additives than milk, and the product might be not as thoroughly fermented.  It is also possible to buy dry kefir culture online and make your own kefir. Whichever the case, this ancient drink still brings health and vitality today.



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