When Julie Smolyansky began working at her family’s Lifeway Foods business, her father advised her: “Don’t talk about the bacteria. People in America freak out about the bacteria on their food.” So when Lifeway became the first company in the U.S. to put “probiotic” on a label in 2003, it wasn’t a big surprise when customers began calling, asking for the company’s non-probiotic version of kefir.
Americans have come a long way. Consumers today search for the “live, cultured” label on fermented dairy, and gut health is a critical component of the modern diet. Smolyansky and Raquel Guajardo, author/educator, shared their thoughts on kefir during the TFA webinar The Many Sides of Kefir.
“Fermented foods were not part of the American diet, and the way that kefir and fermented foods in general were used in other parts of the world from Asian to Eastern Europe to even India and Mexico, these cultures all have fermented foods as one of their pillars as their foods sources and their health and wellness cultures,” Smolyansky says. “It wasn’t until immigration from all these other countries that we started talking about kimchi or kefir or lassi or you name your cultured kind of special food.”
In the U.S., the average person consumes 9-10 cups of fermented dairy a year. Contrast that statistic with Europe, where the average consumption is 28 cups a month.
“When you’re born consuming it and you’ve developed that taste palette, then it’s very easy to play in the space and have a diet that’s very rich in probiotics and kefir and all sorts of other fermented foods,” Smolyansky says, adding that the situation is changing in the U.S. Now, “people are hungry for it, they want it, once they learn about it, once they taste it, they fall in love with it, they’re hooked.”
Lifeway’s kefir’s sales have soared. The company was valued at $12 million when Smolyansky took over in 2002 — now it’s valued into the hundreds of millions. And even more customers have found kefir during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they adopt healthier lifestyles.
Guajardo has seen her online classes increase during COVID. The Mexico-based educator co-authored the book “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond” with Alex Lewin, TFA advisory board member, who moderated the webinar.
“People say ‘You’re crazy, why do you teach what to do at home what you can buy in the supermarket?’ But my business has been growing that way,” she says, adding that health benefits are the main selling point for her classes. “Why would people buy sauerkraut or kefir if you’re not explaining the benefits?”
Dairy Kefir vs. Water Kefir
Guajardo, who makes both dairy kefir and water kefir (also known as tibicos) stresses that the grains used to make each are “totally different.” Kefir grains are living bacteria and yeast microorganisms clumped together with milk proteins and sugars. They are gelatinous and white, almost like cottage cheese. Water kefir grains are also made from living bacteria and yeast microorganisms, but they’re clumped together with sugar and have a translucent, crystal-like appearance.
“Water kefir” is not the appropriate term, Guajardo and Smolyansky agree, instead calling it by its traditional Mexican name, tibicos. And they feel that using kefir or tibicos grains in coconut or almond milk and calling it kefir is also inappropriate. Smolyansky favors using a description like cultured coconut milk or beverage, but not kefir.
The National Dairy Council and Codex Alimentarius, the international food code, both state kefir is a fermented dairy product made from the milk of a lactating mammal. Smolyansky points to the many peer-reviewed studies on kefir, verifying it is full of probiotics and nutrients. Water kefir and non-dairy kefir have not been studied, and can’t guarantee the same health benefits.
“Just by throwing the name onto anything and just bastardizing the definition, we completely dilute any of the research that’s ever been done [on kefir], it would dilute the history, the folklore. So we are very passionate about protecting the name,” Smolyansky says. “My ancestors made sure that kefir survived for 2,000 years, and it’s critical that we don’t dilute it now that it’s having a moment, now that it’s popular.”
Smolyansky’s family emigrated to the United States from the then Soviet Union in the late ‘70s. Her father, Michael, began Lifeway Foods in Chicago in 1986.
“We have to respect the standards and what these definitions mean or it will be the Wild West and people won’t know what they’re buying,” she adds. She shares the labelling of ice cream as an example — ice cream is considered dairy while non-dairy products have other names, like sorbet, gelato or non-dairy frozen dessert.
Can Kefir Grow Like Yogurt?
Yogurt has paved the way for kefir to expand its consumer base in the U.S. Both are fermented dairy products with tangy tastes. But for kefir to achieve widespread, mainstream adoption like yogurt, significant education is needed. Thousands of peer-reviewed studies prove kefir contains a higher concentration of probiotics than yogurt — and a wider range of beneficial bacteria. For kefir to grow, this message needs to reach consumers.
“It’s a different set of microbes,” Lewin says. “Kefir is fermented with yeast and yogurt isn’t. Kefir has a larger family of microbes.”
Smolyansky is passionate that kefir cannot be compared to the products of the major. yogurt companies.
“The yogurt produced in the United States is so over-produced and so over-pasteurized that there’s practically nothing living in it after it’s been processed,” she says. “It’s one of the biggest problems with yogurt in the U.S.”
Lifeway regularly sends their products to be tested for probiotics, measuring Colony Forming Units (CFUs), the active microorganisms in a food product. Smolyansky says eating probiotics is critical in a germ-phobic, antibody-heavy society, where we’re over-sanitizing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“If our bodies aren’t fighting an outside kind of pathogen, it starts to fight itself,” she says. “One of the ways to counteract this disruption in our microflora is by the use and the introduction of consistently replenishing microflora including diversity of bacteria, a variety of food sources that offer bacteria, the diversity and kind [of bacteria] is always the king. It makes for great food environments in the gut.”