Kefir and yogurt have a lot of similarities, which can make it easy to conflate the two. They're both fermented dairy products. They're also often found side-by-side at the grocery store. But there are several key ways the two are different from each other, including how they're made, what they can be used for, and the amount of gut-healthy benefits they bring to the table.
Wondering which one would win out in a kefir vs. yogurt battle? Registered dietitian Andrea Mathis, RD, explains more about each below—including her verdict on which one packs the biggest probiotic punch.
Kefir vs. yogurt: How do they compare?
How they're made—and when to use each
When comparing the two fermented dairy products, Mathis points out that it's first helpful to know what exactly they are and how they're made. She explains that while both kefir and yogurt are fermented from milk, yogurt is fermented with solely bacteria while kefir is fermented with both bacteria and yeast.
With yogurt, the process involves heating the milk, adding a live culture (which contains the bacteria), letting the yogurt set, and allowing it cool. To make kefir, you need kefir grains, which contain both the bacteria and yeast. (FYI, there's no gluten in kefir grains.) After you add a teaspoon of kefir grains to a cup of milk, cover it up, and let it sit for 24 hours, then you have your kefir.
"The difference in how they're made changes both the taste and texture too," Mathis says. "Yogurt is thicker and creamier while kefir is more of a liquid." In terms of taste, she says the yeast in the kefir make it taste a bit more tart than yogurt, which is milder in taste.
Because they're different in texture and taste, Mathis says how they're used differs, too. "Kefir is a probiotic drink you can have on the go, while yogurt is something you tend to eat with a spoon," she says. "Also, yogurt is more commonly used in cooking as a replacement for butter or oil. It's especially effective in baked goods because it provides moisture," she says. Using kefir, Mathis explains, won't work as well because it's too watery and would also alter the taste more.
Kefir vs. yogurt: How they're different nutritionally
In terms of how they stack up nutritionally, Mathis says they have some overlapping benefits, but there are other qualities that set them apart. "Both are good sources of protein," she says. "If that's why you're seeking kefir or yogurt out, I would just pick whichever one you like the taste and texture of more because they are both high in the nutrient." Plain kefir has eight grams of protein per one-cup serving and plain yogurt has six grams per one-cup serving, on average. Both kefir and yogurt have similar amounts of carbohydrates too, with nine grams and 10 grams per one-cup serving, respectively.
Here's where they differ nutritionally: Mathis explains that since kefir is made with both live bacteria and yeast while yogurt is only made with live bacteria cultures, kefir is higher in probiotic benefits. "It actually can have three times as many probiotics as yogurt," she says. So if you really want to load up on good gut bacteria, kefir is going to be your best bet.
Kefir is also higher in calcium, which is important for bone and heart health. Kefir has 300 milligrams of calcium per serving while yogurt has 180 milligrams per serving. (You want to aim to get between 1,000 and 1,200 milligrams a day.) Kefir is also slightly higher in vitamin A, a nutrient that's important for eye health, bone health, and immunity. It has 300 micrograms per serving while yogurt has 230 micrograms per serving.
In terms of side effects to be aware of, since both foods are made from milk, consuming kefir or yogurt can lead to bloating, constipation, or diarrhea if you have a dairy intolerance or sensitivity. But other than that, Mathis says both are widely considered to be safe, including for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. As with any food, if kefir or yogurt is something you've never tried before, it's best to start slow and have only a little, making sure you don't have any adverse reactions before digging into a full serving.
As you can see, in general kefir is slightly higher in nutritional benefits—and much higher in probiotic benefits. Still, Mathis says they are both healthy foods to work into your diet. "Whichever one you're eyeing in the grocery store, it's important to be mindful of the sugar content, as that's something that can pop up in both," she says. Many brands add sugar to yogurt or kefir to sweeten it up. "Instead of buying a yogurt or kefir that is high in added sugar, I recommend buying it plain and then adding fruit or a little honey yourself at home." she says.
And of course, how you plan on using it matters too. If you want something versatile you can bake with or combine with oatmeal or granola, go for yogurt. If you're looking for a protein- and probiotic-rich breakfast or snack you can have on-the-go, kefir is the better bet.
"Both kefir and yogurt are great gut-healthy options," Mathis says. Whichever one you go for, you'll be doing your gut a favor, and that means you'll be benefitting your whole body.
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