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Yoghurt or Kefir?


Many clients ask me about dairy products, and about cultured dairy such as yoghurt.

Is cultured dairy better than uncultured? Are there better or worse types of culturing?

Why ferment dairy?

Let’s consider why people fermented dairy products in the first place. Earlier this year, I wrote a blog about how the beneficial bacteria found in fermented drinks can offer health support to those with autoimmune diseases. Fermentation is becoming more and more popular as a subject in the media, because of its increasing acceptance as a support for gut health (though as I have mentioned before, those with histamine intolerance should avoid fermented foods).

Of course, the tradition for fermenting dairy pre-dates all the recent fermenting fads. It is what kept dairy products edible before the days of refrigerators! This helps to explain why yoghurt-like foods exist in so many traditional cuisines, from Russia to Scandinavia, Greece to South Africa.

What we are now coming to understand at a popular level – thanks to long-established cookery writers such as Sally Fallon, and more recent online communities such as Nourished Kitchen – is that there are all sorts of other benefits to dairy fermentation, as well as preservation.


First of all, fermentation breaks down lactose, the milk protein to which many people are intolerant. It increases the presence of lactase, the enzyme which breaks down lactose within the human body. Thus, a well-fermented dairy product may well be easily digestible, even for many lactose-intolerant people.

Next, fermentation breaks down casein, which is perhaps an even more difficult dairy protein for the body to digest.

With these two proteins broken down, the potential benefits of consuming dairy generally – such as protein, easily-absorbed calcium, and vitamin B12 – can be gained, but without straining the digestive system.

In terms of digestive benefits, fermentation actually introduces into the gut more of the kinds of bacteria that it needs to function well in general. One kind is the Lactobacillus family of bacteria. These are particularly well-researched and have been found to improve mood in animal experiements, and in human experiments to offer a variety of benefits such as improved immunity, lowered cholesterol, reduced bloating and suppression of cold and flu-like symptoms.

Yoghurt and milk kefir – what are the differences?

The first difference is in how they are made. Yoghurt is made by heating milk gently and then adding a culture to it, for example, some previously-made yoghurt. This requires careful temperature control. Kefir is made with a jelly-like culture called ‘grains’, which are simply dropped into cold milk.

Perhaps the most obvious difference, once made, is that yoghurt is usually quite thick, and eaten with a spoon, whereas kefir is more like a thickened milk, quite runny, and used like milk – poured or drunk. (Having said this, though, if you make kefir, it is possible to make it thicker by pouring off the whey.)

Yoghurt generally has quite a mild flavour, whereas kefir can taste quite tart, depending how long you ferment it for.

The next difference is in the activity of beneficial bacteria. Yoghurt tends to have transient strains, that is, types of bacteria that offer benefit but do not remain in the body. Kefir tends to have colonizing strains, which mean that they can create little communities of beneficial bacteria inside the gut.

Finally, there are differences in the types of active organism produced by fermentation. Yoghurt usually contains probiotic strains such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus.

On the other hand, Kefir tends to have a larger number of probiotic strains, as well as containing beneficial yeasts. (These beneficial yeasts are not the kind that cause thrush, but in fact help to combat it by crowding out bad yeasts in the body with good). A summary of the kinds of beneficial bacteria and yeast in kefir can be found over at the wonderful Cultures for Health website.

So which will it be?

For me, kefir wins out over yoghurt because it is easier to make at home (no heating) and because it contains a wider variety of beneficial bacteria and yeasts. However, you might decide that the thicker texture and milder taste of yoghurt makes it all worthwhile!

Whatever you decide, however, let me leave you with a few last tips.

My tips for fermenting dairy

– Always go organic with dairy. I wrote about this in my previous blog on organic food

– If you can, make your own yoghurt or kefir. This is because shop-bought versions contain extra milk sugars, in order to keep the probiotic strains alive until purchase. An exception would be the kefir you can buy online from Chuckling Goat.

– If you suspect dairy might disagree with you, try goats’ milk. This is often easier to digest because it contains less lactose.

– To make kefir, ask a friend who makes it to supply you with some spare grains, or buy from a reputable online supplier. You can’t buy kefir grains in shops, sadly! Here is a useful how-to page from Seeds of Health, and a link to buying grains online from Happy Kombucha

– To make yoghurt, you don’t need to buy expensive powders or cultures, you just need a small pot of shop-bought organic yoghurt and some organic milk. Here’s a simple River Cottage recipe.

I hope this post has helped you think about dairy fermentation afresh, and perhaps inspired some of you to try fermenting at home. If you do try it out, let me know how it goes!

Best wishes, Emma

Emma Maitland-Carew, Nutritional Therapist in Oxford and Bloxham, Oxfordshire

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