Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Kefir: Bringing Home Old World Magic

Old traditions always seem to come full circle, especially when it comes to food and health. Usually it just takes a TV celebrity like Oprah or Dr. Oz to tell the world that you should eat it.  Kefir is a good example of this - a 2000 year old traditional food that is just now starting to gain popularity in North America.  Kefir grains originated in the Caucasus Mountain region - a mountain range dividing Europe and Asia - to create a wonderful elixir, full of beneficial bacteria that will help to restore the inner ecology of the body.  

Kefir is ancient and is shrouded in mystery - what the heck are kefir 'grains' anyway?  They are not true grains, but resemble jellied lumps of cauliflower (a matrix of bacteria consisting of various strains of friendly yeasts and lactobacilli, fats, sugars and proteins),  yet when you add milk you will get a delicious probiotic milk drink.  It is sour and tangy, kind of like a liquid version of yogurt.  A bit of in-home kitchen magic!

Those lumps create this:  

There are two varieties of kefir grains. Milk kefir grains, which are cultured in a dairy medium such as cow, goat, sheep, or coconut milk, or water kefir grains, which feed on a mixture of sugar and water.  Water kefir results in a beverage that is fizzy like pop, but unlike soft drinks on the market, this drink is full of enzymes, vitamins and probiotics.  It is a favourite at our house, especially in the summer.  

Now I probably need to do some explaining because I can hear many of you saying - what is this crazy naturopath chick talking about.  Sugar and rich, full fat dairy - the very things you tell me to stay away from!!  There is no way that is healthy!!?!

Well I have learned a thing or two in the last few years that I wasn't taught in school.  Not all dairy is bad for everybody and sugar does have a purpose on this Earth.  Cultured dairy is a very different thing from a glass of pasteurized milk.  However, if you don't tolerate dairy, don't drink milk kefir.  Try coconut milk kefir or another mammal's milk, like goat, that you can tolerate.  In other words you have options.  The sugar in water kefir is there to feed the bacteria.  The sugar that you add is essentially used up as the grains ferment and produce a probiotic rich beverage.  

It is true that I believe dairy and milk are mucous forming, and feed yeast and produce a sticky “damp” quality in the body.  I also believe that many, many people react to dairy products.  But in my humble opinion, these reactions have nothing to do with the food and have everything to do with your gut ecology and the immune system.  (Hint: You can reverse 'food allergies').  It is important to know that kefir does not feed yeast and generates a good mucous in your gut.  We need a nice layer of mucous to coat the digestive tract - a cushion for the good bacteria to plop down and take a load off.  And the really neat thing about kefir is that the good bacteria and yeast consume lactose and provide enzymes to digest lactose in the culturing process.  Nature actually is perfect.  
Kefir vs. Yogurt
Kefir has more therapeutic value than yogurt!  Its active yeast and good bacteria provide more nutritional value since they excel in digesting foods you eat and in keeping the environment of the intestines clean and healthy.  Yogurt is made by adding a starter culture to milk and gently heating it.  Kefir is made with a starter of kefir grains and no heating is required.  If you can obtain a reliable source of raw milk you can retain the enzymes that would normally be destroyed by pasteurization.  Kefir cultures at room temperature in 16 to 24 hours, in your kitchen!  I like to include both kefir and yogurt in my diet since they both have different beneficial bugs that are crucial to restoring the microflora environment of the gut.  
What are the nutritional benefits of kefir, you ask?  
Kefir from milk is a complete protein with all the essential amino acids.  Both milk kefir and coconut kefir are high in calcium and magnesium.
Kefir is also high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid.  Tryptophan combines with calcium and magnesium to calm the nervous system.  Hence why kefir is sometimes called Nature’s Prozac.  The body converts tryptophan to serotonin.  When serotonin is low we often see mood disorders, depression, constipation, and insomnia.  
Kefir is also very rich in B vitamins and vitamin K.  The body’s use of these vitamins depends on adequate levels of good gut bacteria.  When kefir is included in the diet, the body should be able to make sufficient amounts of these needed bacteria.  Vitamin K promotes blood clotting, increases vitality, and enhances liver functioning.  Vitamin K is also linked to overall bone health and will help to prevent and treat osteopenia and osteoporosis.
Food Combining Rules for Kefir
Eat kefir with raw or lightly steamed vegetables, sour fruits such as cranberries, lemons, limes, grapefruits, pineapples and/or blueberries, or soaked nuts and seeds.  Kefir smoothies are quite delicious and make a healthy breakfast option for children. 

How do I make kefir at home?
Making milk/coconut kefir at home requires an initial investment in kefir grains or powdered started culture.  They can be purchased online, or you can get some from a friend who already has a batch going.  Personally I use a powdered started culture (Wilderness Family Naturals) as it was easier to access, but I'm on the hunt for grains.  The powdered culture over time is more costly.  I'm not going to reinvent the wheel as many fellow bloggers have already beautifully photographed and outlined the process of making kefir, but it is essentially this:  Mix kefir culture starter with one quart of milk in a glass jar (I like the rustic looking mason jars).  Secure the lid and shake.  Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 18-24 hours.  And voila, you have magically prepared a probiotic beverage! Use it straight up, as a base for smoothies, in place of buttermilk in recipes, in your coffee or over berries for dessert.  

How to make kefir:

And get ready to have your mind blown by Water Kefir:

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