What is Water Kefir?

While many of us are regularly enjoying yoghurt as a healthy, probiotic snack and even have become familiar with kefir, a slightly sour fermented beverage made from milk, only a small number of people have heard about water kefir. Not to mention ever had a chance to drink this probiotic beverage.

So what is water kefir?

Water kefir is the lighter, lactose-free cousin of kefir. Instead of milk, water kefir is made by fermenting cane sugar and certain fruits, to create a delicious, light, naturally sparkling probiotic beverage. Instead of fermenting the lactose sugar found in milk, the water kefir cultures ferment the cane sugar and the sugars found in fruits into lactic acid and other health beneficial organic acids.
Kefir has been prepared and enjoyed in many cultures around the world for centuries. The name “kefir” is said to derive from the Turkish word “keif” which means wellbeing. A clear indication of the health benefits long known to be associated with the consumption of kefir and other probiotic foods. While milk kefir is already well known and enjoyed as a probiotic by many people here in the United States, water kefir has remained a rather unknown probiotic beverage. Also rather unknown are the origins of water kefir and of the kefir cultures – often referred to as “Japanese water crystals”. Interestingly, Mexico (and not Japan) is often named as the place of origin of the water kefir crystals, where – according to some reports – water kefir has been mentioned for the first time in 1899. It is claimed that the crystals were discovered growing on the sugary sap secreted from indigenous cactus (Opuntia) plants. However, other reports name Tibet, the Caucasus and southern regions of the Ukraine as possible points of origins of the remarkable water kefir crystals. While the water kefir cultures do indeed resemble small clear crystals, they are well alive and biologically active. The crystal-like grains are actually made up from a gelatin-like polysaccharide matrix produced by some of the bacteria found in water kefir.

The bacteria and yeasts found in the water kefir crystals symbiotically work together while converting the sugars into numerous fermentation products, most namely lactic acid, acetic acid and a little bit of alcohol. Therefore, we at Hebe Kombucha rather like to use the term SCOBY (short for Symbiotic Community Of Bacteria and Yeasts) to describe the kefir crystals. The process to make water kefir is basically same used to make the much better known fermentation products beer, cider and wine. However, while beer and wine primarily relies on yeasts to convert the sugars, the fermentation process leading to water kefir is way more complex involving several bacterial species and yeasts. Numerous studies by scientists over the past decades have found that the water kefir crystals contain primarily lactic acid bacteria, bifidobacterial and brewer’s yeast. According to a recent scientific study (Laureys D. & De Vuyst L, J. Appl. Microbiol. 2016 Dec. 8), the majority of microorganisms present in water kefir grains are Lactobacillus paracasei, Lactobacillus nagelii, Lactobacillus hilgardii, Bifidobacterium aquikefiri and the yeasts Saccharomyces cerevisiae (“brewer’s yeast”) and Dekkera Brettanomyces.

Other studies have reported the presence of additional bacteria in water kefir cultures. Most namely Leuconostoc citreum, Lactobacillus hordei, Leuconostoc mesenterium, Acetobacter fabarum, Acetobacter orientalis, and other yeasts, most notably Zygotorulaspora Florentina, Hanseniaspora, Torulaspora and Lachancea. Many of the bacteria found in water kefir cultures are known have probiotic effects on the human body.

During the natural fermentation process, the water kefir cultures ferment almost all of the sugar provided to them and convert it into organic acids, carbon dioxide and some amounts of alcohol. After completion of the fermentation process, water kefir reveals itself as a naturally carbonated, slightly fizzy, little sour and refreshingly tangy beverage. For those consumers who wish to ween themselves off the popular soft drinks, often artificially carbonated and loaded with high fructose corn syrup, water kefir offers the perfect, equally refreshing but much healthier beverage alternative. Healthier simply because as any other probiotic, water kefir contains several live and active probiotic bacteria and yeasts offering a series of health benefits. In addition, the fruits we add in fresh or dried form to our water kefir cultures contribute additional valuable enzymes, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrient to this wonderful probiotic beverage. Since water kefir is not made from dairy milk but from cane sugar and/or fruit sweetened water, it is a great lactose-free probiotic beverage alternative for those who suffer from lactose intolerance.

Because of the presence of several probiotic bacteria, i.e. lactobacillus sp., water kefir offers numerous health benefits to those cherishing this probiotic food. It is well documented in science that in humans the presence of lactobacilli is important for the maintenance of a healthy digestive system. Many lactobacilli, such as Lactobacillus reuteri, are known to produce natural antibiotics, e.g. Reuterin, and possess inhibitory activity toward the growth of common pathogenic gut bacteria, most namely Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, and Salmonella spp. The beneficial effects of many lactobacilli on intestinal health and wellbeing is suspected to be due to the production of inhibitory compounds ranging from organic acids, hydrogen peroxide, and bacteriocins. What has been traditional wisdom in many cultures around the world for centuries, it is not until recently that modern science confirmed that regular consumption of probiotic foods is able to improve human intestinal health. Scientists believe that the probiotic bacteria stabilize the normal population of “good bacteria” and help to maintain an intact protective layer in our digestive system. Scientific studies further indicate that natural antibiotics, produced and released by probiotic bacteria, may help to inhibit the takeover of the digestive system by the Clostridium difficile (“Cdiff”), a known intestinal “food pathogen” responsible for millions of cases of food poisoning in the U.S. alone.