Q: I hear a lot about probiotics and know that they are in both yogurt and kefir. What’s the difference between yogurt and kefir? Is one better than the other?
A: Yogurt and kefir are both cultured milk products rich in protein, calcium, B vitamins and potassium. Both have a similar tart, slightly sour taste and can be purchased plain or flavored with fruit or vanilla. They also improve lactose digestion, since the live cultures used to make them break down milk sugar. Their differences lie in consistency and the numbers and types of beneficial bacteria they contain.
Kefir has a thinner consistency than yogurt and is typically sold as a beverage. You can drink it, pour it over cereal and granola, or blend it with fruit to make a smoothie. In fact, kefir can be substituted for yogurt in many dishes. Most kefir products are slightly effervescent, although some companies make a “flat” kefir drink.
Both yogurt and kefir are a source of probiotics, live organisms (like bacteria and yeast) that, when consumed in certain amounts, exert health benefits. Probiotics are normally found in your digestive tract as part of the intestinal flora, a community of more than 400 species of bacteria. Here, they help inhibit the growth of unfriendly, disease-causing bacteria and stimulate the body’s immune response.
Kefir, however, typically contains three times the amount of probiotic cultures as yogurt. To make kefir, milk is fermented with a mixture of 10 to 20 different types of probiotic bacteria and yeasts; most yogurts are made using only a few. Most brands of kefir deliver seven to 10 billion probiotic organisms per serving, while most probiotic yogurts contain roughly one billion per serving.
According to a recent study from Harvard, probiotic therapy may help treat Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Studies also show that probiotics can shorten the course of diarrhea, reduce gut inflammation and improve the function of your immune system. Additional benefits of probiotics are being discovered frequently.
If you’re stuck on yogurt, give kefir a try. You’ll get more probiotic power, but whether a daily drink of kefir does more than promote digestive health remains to be seen. There are simply too few well-controlled studies conducted in people.
Whether you eat yogurt or kefir – or both – choose a product that’s low in added sugars. Ideally, opt for plain versions and add your own fruit for flavor. A great way to incorporate kefir or yogurt into your day would be to add it to a smoothie. Blend your favorite fruits (or vegetables) in a blender with one half-cup of kefir or yogurt and enjoy for breakfast or snack.
April Graff, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian at both Mankato Hy-Vee stores and can be reached at AGraff@hy-vee.com or call 625-1107 or 625-9070. Send her questions about food and nutrition, recipes, meal planning and healthy shopping.