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Kefir recently gone from niche to mainstream. What's behind the sudden kefir madness? It's all about culture, bacteria culture that is.

Kefir, a two thousand-year-old drink traditional to Eastern Europe, Russia, and Turkey, has been in the shopping carts of New York’s natural foods shoppers for at least a decade. But recently it’s crossed over to mainstream popularity, thanks in part to Jamie Lee Curtis’s unsexy, unflinching campaign about GI health. “The kefir category has grown by double digits in the last few years,” says David Cantor who works in marketing at Evolve Kefir and who also earned a Masters in Science in Nutrition Science and Policy from Tufts University.

To the uninitiated, kefir, which means “feel good” in Turkish,” comes across as a somewhat tart, creamy liquid yogurt. A lot of people, like reader Maggie Hinton uses it as a smoothie base. “I blend a scoop of protein powder and Green Vibrance with low-fat plain Lifeway Kefir for a nice smoothie-like consistency,” she says.

Kefir is made using a simple, 24-hour lacto-fermentation process

So why the kefir madness? It’s a stomach soother, say manufacturers, and it promotes digestive health and enhances the immune system. Cantor explains, “The gut is filled with all different kinds of bacteria; when things are in balance the body fends off colds, your digestive system is in check, you’re operating at optimal wellness. But things get unbalanced due to stress, diet, fighting off germs. When you consume kefir, the live and active bacteria cultures populate your intentines with beneficial bacteria.”

How is this different from your morning bowl of Greek yogurt?  “Kefir’s cultures, unlike yogurt’s, are robust enough to make it through your treacherous stomach,” says Cantor from Evolve. Kefir’s bacteria count is in a whole other league than yogurt’s. Kefir contains 10 strains of bacteria, whereas most yogurts generally have only two or three. (And, sorry, but frozen yogurt has no active bacteria).

And it’s these bacteria cultures you should pay attention to when selecting a kefir. Make sure your kefir’s cultures have been clinically tested to measure benefits. For example, Evolve Kefir, a local brand made in the Catskills using only hormone-free New York State cow’s milk, uses 11 live and active cultures and each serving has at least 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units). “That’s for the entire shelf life,” explains Cantor.  “You should check the culture claims on the date of expiration, not the date of manufacture.”

Other favorite kefirs besides Evolve include Lifeway, Andechser Natur Bio Kefir, and a vegan alternative called Good Belly. The next thing you know, New Yorkers will be lacto-fermenting their own—the dairy version of the kombucha homebrew craze. —Alexia Brue

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