Here we will look at whether kefir is vegan and, if so, whether it is something that vegans should be adding to their diets. Kefir is a fermented milk drink that has traditionally been consumed in various parts of the world but is becoming increasingly fashionable as we learn more about the importance of the microbiome.
Kefir is not a food that everyone will be familiar with though, and should not be confused with the kaffir lime (known by some in more modern times as the makrut lime), the leaf of which is a mainstay of Southeast Asian food. Before we look at anything else, let’s start at the beginning.
What Is Kefir?
As said, kefir is a fermented milk drink. Fermentation is a complex process that we may associate with bread or, more probably, alcoholic drinks, such as beer or Champagne. It probably originated in the Caucasus region in Eastern Europe and is widely consumed in countries including Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and Hungary, as well as various Scandinavian nations.
As noted, however, there is a growing interest in kefir in the west. This is because the fermentation process leads to it containing a large number of healthy microbes, often referred to as “good bacteria”. These microorganisms have very long names and we won’t be listing them all but the ones most commonly found, certainly in commercially produced kefir, are types of lactobacilli. These microbes exist in properly made kefir in huge numbers and it is believed they may offer a very wide range of benefits.
Because of the fermentation process, kefir contains alcohol, though typically 1% or less by volume. The fermentation also makes the drink lightly effervescent, with a tart, tangy flavour that can initially seem at odds with the creamy texture. Its viscosity lies somewhere between milk and yoghurt and it can either be drunk as it is, or used in a range of dishes and drinks.
Whilst some of the health claims surrounding kefir and other similar fermented foodstuffs may lack thoroughly robust scientific support, there is certainly a growing belief among respected scientists and nutrition experts that we should consume more of these healthy fermented foods and drinks. We can also be certain that for most people, such drinks certainly don’t cause any harm. But, let’s move on to the key question, is kefir suitable for those who adhere to a plant-based lifestyle?
Kefir Is Normally Made with Dairy Milk
The word Kefir has been around since the end of the 19th century, whilst the drink itself no doubt goes back further. It is a fermented milk drink and back then, milk meant dairy milk. Kefir was made with milk from goats, sheep and cows and traditionally was fermented inside animal-skin bags.
As we explain elsewhere on the site dairy milk is not vegan, whilst an extra layer of “non-veganness” is provided by the storage/fermentation vessel. Of course, in modern times, few of us are ever likely to come into kefir or other similar drinks that have been made in goatskins. Glass, plastics and metal have long since replaced the skin of dead animals as the preferred material for making, storing and transporting kefir.
Sadly though, when it comes to what it is made of, dairy milk remains the base of all “normal” kefir. As such, should you see kefir in the supermarket or anywhere else, it will be non-vegan as standard. However, as any vegan knows, there are countless plant-based options available as alternatives to milk derived from animals. But can we make vegan kefir from these?
Vegan Kefir-Style Options
Vegan kefir is indeed a possibility, which is great news for any vegans out there who want to give this potentially healthy drink a try. The kefir “grains” that are at the heart of the fermentation can be vegan. They are a type of SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), an acronym more normally associated with kombucha, and as such, if produced in the right way, can be fully vegan.
Whilst lactose is usually the preferred food for these yeasts and bacteria, they can propagate on other sugars. Lactose is sometimes referred to as “milk sugar” and generally only occurs in animal milk. In theory, it could be synthesised but vegan kefir products simply use an alternative, plant-derived sugar to feed the grains.
Various vegan kefir, or perhaps more accurately, kefir-style products exist. Some of these are water/fruit-based, whilst others use vegan milk, most commonly coconut milk as the base. Vegan kefir may not have quite the same quantity of healthy bacteria as dairy versions, nor the range of different cultures. However, they certainly have more than enough to offer some of the same benefits as kefir made with animal milk.
Should Vegans Consume Kefir?
Obviously traditional kefir is off the menu for vegans but with similar, plant-based options available, should vegan-friendly kefir be something that vegans look to consume? Well, it certainly won’t do you any harm, so if you want to give it a try there is no reason not to.
There is growing evidence to suggest that consuming fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, kombucha, kefir and sourdough bread can help us have a healthier and more diverse microbiome. The microbiome is the name given to the trillions of microbes that live inside our gut. These consist of bacteria, fungi, viruses, archaea and other organisms.
Amazingly, there are believed to be more non-human cells in our body than human ones (or at the very least around the same number, with various leading researchers disagreeing). There are some very wild claims about exactly what these microbes can affect but this is becoming one of the most studied areas of human health.
Can Be Good for Your Gut
There is a growing body of robust evidence to suggest that gut microbiota has a huge role to play in nutrition and health. It can impact both physical and mental health, the immune system, metabolism and more. As a general rule, the more diverse an individual’s microbiome, the better their health is likely to be.
Heavily processed foods, medications (such as antibiotics) and other diet and lifestyle factors (such as poor sleep) are believed to create an imbalanced microbiome. In simple terms, this means less diversity, fewer “good” microbes and more “bad” ones. In contrast, a varied diet packed with fruit and veg, wholegrains, and that is generally high in fibre (sounds almost like a vegan diet you might say!), has been linked with a healthier microbiome.
Fermented foods, packed as they are with all sorts of positive bacteria, are increasingly being seen as some of the best things we can consume in relation to the health of our gut. As is so often the case, more research is needed to fully back up some of the current thinking.
However, the more research that is done, the more likely it seems that fermented foods (sadly not including typical alcoholic drinks) are likely to be very beneficial to health. And, with vegan kefir being a low-calorie, low-sugar option that won’t harm you, we would suggest it is certainly worth considering.