Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Keffir Grains

This is a great story and promises to make a huge market for craft milk products as it is popularized.  Even the FDA will have no beef if one uses pasteurized milk as the initial feedstock.

I have no doubt that the consumer will demand and support craft agricultural production.  A craft dairy on a hundred head dairy operation is completely reasonable.  There are plenty of pasteurization technologies possible and every dairy farmer is already trained in the operation of advanced handling gear.  Adding a yogurt production line will allow it to be completely fresh.

Observe I did not mention organic, but that is coming anyway simply because the protocols are now the equal of traditional agriculture.  What farmer, with a thousand acre field and with the exact same results that will not make the switch to get the organic premium.

Anyway, the story is great and may even have a bit of truth somewhere in it.

Keffir grain

The members of the All Russian Physician’s Society were frantic. They needed the mysterious source of this magic milk called “kefir” that seemed to cure so many health problems.

But how to get it?

Desperate, they turned to the Blandov brothers. The Blandovs owned the Moscow Dairy, but also a cheese factory in the Caucasus Mountains, where kefir originated.

 Please, the doctors asked, find a way to get us the source – these “kefir grains” – so we can make a steady supply of kefir for our patients.

Nikolai Blandov agreed. The Moscow Dairy would get a monopoly on producing the miracle milk. So he sent a beautiful young employee named Irina Sakharova to seduce a local prince of the Caucasus near their factory in Kislovodsk.

Her job was to wrap Prince Bek-Mirza Barchorov around her finger, and get him to give her a supply of these kefir grains.

But the prince’s people believed the grains were a gift from God. He couldn’t give any away without violating his religion. Irina realized her mission had failed, and she and her escorts started back for Kislovodsk.

Prince Barchorov had other ideas. He didn’t want to lose Irina.

It was local custom to steal a bride, so he kidnapped Irina, to force her to marry him. The Blandovs learned of Irina’s kidnapping, and hired agents who pulled off a daring rescue, capturing the beautiful Irina back from the prince.

Irina, with the help of the Blandovs, had Prince Barchorov dragged before Tsar Nicholas II. The prince offered gold and jewels to make up for his treatment of Irina… but the Tsar ordered him to pay restitution in 10 pounds of kefir grains.

This is the legend of how one of the healthiest drinks on planet earth, kefir (pronounced kuh-feer), was brought to the modern world.

The Blandovs, by the way, offered the first bottle of kefir for sale in Moscow in 1908.

No One Knows, No One’s Telling

The strange thing is, despite the story of Irina and the prince, the actual origin of the kefir grains themselves is still a mystery. No one knows where they came from. And the mountain people aren’t talking.

The people of Caucasus say the kefir grains are a gift from God, and if they reveal kefir’s secret it will lose its “magic.”

Some people believe kefir grains are manna, the miracle food God provided to Moses and the Jews in the Bible.

The name kefir comes from the Turkish word keif, which means simply “feel good.” Kefir originated with the Ossetians, who became shepherds in the Caucasus Mountains between Turkey and Russia, in an area north of the country now called Georgia.

You’ve heard of the explorer Marco Polo? Well, he mentioned kefir in the chronicles of his travels in the East. But it was mostly forgotten after that.

Until strange stories of a magical drink made their way into Russia. There, doctors obtained it and used it to treat patients with everything from stomach aches to tuberculosis.

Whatever its origin, we know that people in Caucasus have been drinking kefir for over a thousand years. And they are known for routinely living to well over 100 years old.

Miniature Magic

Kefir grains are nothing like the foods we call grains today. Each one looks like a small version of a cauliflower. The granules are made up of colonies of healthy bacteria that grow together, symbiotically, in a culture of the milk protein casein. And it’s all held together by a sugary matrix named kefiran,

The bacteria are the same types of “flora” that are an integral part of your digestive system, and may even help you make B vitamins.

Kefir is a cousin to other cultured products like yogurt, sour cream and buttermilk, except much more powerful. It’s made in the old tradition of fermentation.

Today, many of the foods we eat are preserved through processing or pasteurization. This uses heat from outside sources to kill off live cultures. It also strips the food of many helpful bacteria and nutrients. For yogurt, the live flora are then added back in.

But kefir is fermented. That means preserving with the help of heat generated by the food itself, and the beneficial flora. Before refrigerators, this is how you would have made food last for a few days without spoiling.

The kefir grains contain a complex flora of lactic acid bacteria (lactobacilli, lactococci, leuconostocs), acetic acid bacteria, and yeast mixture.

When you drink kefir, the flora goes right to work for you. These mini soldiers help re-colonize the good flora in your gut. They also get rid of harmful organisms, like too much H. Pylori, the bacteria that cause ulcers.

Kefir grains also seem to have the unique ability to unlock peptides from milk.1 In regular milk, these peptides stay hidden, or encrypted. But when you ferment the milk with kefir grains, it unlocks these peptides to give you benefits including:

Lower blood pressure
Increased immune strength
Normal cholesterol function
Improved protein digestion 

And despite the fact that kefir is made from milk, most people who are lactose intolerant can drink kefir easily.

Kefir is also a very nutrient-dense food, so it fills you up and keeps you from getting that “empty stomach” feeling, like you get after eating processed, starchy snacks.

It can have as much as 35% protein, lots of vitamins A, B and K, and also phosphorous. Phosphorous helps you digest fats and carbohydrates to use as energy. The flora in kefir also add to your digestive enzymes, helping you break down foods and use the nutrients more efficiently.

There’s no way to know for sure, but these two benefits might be why people who drink kefir say they have so much energy.

And do you want to know what my favorite thing about kefir is?

Modern science can’t duplicate it. Even though they know exactly what’s in kefir, they can’t make the real thing.

Scientists have all the ability and technology in the world to alter molecules and make synthetic drugs. But they can’t create kefir grains no matter how hard they try.

I love that.

In fact real kefir grains can only be obtained from growing and dividing already existing kefir grains.

Kefir is one of my favorite examples of how nature has science beat.

Here are four other things to love about kefir, each of which separates it from all other cultured milk products to make it unique.

Nearly all other fermented products have only one, or at most three, kinds of flora. Kefir has four main groups, and 40 to 60 different strains of healthy bacteria and yeast.

You never need to obtain more real kefir grains once you have some. They grow, and you divide them to make more.

With proper care, real kefir grains last forever.

Kefir has yeast… and that means kefir is a slightly alcoholic drink.

Depending on the fermentation process, temperature, time and the type of culture used (what you ferment the kefir in), the alcohol content will vary from 0.06% to 3% alcohol.

Shaking the container while the kefir is fermenting will give you higher alcohol content. In the Caucasus Mountains, you would have made kefir in an animal skin bag, and then hung the bag on your front door to make sure it was jostled around.

It was even a custom that everyone who came in or went out of a home with a kefir bag on the door had a responsibility to give the bag a poke or a shake to help mix it.

To make kefir today, you don’t need an animal skin bag. You simply add the kefir grains to fresh milk from any source – coconut, rice, goat, cow or sheep milk – and let it ferment at room temperature for 18 to 24 hours. The next day, you have your kefir! And, if you let it ferment another 24 hours, the B vitamin content increases.

The end product is a creamy drink with a tangy, slightly sour but refreshing taste. And the great thing is, if you want you can add flavor to it by mixing in whatever kind of fruit you like.

My favorite is strawberry.

I get my kefir from Amber, my friend and farmer who also gets me my organic eggs. She makes me and my staff yogurt, too. She delivers the yogurt and kefir in these giant glass jars filled to the top… almost too good to be true.

If you don’t have a local organic grower or farm that makes kefir or has kefir grains, there are now quite a few places you can get them from.

Some health food stores are starting to sell packaged brands. These are another reason why I don’t trust too many foods that come in a box. That’s because store-bought kefir isn’t the real thing.

To package it, they have to stop the yeast process or the sealed containers would explode on the store shelves. That means it’s not made from real kefir grains. They’re imitations that only have a few strains of flora and no yeast activity, which gives you some of the biggest health benefits.

To obtain real kefir grains, there are two things you can do. The first is to buy them. There are many websites you can order your kefir grains from. Here are the three I think are the most reliable:

Also, you can have your kefir grains given to you. In that case, there are two other websites you should know about. One is a directory of free and for sale kefir grains all over the US (and the world):

The other is a website for people who shvare real live kefir grains:

1 Miller. N.P., Scholz-Ahrens, K.E., Roos. N. and Schrezenmcir, J., “Bioactive peptides and proteins from foods: Indication for health effects,” Eur. J. Nutra, 2008;47:171-182
2 Guzel-Seydim, et al, “Review: Functional Properties of Kefir,” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 2011;51: 261-268

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