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Kefir Grains vs Kefir Starter Culture - Which Should You Use?

Researched and Written by:
Richelle Godwin, RDN Richelle Godwin, RDN

So you’ve discovered the health benefits of kefir and you’re ready to get your fermentation game on, but you’ve run into a little problem...should you use kefir grains or a powdered kefir starter culture? Well, don’t worry, we’ve got you. Because thankfully, our team at Essential Stacks has done all the research for you, and we have come up with the 5 big things for you to consider. We’ll see which types of kefir they work with what they taste like, how many probiotics they deliver, as well as how easy they are to use. I’ll even show you how much they each cost, so you can work out what suits you best.

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Table of Contents

    Before we jump in, I just wanted to explain the main difference between kefir grains, which I have here, and kefir starter culture, which is here. 

    Now, while kefir grains are these little complex colonies of living bacteria and yeast, kefir starter culture is a simple powder of freeze-dried bacteria that is commercially made.

    So in that sense the kefir starter culture is similar to probiotics supplements or a yogurt starter culture.  And it is also the same thing that is used to make bottled-kefir you can buy in a store. 

    Round 1: Versatility

    As a registered dietitian here at Essential Stacks, I’ve been lucky enough to experiment with every type of kefir grain and powdered kefir starter culture.   And the first key difference I noticed is how they differ in Versatility.  

    You see, while a powdered starter culture can be used to ferment pretty much any liquid - from cows milk to fruit juice - kefir grains are much pickier...in fact, I dare say they’re like the Mariah Carey of fermentation!  Let’s take a look.

    So milk kefir grains work best with cows, goats or sheep milk.  And based on fermentation studies (and my own experimentation) they can also work with soy and coconut milk.  And that’s about it. 

    So if you’re after some hipster oat milk kefir, forget about it!  Meanwhile, water kefir grains work best with sugary water, fruit juice or coconut water.

    So when it comes to versatility, kefir starter culture is our winner.  And what I really like about it for people just starting out, is that one week you can focus on making milk kefir from a starter culture, and the next week you can open a new packet of the same starter culture and try water kefir.  How cool, right?!

    Round 2: Taste

    Kefir grains and kefir starter culture can produce very different tasting kefir. 

    What I thought would be fun is to actually do a taste test comparison for you.

    Let’s start with a milk kefir I made from kefir grains - stronger, more sour, little less sweet.

    And now, a milk kefir made from a powdered starter culture - milder, slightly sweeter kefir

    So if we compare it to the beer world, kefir made from grains are more like a full-bodied IPA and ones made from a powdered starter culture are more like a good ol’ Budweiser.   

    If you are still getting used to the taste of kefir, a starter culture can make the transition a bit easier and ensure you don’t run for the hills after a strong batch of kefir!

    Round 3: Probiotics

    As we just looked at, a kefir starter culture can be more versatile and easier on the palate than grains.  But when it comes to which will give you the most probiotics, the answer is clear.  Kefir grains are without doubt the MVP of the kefir world!  The Michael Jordan of fermentation. 

    Let’s do a quick comparison, so you know exactly how they stack up against each other.

    • 1 glass of Milk kefir made from grains will typically give you 100-300 billion CFUs of beneficial bacteria and yeast. And this is often from a whopping 30-100 different probiotic species.  Meaning every time you take a sip, you’re literally sending billions of probiotic superheroes down into your gut.  How cool is that!
    • Now, 1 glass of Water kefir made from grains is not bad either, as it will usually deliver 5-35 billion CFUs and from an impressive 10-15 different probiotic species. 

    So now the big question...how many probiotics are in 1 glass of milk or water kefir made from a powdered kefir starter culture? 

    Well, if you’ve ever bought a packet of starter culture, you’ll know there is very little info about this. 

    To me and the research team at Essential Stacks that just doesn’t sit right, especially since we want to make sure you’re not left drinking expensive milk!  So we decided to put on our detective hats and go investigating for you!  Welcome to Gut Health Investigations: Special Probiotics Unit!

    First we rounded up all the big suspects...in this case the companies selling powdered kefir starter culture.  Across the USA we found the top 8 selling companies. 

    And the 2 big questions we wanted definitive answers to, were:  

    1) What different strains of helpful bacteria & yeast are inside their cultures?

    2) How many CFUs of probiotics are in 1 glass of kefir made from their starter?

    Our investigations took quite a while as we found most companies weren’t quick to answer our questions.  But the team and I kept going with multiple emails and follow up calls over the space of 4 weeks.  And finally, we started getting answers. 

    In fact, in the end they sang like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. 

    Here’s what we learned:

    In terms of types of bacteria and yeast - most had around 4-5 different types of probiotic species, with the best having up to 9.  Now as we all know, more diversity is better, since different probiotics help with different parts of your gut. And for us around 8 strains is the minimum we’d like to see in a starter culture product.

    Now in terms of the number of probiotics in the finished kefir - this is where the suspects really broke down. 

    7 out of the 8 companies could not provide CFU count couldn’t give us any indication of how many CFUs a customer might expect to enjoy.  We understand time, temperature & liquid can influence CFUs, but they couldn’t even offer a rough range! 

    Some companies simply said “We have not measured it”, and others even said, and I quote...“Sadly, this is proprietary information that we are unable to provide.”. 

    We found this all very disappointing.  And the 1 company that did give us some guidance said a finished cup of their kefir would likely contain 1-2.5 billion CFUs of good bacteria.  

    As you can see, there is just not enough data available for us to get excited about the probiotic potential of a powdered starter culture.  Although, we do hope that as time goes on, companies can test their products and share this data, as it would allow us to make a more informed recommendation for you. 

    So to sum up here…

    Kefir made from grains typically has over 30 different probiotic species and over 100 billion CFUs per cup - making them the Michael Jordan of fermentation. 

    And by contrast, a powdered starter culture is more like Dennis Rodman - meaning they might be great for Team Kefir, but we have no idea exactly what’s going on.  

    And so if you’re looking to get the most health benefits from kefir, which I explain here, then kefir grains are a more reliable source. 

    Round 4: Cost

    At this point, you still might be a bit unclear as to whether you should use Kefir grains or Kefir starter culture.   Well, let’s look at what they both cost, as that might make the decision much easier for you.

    So good quality kefir grains often cost around $15-$20.  While a single sachet of powdered starter culture will be more like $2-4. 

    But here’s the thing...

    ...kefir grains are a one-time purchase, because you can keep reusing them indefinitely as long as you take care of them.  Meanwhile, a starter culture is normally only good to use 2-7 times, and then you need to buy more. 

    From my own experiments, kefir starter cultures tend to lose their fermenting powers after the 5th batch, by which time the bacteria get too weak to fully ferment the kefir.

    Now, you’re probably wondering how much kefir do you need to make before kefir grains are better value?  Well, we did the math for you! 

    On average, 1 sachet of kefir starter culture costs $3, it can be used 5 times, and each time it will make roughly 1 quart or 1 liter of milk kefir for you.  So it costs about 60 cents a batch. 

    That means if you’re planning to make more than 25 batches of kefir, then kefir grains are going to work out cheaper.  In fact, at this point each new batch made with kefir grains costs you nothing, while every new batch made with kefir starter culture costs you 60 cents. 

    So if you plan to keep making kefir beyond the next month or so, then grains for the win.

    Round 5: Ease

    Remember how I said before that kefir grains are a lot pickier than kefir starter culture and kinda remind me of Mariah Carey? 

    Well, that’s because they need attention, love and lots of commitment. 

    Which is not surprising since kefir grains are Living worlds of bacteria and yeast that need to be kept at the Right temperature and have a Constant supply of nutrition to survive.

    By contrast, kefir starter culture is more like managing Ed Sheeran. All he needs is a guitar, microphone and some speakers - in other words - Zero maintenance.

    Since kefir starter uses freeze-dried bacteria, it doesn’t need refrigeration  And when you want to use it, you simply open a new packet of a kefir starter culture, sprinkle it in your liquid of choice, leave it to ferment and voila!  You don’t even need special equipment to do this. 

    Maybe best of all, kefir starter produces pretty much the exact same product every time.

    So if you’re looking to enjoy kefir without the commitment of grains, then a powdered kefir starter culture is the way to go. 

    Our conclusion

    So which is best? 

    Well, if you are just looking to test the waters, then a powdered kefir starter culture can make sense.  It’s just so easy to drink & make, and it offers a really friendly introduction to fermenting kefir. 

    Plus, if you buy a few sachets, you can try milk kefir one week and water kefir the next! 

    But if you fall in love with kefir and really want to get your fermentation game on - and of course, Enjoy a much higher & diverse intake of probiotics - then kefir grains will make the most sense. 

    Plus, as we just saw they’re so much cheaper over the long term. 

    And here at Essential Stacks, given the current lack of information on the probiotics you get from kefir starter culture, we think traditional kefir grains are the clear winner.  They produce a much more powerful kefir and this can be a game changer for good gut health.

    Evidence Based

    An evidence hierarchy is followed to ensure conclusions are formed off of the most up-to-date and well-designed studies available. We aim to reference studies conducted within the past five years when possible.

    • Systematic review or meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
    • Randomized controlled trials
    • Controlled trials without randomization
    • Case-control (retrospective) and cohort (prospective) studies
    • A systematic review of descriptive, qualitative, or mixed-method studies
    • A single descriptive, qualitative, or mixed-method study
    • Studies without controls, case reports, and case series
    • Animal research
    • In vitro research

    4 comments

    • Great article Richelle. Thanks so much. Just the kind of detail that is helpful.

      Christopher
    • Great article!! I have been making kefir for about a month. I purchased the grains from Fusion Teas through Amazon. The grains produced really thick kefir and we have been making this nice quality kefir with them consistently however it does not taste the same as Lifeway’s kefir from the grocery store. My kefir has a slightly sour milk taste even the first few batches. Is there a way I can change my grains to taste more like Lifeway’s kefir? I would really appreciate any thoughts you might have on the matter.

      Cynthia
    • Great article! I started making kefir from the grains that I purchased through Amazon (Fusion Tea Store). Right from the start the kefir tates totally different than Lifeway Kefir at the grocery store. I love Lifeway kefir but my homemade from grains has a hint of soured milk. Is there a way to change the flavor of my grains?

      Gail
    • Thanks for the nice comparison.

      Divyanshu

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