Many of us have by now heard about the benefits of taking a daily probiotic. It has been touted as the “cure” from everything from constipation and GI complaints to depression and even autism (read about the “groundbreaking” study here: Autism’s Gut-Brain Connection)
I’ve also discussed the benefits of taking probiotics on this blog as well (A Short Lesson in Probiotics). Probiotics can be a very useful tool in helping your microbiome (the community of “good” and “bad” microorganisms that literally share our body space) to become more balanced (more of the “good” guys than the “bad” guys). Since so many diseases can be linked to the state of your digestive health, having balanced intestinal flora is very important to your overall well-being.
However, commercial probiotics have certain limitations. One of those is the fact that they cannot travel throughout the entire length of your digestive tract. Many probiotics reach your stomach and slightly further into your small intestines, but barely reach your large intestines (your colon). This does not mean that they are entirely ineffective, as many of our stomachs and small intestines are overpopulated with “bad” bacteria and pathogens that should not be there (case in point: how many of us suffer from reflux, feeling excessively “full” after eating, like food is just sitting in our stomach and not being digested, or SIBO – small intestinal bacterial overgrowth? These are all signs that we have a pathogenic overgrowth of bacteria in places they should not be: our stomach and small intestines).
What is the solution to this problem? How can we reach places in our digestive tract that commercial probiotics cannot reach?
That is where fermented, probiotic-rich foods come in.
Unlike commercial probiotics, fermented foods have the ability to travel throughout the entire length of the digestive tract, positively affecting the intestinal flora. Probiotic-rich foods should be an important part of our daily diet.
Past generations ate probiotic-rich foods regularly as fermenting foods was one of the few ways that they could preserve their harvest (before the invention of the refrigerator). Today, most of us have difficulty thinking of any probiotic-rich foods beyond the yogurt that we can find on the shelves in the supermarket. However, there’s so much more to fermented foods than just yogurt!
To give you an idea of what you could eat, here are some examples of probiotic-rich foods that we include in our diet:
Fermented pickles (not the kind made with vinegar, but the fermented kind that is full of probiotics)
Fermented ketchup (my oldest eats this by the jar!)
Fermented veggies (radishes, carrots, green beans, onions, vegetable medleys, etc. etc. etc.)
Fermented salsa (this is one of my favorites!)
Fermented fruits (you can make a huge variety of flavors!)
Fermented ranch dressing
Fermented apple cider (yummy!) — see recipe below
Yogurt (made from dairy milk and nut milks)
Purple eggs (made from hardboiled eggs and beet kvass – sounds strange, but my boys love them!)
So, as you can see, there is a wide variety of foods that you can eat to help get more beneficial bacteria into your body, and this is just a start!
Today, I want to specifically talk about water kefir, which can be an excellent source of probiotics that you can add to your daily diet. A side benefit: it’s delicious!
Water Kefir – Why Beneficial
Water kefir is a very easy-to-make fermented drink made from a cluster of colonies of bacteria and yeast, known as “water kefir grains”. Unlike the name seems to imply, there are no actual grains involved here; the name simply comes from what the colonies look like: grains.
You place these water kefir grains in sugar water, and slowly the culture begins to “eat” up the sugar, fermenting the water in the process. It leaves a slightly effervescent drink that can be flavored with fruit for a second fermentation, leaving a wonderful fruity drink that’s teaming with probiotics by the end of four days.
When I say “teaming” with probiotics, I really do mean it. That’s another benefit of fermented foods that I didn’t mention earlier: the quantity of probiotics involved. When you buy a commercial probiotic off the shelf in your local supermarket, you will notice that it will include on the back a number of beneficial bacteria that the product includes, sometimes referred to as colony forming units (or CFUs). A regular probiotic on the shelf usually has a few million CFUs, but by the time it’s sat on the shelf for a while, this number has dramatically decreased. A good quality probiotic (like the one I have right now in my fridge) often contains many billion CFUs per serving. However, 4-6 ounces of sauerkraut contains TEN TRILLION bacteria per serving. So, it is literally “teaming” with goodness for your digestive system. No wonder your belly feels happy after eating it!
Water kefir is no exception, containing amazing amounts of probiotics in every tasty drop. While the exact composition of each person’s water kefir will be different (the water kefir will take on some of the bacteria and yeast of the environment it is brewed in), Cultures for Health states that water kefir may contain some of the following bacteria and yeast:
Water kefir can be beneficial for many things. Like all probiotic-rich food, the probiotics in water kefir can help us to digest our food, prevent allergies (a healthy microbiota will prevent damage to our gut wall, behind which lies our immune system), and boost our immunity. I often like to add elderberries to my water kefir to increase the immune-boosting properties!
The best part about making water kefir? IT IS SO SIMPLE. What do you need to start? A glass jar, some sugar, some filtered water, and some water kefir grains. That’s it.
1 liter glass jar
A little less than 1 liter of filtered water
¼ cup organic sugar (you can use granulated sugar, brown sugar, sucanat, turbinado sugar, etc.)
¼ cup water kefir grains
- Place ¼ cup of granulated sugar on the bottom of your glass jar.
- Boil a small amount of filtered water (enough to cover the sugar). Pour this hot water over the sugar and stir until dissolved.
- Fill the jar with filtered water, leaving about 2-3 inches of space from the top of the jar. Make sure that the water has cooled to room temp before adding your kefir grains, as the heat will kill the culture.
- When the water is cool, add about ¼ cup of kefir grains to your sugar water. Cover the jar with a breathable material like cheesecloth, a clean towel, or a coffee filter (I like to use one coffee filter overtop and secure it with a rubber band).
- Leave the jar on your countertop at room temperature for about 48 hours.
- After 48 hours, strain out the kefir grains and add them to the next batch of sugar water (prepared as directed in steps 1-4).
- With the liquid left over (your water kefir), you can place a tight lid on top of the jar and let it sit on your countertop for another 48 hours. This is plain water kefir. After that 48 hour period is up, stick it in the fridge. However, if you don’t want plain water kefir, after your initial 48 hours is up (after you strain out the water kefir grains), you can add some flavoring to your water kefir and then let that sit on your countertop with a tight lid for 48 hours. There are so many delicious options! Here are a few that I recommend:
- 1 Tbs. elderberries (an extra boost for your immune system!)
- 1 Tbs. marshmellow root
- 1 Tbs. rose petals (for a sweet aromatic flavor – it’s honestly really good!)
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- Strips of orange zest
- Any dried fruit, like mangoes, cranberries, apricots, pears, etc. (we really like adding dried mangoes or apricots – delicious!)
- ½ cup blueberry-pomegranate juice (or other fruit juice)
- 1 Tbs. lemon and 1 Tbs. lime juice
- 6-10 blueberries and 1 Tbs. lemon juice
- 3-4 blueberries, 3-4 raspberries, 3-4 blackberries, 2-3 strawberries, ½ Tbs. elderberries with 1 Tbs. lemon or lime juice
- 6-8 cherries (without pits) with 1 Tbs. lime juice and 1 tsp. lemon juice
- 4-5 strawberries and 1 Tbs. lemon or lemon juice
- 4-5 strawberries, 2 Tbs. fresh pureed peach, 1 Tbs. lemon juice
- 4-5 strawberries, ½ kiwi, 1 Tbs. lemon juice
- Several raisins (tastes like Dr. Pepper)
- Fresh squeezed orange juice and seeds from ¼ vanilla bean
- Cinnamon sticks
- ½ Tbs. vanilla with a couple orange slices (only do an extra 24 hours on the counter)
- ¼ cup cranberry juice and a couple apple slices (only do an extra 24 hours on the counter)
- ¼ cup grape juice
- ½ Tbs. vanilla, 1 cinnamon stick, ginger
- ¼ cup mango juice, ½ cup raspberries
- ¼ cup cherry juice
Here are a few more ideas of things you can do with your water kefir:
To make “cream soda”, add 2-3 tsp. of vanilla extract after you do the first ferment (the first 48 hours), and then stick it in the fridge without doing a second ferment
Add water kefir to your morning smoothies (flavored or unflavored). I really like adding in the elderberry water kefir to our berry smoothies (mixed berries, avocado, handful greens like kale and spinach, filtered water).
Make fermented juice from the start! Instead of adding the kefir grains to sugar water, add about 1/4 cup of water kefir grains to a liter of fruit juice (fermented apple cider is delicious! Check it regularly, though, because it can quickly turn from kefir to hard cider 😉 ) After you make a batch of fruit juice kefir, make sure to use sugar water for your next batch to keep your kefir grains healthy. They don’t get as nourished from fruit juice as they do from sugar.
Experiment and have fun! The nice thing is that your water kefir grains will start to replicate and grow, so soon you will have enough water kefir grains to share.
When you are first starting out, if you are looking for water kefir grains, you can do the following:
- Get water kefir grains locally or from a friend.
- There are groups that share grains on Facebook (for example, there’s a group called “Kefir Grains, SCOBY and Others to Share”). You can usually get them for free from someone who has extra and just pay shipping.
- Cultures from Health has dehydrated kefir grains (among other cultures) that you can buy.
May your kitchen always be filled with ferments!