Your questions answered: What’s your take on kefir and probiotics?

Q: “What is your take on Kefir? Sounds good, but aren’t the bacteria killed by the stomach acids? What is the current treatment for gastrointestinal upsets, to get the balance back in the gut? Thanks.”, asks Enlightened Eater reader, Vicky Dekker.

A: Kefir, a fermented milk drink that’s originally from the Caucasus Mountains (between Asia and Europe), is packed with healthy bacteria. It’s made with what’s called kefir “grains” which are not really grains as we think of them but instead are a yeast/bacterial starter, much like sourdough starters are to bread. While it resembles a yogurt drink, it tastes almost fizzy and is tangier than yogurt. It reminds me of the cultured buttermilk my father (who hailed from Eastern Europe) used to drink when I was a kid.

Kefir also offers a bigger bang for your probiotic buck as it supplies more bacteria and a wider range of strains of bacteria than does yogurt. That’s not to say that you should abandon your yogurt if it’s a favourite. There’s room to include both as they’re both rich in nutrients offering those such as calcium, potassium, protein, B vitamins and more. There are also non-dairy kefirs (coconut, nuts and seeds etc.) on the market as well with the nutrients differing depending on the base used.

As for the bacteria surviving digestion, both dairy kefir and yogurt are ideal agents to protect and transport these bacteria through your digestive tract and stave off being killed off by stomach acids. That’s not the case with all so-called probiotic products. Some food companies simply add the probiotic strain to a particular food and conduct no further clinical research on the product to determine if the added bacteria make it through the digestive tract intact or provide any benefit at all.

As for your choice of kefir, like yogurt, there are many products available that are sugar-laden and considering that research shows that high sugar and saturated fat diets may have negative effects on healthy bacteria in the gut, you might want to opt for plain kefir. Another option is to mix a small amount of a flavoured kefir with a plain one. As for milk fat, eating lower-fat dairy products is recommended but it’s best to choose a kefir you like and cut down on your dairy fat elsewhere.

Now once you’ve included kefir on your menu, for a healthy microbiota (as the bacteria in your gut are called) you need to be a good host to those bacteria. After all, if you’re inviting them to live with you, you need to feed them well. Prebiotics – high fibre foods- are the fare of choice for these beneficial bacteria. Prebiotics also stimulate the growth of bacteria, to boot.

When it comes to what’s best for gastrointestinal upsets, the treatment will vary depending on what’s causing the issues. There can be a whole range of issues that might be the culprit and some might require consulting a physician. But if the GI upsets are related to balance of various bacteria in the gut (such as following antibiotic use, a bout of foodborne illness or possibly even following a colonoscopy), then there are some possibilities to consider.

Kefir and yogurt along with fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and miso, are all great options to get that microbiota balance back. When it comes to fermented foods, if they’re not homemade, be sure to choose those in the refrigerated section of the store as shelf stable products have been pasteurized (which kills any live bacteria).

It’s important to keep in mind that the most health benefits are reaped when there are a diverse range of bacteria living in your gut. Research shows that different strains of bacteria offer a variety of perks from head to toe including healthy immune system functioning, a decreased risk of inflammatory diseases, better gastrointestinal health, the risk of obesity, better blood sugar regulation and even mental health.

Recent studies show how certain beneficial bacterial strains may work. Some, when fed a high fibre diet, produce a compound called butyrate, an acid which seems to help fight off harmful bacteria in the gut. It’s a war down there in the gut and supplying the good bacteria with the right weaponry can help to restore the optimal bacterial balance, providing you with a healthy microbiota.


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Categories: Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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