In the world of probiotic (or cultured) dairy products, there are two main foods to choose from: kefir vs. yogurt. So which is better?
Both kefir and yogurt are made by fermenting milk, which results in the growth of gut-friendly bacteria, yeasts and microbes. While yogurt may be more well-known and widely available, kefir is now usually sold in most major supermarkets and nearly all health food stores.
The two have many things in common — such as providing not only probiotics but also calcium, protein, potassium and B vitamins — however the way they are made, and therefore their probiotic diversity and counts, differs a bit for reasons we’ll explore more below when looking at kefir vs. yogurt.
Kefir vs. Yogurt: Which Is Healthier?
What is the difference between kefir and yogurt? Is kefir healthier than yogurt?
First, let’s define what kefir and yogurt are and establish how they differ from one another.
- Kefir is a fermented milk product, most often made from goat’s milk, cow’s milk or sheep’s milk. Today, certain stores also carry dairy-free versions, such as coconut milk kefir or water kefir, which means they do not contain any lactose, dairy or real “milk” at all.
- Traditionally, making milk kefir has involved the use of “kefir grains” (an exopolysaccharide and protein complex) or a starter culture containing lactic acid bacteria and yeasts. These are what ultimately allow probiotics to form throughout the kefir during fermentation.
- Kefir has been consumed for hundreds of of years in communities such as those living in the Caucasus Mountains.
- Typically, both yogurt and kefir are made with a starter kit of “live” active yeast, which is responsible for culturing the beneficial bacteria. Both can be cultured using a reusable or single-use culture.
- Unlike yogurt, kefir comes solely from mesophilic strains, which cultures at room temperature and does not require heating at all. It’s possible to continuously make kefir using kefir grains if they are fed and kept alive, while one-use powdered starters are also available.
- Once fermented, milk kefir has a tart taste that’s somewhat similar to the taste of Greek yogurt. How strong the tartness is depends on how long the drink has been fermented — a longer fermenting process usually leads to a stronger, tarter taste and even yields some carbonation, which results from the active yeast.
What are the main benefits of consuming it? Studies have found that consumption of kefir has been “associated with improved digestion and tolerance to lactose, antibacterial effect, hypocholesterolaemic effect, control of plasma glucose, anti-hypertensive effect, anti-inflammatory effect, antioxidant activity, anti-carcinogenic activity, anti-allergenic activity and healing effects.”
- Yogurt is typically made by fermenting cow’s milk but can also be made with goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, coconut milk or almond milk.
- There are two types of yogurt “starters” that assist in the fermentation process: mesophilic (same type as kefir, which cultures at room temp) and thermophilic (must be heated to around 110 degrees Fahrenheit, usually using a yogurt maker). Yogurt can also be continuously made by using a small amount of yogurt to start a new batch.
Because it provides probiotics, vitamins and minerals, health benefits associated with yogurt consumption include support for gut health, cholesterol metabolism, antimicrobial activity, tumor suppression, increased speed of wound healing, and modulation of the immune system including the alleviation of allergy and asthma symptoms.
Kefir vs. Yogurt: Main Differences
Compared to yogurt, kefir tends to have a higher probiotic count and more diversity of bacterial strains and yeasts. The presence of yeast especially makes it stand apart from yogurt.
According to Lifeway (maker of kefir products), “kefir has 12 different strains of live and active cultures and 25–30 billion Colony Forming Units (CFU), while the average yogurt can have anywhere from 1 to 5 strains with 6 billion CFU.”
Types of microbes found in kefir include: Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus casei subsp. pseudoplantarum, Lactobacillus kefiri, Lactobacillus kefir and Lactobacillus brevi.
Here are some other difference between kefir vs. yogurt:
- It’s thought that the bacteria found in yogurt is mostly the transient kind that passes through the digestive tract, while the bacteria found in kefir seems to colonize within the digestive tract.
- Kefir is typically lower in lactose than yogurt and therefore may be tolerated better by people with lactose intolerance. It’s also usually a bit higher in protein per cup.
- In terms of consistency and taste, kefir is thinner/more liquid-like and more sour (due to the presence of yeast). Some describe kefir as tasting similar to a cross between yogurt and buttermilk.
- Yogurt tends to be available in more flavors, plus there are different types such as Greek yogurt, European yogurt, Icelandic yogurt, etc. The consistency and taste varies depending on exactly how it’s prepared, with some types being more tart and thick than others.
- Kefir is usually consumed as a drink or as a topping on things like oats/grains, however it can be used just like yogurt for the most part.
How to Use Yogurt and Kefir
Beyond just drinking kefir or eating yogurt on its own, there are other clever ways to use these two dairy products recipes:
- Both can make a great base for smoothies, as well as soups and stews that would otherwise call for regular buttermilk, sour cream, heavy cream or yogurt.
- You can substitute plain or flavored kefir or yogurt for the ingredients above in your favorite recipes for baked goods, mashed potatoes, soups and more in order to boost the nutrient content.
- If you prefer a thicker kefir, you can make soft spreadable kefir cheese, (a type of crumbly cheese that can be sprinkled over your favorite dinner dishes) or even harder/denser cheeses. You can also thicken yogurt to make labneh cheese, or Greek yogurt.
Milk kefir and plain yogurt are not naturally very sweet on their own (they have a tart/sour taste, especially kefir), but other flavors can be added in order to boost the flavor and make it more appealing.
When buying either one, check the ingredients and avoid those made with lots of added sugar. Most store-bought kefirs and yogurts are flavored with additions like fruit or cane sugar, but you can sweeten and flavor them yourself at home by adding a little raw honey, maple syrup, vanilla extract or organic stevia extract.