Kefir is a fermented milk drink, originating over two centuries ago from the Turkish word ‘keif’, which translates to ‘good feeling’. It is made by adding live cultures called kefir grains to milk and allowing it to ferment. The resulting product is similar to yoghurt – indeed, many companies have called their kefir offerings ‘drinkable yoghurts’ – however contains even more probiotics than yoghurt.

The fermented beverage, which was first made in the Caucasus Mountains, has recently grown in popularity thanks to the renewed consumer focus on healthy eating and a preference for food and drink products (such as probiotics) that have additional health benefits. New launches of kefir are outpacing launches of other drinking yoghurts and fermented beverages, according to research from Innova Market Insights.

The journey: a growing trend

While kefir launches are still limited globally, data from Innova Market Insights shows that they grew more than threefold between 2011 and 2016, and this is a trend that looks set to continue.

“As interest in fermented dairy products spread in the West alongside the arrival of the so-called functional foods market in the 1990s,” explains Lu Anne Williams, director of innovation at Innova, “kefir started to move out of its home in the Caucasus via limited availability in specialist health food stores in western markets to a more value-added, mainstream positioning, particularly in the US.”

The US pioneered the kefir market in the West and brought value-added offerings in resealable plastic bottles to the mainstream market, allowing for more direct competition with other dairy and non-dairy beverages. The drink is strongly promoted on its health benefits, with almost 94% of global kefir launches using some type of health positioning in 2016.

Healthy gut: a range of benefits

While the initial health emphasis for kefir was on probiotics – particularly focusing on digestive health benefits – the range of nutritional and health claims has expanded considerably in the past few years.

Almost half of kefir launches use low fat claims, and the sector has also exploited concerns over high-sugar products. Indeed, the number of global launches of kefir positioned on low-sugar or no added sugar and sugar-free positionings doubled in 2016 to feature in 20% of total offerings, according to Innova. But, do the nutritional claims of kefir drinks really live up to expectations?

In the same way that probiotic yoghurt is full of good bacteria offering benefits for gut health, kefir is another way of fermenting milk that means it contains even more probiotics than yoghurt. Moreover, kefir products can often contain twice as many bacterial strains as similar yoghurts, as well as a number of beneficial yeast strains.

Numerous studies have proven that bacterial diversity is good for gut microbiota – the microbe population living in our intestine – which means that kefir is exceptionally good for gut health. According to Jenny Fitzgibbon, an oncology dietician at Stony Brook University Cancer Center: “Kefir contains about 30 different microorganisms, making it a much more potent source of probiotics than other fermented dairy products.”

Champagne of dairy: the next big thing in probiotics

From fermented beverages to drinkable yoghurts, companies across the world are marketing kefir drinks as the next big thing for probiotic health. US-based company Lifeway has even gone as far to dub the drink the ‘champagne of dairy’. Each cup of Lifeway kefir contains 12 live and active cultures, and between 15 and 20 billion beneficial colony farming units (CFUs).

The list of health benefits associated with probiotics is long – and will no doubt continue to grow. Some of the main advantages include: probiotics (supporting immunity and a healthy digestive system); immunity (the probiotics in kefir help to support a healthy gut, where 70%-80% of the cells that make up the immune system are located); weight management (kefir is rich in protein, which increases satiety and reduces hunger cravings); skin health (the drink contains alpha hydroxyl acid, a popular ingredient in skin care products); and lactose digestion (the fermentation process ensures kefir is 99% lactose-free).

With such a range of health benefits, it’s easy to see why companies across the globe are adding kefir products to their range of functional, healthy drinks.

Rediscovering wellness: traditional methods and natural ingredients

In the UK, dairy ice cream manufacturer Yorvale has used traditional methods and natural ingredients to produce ice cream, fruit sorbets and low fat natural frozen yoghurt since 1989. But in June last year, the company branched out with a new product: Yorlife Kefir fermented milk drinks, developed in conjunction with natural fast food chain Leon.

The kefir milk drink is available in three flavours – natural, blueberry and elderflower, and mango and passionfruit – and is made by adding kefir grains to milk from the company’s Friesian cows, which is then fermented. This process allows the milk to grow good bacteria, which is essential for maintaining a healthy gut.

Tim Robinson, Yorlife’s commercial manager, explained the process behind the product launch: “I researched natural ways to improve energy levels and discovered the magic of kefir, which I started to make at home. Enthused with my rediscovered wellness, I suggested kefir as a new product to my colleagues.

“As a company, health, wellbeing and balance is important to us, so kefir, which is renowned for its high levels of beneficial gut friendly bacteria, calcium, phosphorus, vitamins and minerals, sits well with our ethos.”

Liquid fix: rising popularity in the West

While kefir is commonly used a substitute for yoghurt, it can also be used to make water. The result is a variation on kombucha, the lightly fermented, slightly effervescent sweetened tea, and it is becoming an increasingly popular way to get your kefir fix on the go.

UK-based Purearth makes cold-pressed tonics, and claims that kefir enables better digestion of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, reduces sugar cravings, and has anti-ageing and immune-enhancing properties. Crookednose’s water kefir comes in a range of fruity flavours, from bilberry to a more traditional lemon and ginger, while Projito Water Kefir is marketed as a mock-mojito, containing probiotic water kefir, lime and mint.

Touted as a rising star of fermented drinks, kefir is nutritious, healthy and versatile, and its popularity in the West looks set to continue as consumers’ demand for functional, added-value drinks remains.