The Fermented Dairy Drink That's Insanely Good for You

Fermented foods have been a thing since the Neolithic period, but in recent years, humans (OK, hipsters) have gotten excited about them all over again.

One particularly trendy fermented item is kefir, which, for the record, is pronounced "keh-FEER," not like Kiefer Sutherland -- I don't care how much you love his new show. This creamy, yogurt-like drink made from fermented cow’s milk is both delicious and healthy, and bearded people wearing flannel will think you're cool for drinking it. Here's the scoop:

Fermentation is one of humankind's greatest discoveries

Fermentation is a chemical process in which microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast break down the sugars, starches, or carbohydrates in a food and convert them into alcohol or acid. Yes, it sounds gross, but it's a killer preservation method as well as the scientific discovery that brought us beer and wine. In other words, it might be the greatest thing ever.

So what exactly is kefir?

Descriptions found on kefir labels range from "fermented beverage" to "drinkable yogurt," and one brand even calls it "the Champagne of dairy" because of its light effervescence. No matter what you slap on the bottle, kefir is simply milk plus kefir grains (a combination of yeast and bacteria) plus time. And despite confusing marketing language, yogurt and kefir are not the same thing; the difference lies in the amount and types of cultures used.

It's a probiotics party and you're invited

Like its cousin yogurt, kefir is an outstanding source of probiotics, the good bacteria that assist with digestion and general gut health. Probiotics have other perks too, such as supporting your immune system and helping with weight management. There's also evidence that probiotics could be effective in preventing and managing diabetes.

Think of it as a protein shake without the chalky powder

Kefir is packed with complete protein, meaning that it has all nine of the essential amino acids your body needs. It's also a great source of calcium and phosphorus, as well as vitamin B12, which is key for central nervous system maintenance.

On top of all the vitamins and minerals, a review of kefir's benefits found that it could be useful "as antioxidant, antitumor agent, antimicrobial agent, and immunomodulator, among other roles." Did you hear that?! Among other roles! There's no telling what kefir can do.

It tastes good. Really.

While fermented foods like kombucha and kimchee are sometimes considered acquired tastes, kefir is basically a tangy milkshake with a fizzy feel. Drink it straight up or mix it with cereal or fruit. Aside from the low-fat and whole-milk varieties, you can choose from an array of flavors, like vanilla, honey, and mango.

Looking for an ice cream alternative? Try frozen kefir. Even the lactose-intolerant folks can potentially indulge; because of the bacteria, kefir is often easier for lactose maldigestors (that's what they're called!) to process compared to other dairy products.

It's absurdly easy to make

Want extra street cred from the kefir crowd? Make your own! You can purchase a "kefir culture" (sometimes called a "starter kit") at a health-food store or online. Then just add milk and let the fermentation begin. You'll have homemade kefir ready in less than a week.

There's your DIY project for the cold winter months. You're welcome.

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Katie McDonough is a freelance writer and editor whose New Year’s resolution is going to be to drink more kefir. Follow her @thewritekatie.