Keffir: Sustenance, Refreshment & Digestive Aid

Filed in Gather Health Essential by on July 10, 2006 0 Comments

Keffir: Sustenance, Refreshment & Digestive Aid

Often I am asked about various foods that people stumble across in natural food sites, or health-food sites or New Age Food sites. One of the most common foods about which I get questions is a simple dairy product called keffir. It originated as far as history has shown in the Caucasus Mountains of Southern Russia & the Republic of Georgia. It is the result of a fermentation process akin to the making of yogurt, buttermilk, kumiss & other fermented milk products.

Keffir is something that my grandfather & my parents made on a regular basis. It was beverage that was “…good for you!” It tastes like fresh buttermilk with zesty tang that is not found in most buttermilk. When used in cooking in place or milk, cream or buttermilk it is superior, at least to me, to any of these items in taste & nutritional value. I buy keffir from my local Russian market but I also when I have the time make it as well.

Keffir may be made from any type of milk, cow, goat or sheep, coconut, rice or soy. Keffir is slightly mucous forming but the mucous has a “clean” quality to it that creates the ideally perfect conditions within the digestive tract for the colonization of friendly bacteria.

Keffir Defined & Described
Keffir is a refreshing beverage made from cultured-milk. The word is derived from the Turkic-Mongol word ‘kief’, loosely translated to ‘a good feeling.’

Kefir has a uniform smooth & creamy consistency, with a somewhat sour yet very refreshing taste. Keffir has a mild but pleasant odor much like that of fresh yeast or fresh homemade beer. There is a slight natural effervescent zest or tang to keffir as one drinks it. Some 40+ aromatic compounds contribute to the unique flavor as well as the very distinctive pleasant odor of kefir.

Real or authentic traditional keffir can only be made by culturing fresh whole milk with Kefir grains. Kefir grains probably more aptly called kefir granules are in fact a natural starter for the keffir culture. The grain’s bio-structure also called the bio-matrix, is created by a symbiotic relationship between a large mixture of very specific & friendly Lactic acid bacteria or LAB’s with yeasts. The granules are a soft, gelatinous white-colored biomass that is comprised of protein, lipids & the soluble-polysaccharide Keffiran complex. The bacterias & yeasts create the bio-matrix structure & are harbored within the very matrix structure that they create.

History of Keffir
Kefir is credited with healing powers & has been since the mid-17 century. Keffir granules were considered a gift from Allah among the Muslim tribal-people of the Northern Caucasus Mountains, a gift from Jehovah by the Jews of the Northern Caucasus Mountains,. Keffir granules were passed down from generation-to-generation. The folks of this region of the world considered keffir granules to be a source of family as well as tribal wealth. Usually the secret of the process of making keffir was closely guarded to the extent of protecting a fine & delicate art & the mother-culture of the keffir granules was defended with their lives.

In the early 1900’s, the All-Russian Physicians’ Society contacted 2 business men, the Blandov brothers. These men owned a cheese factory in the Northern Caucasus Mountains. The physicians were seeking the brothers assistance in obtaining a source of keffir culture. The Blandov’s decided to accept this challenge. They met & planned to use one of their employees, a beautiful young woman, one Irina Sakharova> She was to coax a Caucasian Prince, Bek-Mirza Barchorov into presenting her with a small supply of keffir granules. Irina did well was able to seduce & dazzle Prince Barchorov with her beauty.  Prince Barchorov however refused to give her any of his precious keffir granules. It is suspected that this was due his to strong religious beliefs.

Now it happens that Prince Barchorov was not really willing to giving up the charms of the seductive Irina. He ordered a group of his men to kidnap her as she journeyed home. It was done as ordered  & the men brought Irina back to the Prince’s palace> It here that the Prince, proposed marriage to Irina.  Irina understandably refused his proposal.. The Blandov brothers were able in time to rescue Irina from the captivity of the Prince. At this point, with the backing of the two brothers, Irina placed her case against the Prince in the Tsar’s court. The Prince offered Irina gold & jewels as reparation for the crimes committed against her. Irina refused his offer seeking instead as a settlement of her a supply of the keffir granules as her reparation. In the fall of 1908, Irina Sakharova brought the first keffir granules to Moscow, where it was used medicinally in tuberculosis sanatoriums with great success as a nutritional treatment for this killer disease.

It was in1973 at the age of 85 that Irina received a letter from the Minister of the Food Industry of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), giving to her the grateful acknowledgment of her personal & heroic role in bringing keffir to the Russian people.

Making Keffir At Home
You may if you wish easily make the traditional & authentic keffir at home. Raw unpasteurized or pasteurized, full-cream, low-fat or non-fat fresh milk is poured into a suitably clean container along with the keffir granules. Now is left to stand at room temperature for approx. 24-36 hrs.

At this point the cultured-milk must be strained so as to separate & retrieve our keffir granules . These granules will be added to more fresh milk so that the process is may be repeated. This incredibly easy & simple process may be performed indefinitely because keffir granules are ready & able to be re-used forever. Our strained liquid-keffir is may be either consumed fresh, refrigerated to use at a later time or it can (should) be aged at room temperature over a period of several (3-6) days prior to consumption. This aging process is especially necessary for those persons needing to reduce lactose in their keffir.

As active kefir grains are continually cultured in fresh milk to prepare kefir, the grains’ bio-mass increases in volume. In order to prevent a situation of overcrowding as well as to maintain a sane & normal constant granule-to-milk ratio it is essential to remove a portion of kefir grains. Many people simply give these to their friends who want to also begin to make keffir. One specific advantage of this culling process is to produce a keffir with a fairly constant character & consistency on a regular basis. Traditionally, excess keffir granules were eaten, dehydrated & stored as a back-up source, shared among family members or traded among the tribal-people of Caucasus Mountains, for basic essentials.

Caucasus Mountains’ Traditional Keffir Preparation
In the Northern Caucasus Mountains, keffir is still prepared with raw, full-cream goat or cow milk. This fresh milk with kefir granules added is then placed in leather bags made from goatskins & is then fermented for 24 hrs. at room temperature. The bag’s contents are tied off by in 1 corner of the leather bag. This is where most of the grains are concentrated & collected. Now kefir is separated from the majority of the granules by pouring the contents into another through a sieve or strainer into another container. What has been produced is a foamy beverage, smooth & creamy in texture & with a uniform. During winter’s cold, these leather bags was kept in the sun during the day or hung by the fireplace during the process. Sometimes it is the custom to hang the bag near a door way, so those passing or visitors can give the bag a gentle squeeze to rock the bag as they pass it by.

Caucasus Mountains’ Traditional Keffir Aging
Liquid keffir is usually put  through a secondary fermentation process to age. The mixture of freshly strained keffir, usually with some fresh milk added for more volume & often a piece of the root from the Snow Rose is stored in wooden barrels or unfired clay crocks. This container is sealed to become airtight & now the contents are allowed to brew for 3-6 days in this way forcing the secondary fermentation. What is now produced is a very effervescent liquid, with a slight alcohol content .60 -.75% compared to pre-secondary fermentation alcohol content of approximately .30 – .50%. In this type of keffir there are the properties that make a good product for storing & keeping under refrigeration along with a large increase of certain Vitamin-B groups. Folic acid increases at least by 116 – 124% after the 2nd day of aging.

Keffir granules may u be used as a model for the study of the theory of evolution. It is believed, from the collected evidence as it is perceived by human senses and then digested with intellectual enzyme power of thought of heavy duty scholars, to form current theory of evolution. It is calculated that single celled organisms without a nucleus called prokaryotes, such as most microorganisms, came into existence some 4-billion+ years ago. It is quite possible that the potential for the making of keffir granules came into existence not long after this.
In relevance to the Evolution by Endosymbiosis theory , a theory that explains evolution a regarding the mechanism of how single-celled organisms are able to form multi-cellular organisms called eukaryotes, keffir granules resemble a multi-cellular model before more complex life forms came into existence. Thus the study of the microorganisms of keffir granules & how they interact, as well as the compounds that they produce & the synthesis of the bio-matrix, makes an excellent model for such studies.

Components of The Keffir Granules
Keffir granules are gelatinous white or yellow particles also called “grains.” These granules make keffir unique because no other milk culture forms granules. These granules contain the bacteria & yeasts clumped together with casein along with the complex sugars, polysaccarhides. They look like small clumps of cauliflower. They range from the size of a grain of wheat to the size of a hazelnut. Interestingly some of the granules have been known to grow into large, thick, flat sheets that are large enough to cover your hand. The granules ferment the milk to create the cultured product full of nutritional assets.

Listed below are the typical microorganisms isolated from various water-keffir granules & water-keffir beverage Lactobacilli & are thus divided in 4 genus groups:

Lactobacillus acidophilus
Lb. brevis
Lb. casei
Lb. casei subsp. rhamnosus
Lb. casei subsp. pseudoplantarum
Lb. paracasei subsp. paracasei
Lb. cellobiosus
Lb. delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus
Lb. delbrueckii subsp. lactis
Lb. fructivorans
Lb. helveticus subsp. lactis
Lb. hilgardii
Lb. kefiri
Lb. kefiranofaciens subsp. kefirgranum subsp. nov*
Lb. kefirgranum sp. nov**
Lb. parakefir sp. nov**
Lb. lactis
Lb. plantarum

Lactococci lactis subsp. lactis
Lc. lactis var. diacetylactis
Lc. lactis subsp. cremoris
Streptococc lactis
St. salivarius subsp. thermophilus Leuconostoc cremoris
Leuc. mesenteroides
Enterococcus durans

Candida kefir
C. pseudotropicalis
C. rancens
C. tenuis
Debaryomyces hansenii
Kluyveromyces lactis
K. marxianus var. marxianus
K. bulgaricus
K. fragilis / marxianus
Saccharomyces subsp. torulopsis holmii
Sacc. carlsbergensis
Sacc. unisporus
Zygosaccharomyces rouxii

Acetobacter aceti
A. rasens

This is a large number of cooperating & symbiotically relating organisms and in & of itself is an unusual situation.

Formalin fixed keffir granules examined under a microscope, presented a protein/polysaccharide/lipid complex, consisting mainly of insoluble protein and neutral muco-polysaccharides. The percentage composition of freeze dried granules, with a moisture content of 3.5 % was found to be :

Fat: 4.4%
Ash: 12.1%
Mucopolysaccharides: 45.7%
Total protein: 34.3%; consisting of insoluble protein 27.0%, soluble protein 1.6% and free amino acids 5.6%
There is also a very small percentage of unknown substances

Amorphous & crystalline iron was observed primarily upon the granule’s surface. 1-5 micrometer crystals were also observed in the interior of the granule. The manner in which the microflora are distributed over the surface of the granules confirms the concept that keffir granules must not be rinsed with water between milk-changes during the culturation process.

Beneficial Aspects of Keffir
You need to know that in addition to beneficial bacteria & yeast, keffir contains minerals & essential amino acids that assist the body with its healing, immune system & maintenance functions. All of the complete proteins in keffir are partially digested thus they are more easily utilized by the body.

Tryptophan, is just 1 of the essential amino acids abundant in keffir. It is well known for its relaxing effect on the nervous system. Because keffir also offers an abundance of calcium & magnesium, 2 very important minerals for a healthy nervous system, keffir in the diet can has a profound calming effect on the nerves.

Keffir’s ample supply of phosphorus, the 2nd most abundant mineral in our bodies, helps utilize carbohydrates, fats & proteins for cell growth, maintenance the release of energy.

Kefir is rich in Vitamin B12, B1, and Vitamin K. It is an excellent source of biotin, necessary for the body’s assimilation of B Vitamins, such as folic acid, pantothenic acid, and B-12. There are numerous benefits of maintaining an adequate B vitamin intake that range from the regulation of the kidneys, liver, endocrine & nervous systems to those of helping relieve skin disorders, boost energy & promote longevity. Truly keffir is one powerful & beneficial nutritional beverage.


Pharmacological study on kefir-a fermented milk product in Caucasus.
Yakugaku Zasshi [1992] Jul;112:489-95. I. On antitumor activity (1). Kubo M, Odani T, Nakamura S, Tokumaru S, Matsuda H, et al. Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Kinki University, Osaka, Japan.

Characterization of the polysaccharide from a Lactobacillus Brevis and from sugary kefir grains

Pidoux, M.; Brillouet, J. M.; Quemener, B. Biotechnology
Letters 10 (6) 415-420 (1988) [Lab. de Genie Alimentaire, ENITTIAA, Chemin de la Geraudiere, 44072 Antes Cedex, France].

Microstructure and composition of kefir grains
Dmitrichenko, M.I. [1974] [Lecture] pp. 43-46 [Kemerovskii Tekh. Inst. Pishchevoi Promyshlennosti, Kemerovo, former USSR]

International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology 44 (3) 435-439 [1994].

Electron microscopy studies on structures and microflora of kefir grains
Molska, I. ; Kocon, J. ; Zmarlicki, S. [1980]. Acta Alimentaria Polonica. 6 (3) 145-154 [Dep. of Food Tech., Warsaw Agric. Univ. Warsaw, Poland].
A source for kefir grains in the U.S.A., from Betty Stechmyer at G.E.M. Cultures, California:

Microflora changes in the small and large intestines of chronic enteritis patients on diet therapy including sour milk products
Sukhov SV, Kalamkarova LI, Il’chenko LA, et. al. [1986]. Vopr Pitan; 4:14-7

Effectiveness of aciprole in prevention of enteric dysbacteriosis due to antibacterial therapy
Oleinichenko EV, Mitrokhin SD, Minikov VE, et. al. [1999]. Antibiot Khimioter; 44:23-5

Effects of probiotic and functional foods and their use in different diseases
Zubillaga M, Weill R, Postaire E, Goldman C, Caro R, Boccio J. [2001]. Nutritional Research 21 569-579 [*Publication available online below]

Bacteriological evaluation of kefir
Bugrova, VI.; Bursak, GZ.; Rudykh, KI.; Muzyukina, TM.; Fel’dberg, FL.; Shlyakhova, VV.; Zhelikhovskaya, FM [1969]. Moskovskii Nauchno-issled. Inst. Gigieny imeni F. F. Erismana, Moscow, USSR. Gigiena i Sanitariya, 34 (7) 91-92 [Russian Document]

Microbiological processes in folacin synthesis in kefir
Drewek, Z.; Czarnocka-Roczniokowa, B. Acta Alimentaria Polonica 12 (1) 39-45 [1986]. [Dep. of food Eng. & Biotch., Argric. & Tch. Uni., Olsztyn Poland]

Role of Diet, Nutrients, Spices and Natural Products in Diabetes Mellitus
Alam K. Mahpara S. Pakistan Journal of Nutrition 2 (1) 1-12 [2003].. [Dep. of Human Nutrition, NWFP Agric. Uni., Peshawar, Pakistan].
An interesting article regarding benefits of keffir.

I also thank a dedicated gentleman, Dominic N. Anfiteatro, for his excellent websites dealing with many aspects of dairy product fermentation. This wonderful Australian keffir supporter has been the source for many interesting recipes for me as well as the photos in this article.

Copyright 2006-2011 © Donald R. Houston, PhD, No portion in part or the whole may be copied, printed, transmitted or otherwise used without the expressed permission of the author or his legal agent.

About the Author ()

Viet Nam vet with the usual baggage but mine is now packed away. Public health specialist & medical anthropologist have worked all over the globe, most recent work since 1988 in the former Soviet Union (now the CIS/NIS) & based out of Flo

Leave a Reply