The kefir brands recently tested for their probiotic claims are challenging the results.
In May, a study found 66% of commercial kefir products overstated probiotic counts and “contained species not included on the label.” The Journal of Dairy Science Communications published the peer-reviewed work by researchers at the University of Illinois and Ohio State University.
“Based on the results…there should be more regulatory oversight on label accuracy for commercial kefir products to reduce the number of claims that can be misleading to consumers,” reads the study. “Classification as a ‘cultured milk product’ by the FDA requires disclosure of added microorganisms, yet regulation of ingredient quality and viability need to be better scrutinized. All 5 kefir products guaranteed specific bacterial species used in fermentation, yet no product matched its labeling completely.”
Researchers tested two bottles of each of five major kefir brands: Maple Hill Plain Kefir, Siggi’s Plain Filmjölk, Redwood Hill Farm Plain Goat Milk Kefir, CoYo Kefir and Lifeway Original Kefir. Bottles were measured for microbial count and taxonomy to validate label claims.
The Fermentation Association reached out to the five brands involved and asked for their responses to the results. Redwood Hill and Lifeway both submitted detailed statements. Maple Hill, Siggi’s and CoYo did not return multiple requests for comment.
Probiotics in fermented products are listed in colony-forming units (CFUs), and the study found kefir from both Lifeway and Redwood Hill contained fewer CFUs than what was claimed on the label. But these brands — who send their products to third-party labs for testing — said the results are not accurate.
Lifeway refutes the assertion that their Original Kefir did not meet the claimed probiotic count. Lifeway references U.S. Food and Drug Administration food labeling laws, which dictate that a product “must provide all nutrient and food component quantities in relation to a serving size.” Lifeway’s label on their 32-ounce bottle says that the serving size of kefir is 1 cup, making the claim of 25-30 billion CFUs per serving size accurate.
The study results, Lifeway notes in their statement, were “premised upon an erroneous assumption that Lifeway claims it has 25-30 billion CFUs per gram” rather than per serving size.
“The authors’ flawed assumption is perhaps a result of their lack of familiarity with FDA labeling requirements or a result of merely overlooking the details in order to support their intended conclusions going into the testing,” reads a statement from Lifeway.
In fact, Lifeway points out, the study’s “erroneous conclusion premised upon the flawed assumption…actually proves the accuracy of Lifeway’s claim of 25-30 billion CFUs per (8 ounce) serving.”
Redwood Hill Farm, too, refutes the study’s conclusion. Their Goat Milk Kefir currently includes the phrase “millions of probiotics per sip” on its label. The label referenced in the study was an old version that claimed “hundreds of billions” of probiotics, which was discontinued last year. According to Redwood Hill Farm, that old label was based on third-party testing that confirmed hundreds of billions of CFUs per 8-ounce serving. But careful review of the kefir’s probiotic counts in 2019-2020 found some CFUs in the hundreds of billions and others in the tens of billions. Redwood Hill changed their label to millions rather than billions “to be absolutely sure that we could meet our target claim on a consistent basis.”
Variation in CFU counts is common in traditional plating testing techniques. Redwood Hill referenced a study published in Nutritional Outlook that found that plating results can vary 30-50%.
“Given the challenges around probiotic CFU enumeration, we were not too surprised to see a discrepancy between the number of CFUs in our Goat Milk Kefir found in the study and our past analyses,” reads the statement from Redwood Hill Farm. “Like all living organisms, probiotics are challenging to control and measure. A particular microorganism’s ability to reproduce is impacted by a variety of factors, including temperature, oxygen level, variations in the nutrient composition of the milk, and pH level. Our kefir has a sixty-day shelf life and during that time the different types of bacteria in the product will peak and die-off in relation to the conditions those particular bacteria like. For example, fermented dairy products naturally become more acidic (lower pH) as they age and while some bacteria thrive in acidic environments, others’ reproduction is stunted. This makes the exact CFU count rather volatile not only from bottle to bottle, but also throughout the timespan between when that bottle leaves our facility and when it expires.”
Redwood Hill Farm’s most recent testing measured 400 million CFUs per gram or 96 billion per serving (1 cup). These figures compare with what the study found — 193 million CFUs per gram or 46 billion per serving.
“Although the University of Illinois study found only half the probiotic cells that our study did, this is actually not that wide of a variation in bacteria reproduction based on all of the conditional factors outlined above,” their statement reads.
The study’s test results found all kefir brands contained species not on the label. Lifeway notes their culture claims are based on the time of manufacture, not on expiration date. “Moreover, the authors validate that all of the claimed culture species except for the bifidos, Leuconostoc and L. reuteri, (which could be at a low concentration due to time of shelf-life), were identified in their testing,” reads Lifeway’s statement.
Redwood Hill Farm says that, based on the study results (that “2 Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies or 3 Lc. lactis subspecies could not be identified” in their kefir), they are pursuing further analysis. They’ve contacted their culture supplier for further insight, and are sending new samples to a third-party lab.
“These cultures are at the heart of the product and are what transforms the goat milk into a yogurt drink with its characteristic thick and creamy texture and tart flavor,” reads the Redwood Hill Farm statement. “It’s difficult to understand how these core active agents in the kefir could not be present in the product at any stage in its lifecycle.”
DNA vs. Plating Methodology
The study utilized both DNA sequencing and traditional plating methodologies, even though plating testing alone is considered the industry standard for kefir. Plating testing for kefir is done in a microbiology laboratory where it’s incubated to determine bacteria colony growth.
The study itself notes: “Limitation of DNA-based sequencing methods could explain why taxa stated on labels were not detected and why unclaimed viable species were identified.”
Lifeway points out: “This concession as to testing limitations is critical to note as it is but one explanation of many as to why various species may have not been detected. First and foremost, the authors fail to validate the DNA extraction method to establish that it delivers all the available DNA in the type of dairy product analyzed; for example, they do not appear to have broken down the calcium bonds. Further, they appear to not have undertaken the required extra enzymatic treatments. Moreover, for their microanalysis, they are using MRS [a method for cultivation of lactobacilli] but only incubating for 48 hours. As most kefir products would contain a significant amount of Lactococci, there is a high chance of not detecting this species unless you go to 72 hours of incubation. Another unknown important factor in the testing is the time period within the cycle of the shelf-life of the product that was tested. This is critical as the longer the product sits on a shelf, the fewer number of live and active bacteria will be present.”
Meanwhile, Redwood Hill Farm says “our team will continue to educate ourselves on the application of DNA sequencing technology to fermented food product probiotic count analysis and what opportunities and limitations this methodology may offer versus traditional plating techniques.”