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Milk Kefir vs Water Kefir - Which Is Best For You?

Researched and Written by:
Richelle Godwin, RDN Richelle Godwin, RDN Jenna Swift, APD Dietitian Jenna Swift, APD Dietitian

Milk kefir vs water kefir...which is best? Well, for us fermentation lovers here at Essential Stacks geeking out on all things probiotics, this is the Bacteria Battle of the decade. Like superman versus batman! And when patients ask me to pick a side, I hesitate, because it is almost like picking a favorite child. So in this article, I’m going to show you the 5 ways these 2 types of kefir differ. We’ll look at how they taste, how easy they are to make, and even what Beneficial bacteria are inside them. That way you’ll be able to decide which is best for you personally.

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    So you can get a really good idea of why milk and water kefir are so different, I want to quickly show you what they are both made of.  So here is milk kefir and it is traditionally made by combining cows milk with milk kefir grains. 

    And over here is water kefir, which is typically made by combining sugary water with water kefir grains.  

    As you can see the milk kefir grains are white, cloudy and almost creamy looking, whereas the water kefir grains look more clear, almost like crystals.  And while the milk kefir grains feed on lactose sugar to create lots of beneficial bacteria in our kefir, the water kefir grains simply feed on any type of normal sugar such as table sugar.  In other words, these kefirs use different liquids, different sugars and different grains.

    Now, let’s see which one is better!

    Round 1: Taste

    I’ve been a practicing dietitian for over 15 years and I’ve come to realize taste is probably the number 1 factor that drives diet compliance.  Meaning if I can find healthy foods that patients also like the taste of, then they’ll easily stick to it.  And this is where a bubbly, sweet and slightly tangy glass of delicious water kefir is just amazing. 

    In fact, if you do a 2nd ferment using fruit juice or coconut water, and flavor it with some fresh or dried fruits, it can taste like a healthy soda.  Pretty much everyone loves it.  By contrast, milk kefir often tastes like slightly sour milk or buttermilk, which can be tough on your taste buds when you first try it. 

    Of course, you can flavor it with some honey or mix it in shakes while you get used to it.  Overall though, when it comes to taste, water kefir is the clear winner. 

    Round 2: Convenience

    Thankfully both milk and water kefir are quick to make - typically only needing around 24 hours to ferment.  But which one is easier to make at home?  Well, as someone who has accidentally turned water kefir into moonshine during several second-fermentation experiments, I’m going to declare milk kefir the winner here. 

    You see, although water kefir is really simple to set up - you just add water kefir grains to your sugary water - it can be tricky to get the fermentation just right.  If you go under, it lacks the probiotic goodies you’re after and has more sugar than ideal, and if you go over, it can become somewhat alcoholic and too sour to drink. 

    By contrast, milk kefir is pretty easy to ferment to the ideal point where it has the probiotics in high numbers and tastes reasonably good.  And just as importantly, after you’ve made your kefir, the milk kefir grains are much easier to reuse and manage, compared to water kefir grains, which I explain in the video below!  So milk kefir is our winner here!

    Round 3: Tolerance

    Apart from taste and convenience, the next big thing to help you decide which kefir is best for you, is tolerance.  In other words, which kefir is Easiest for your gut to digest or in line with your diet preferences.  Now, you might think straight away that water kefir is going to win this round. 

    After all, it is simply made from water and sugar, and most of the sugar is eaten up during fermentation.  And by contrast, milk kefir is traditionally made using cows milk, which poses problems for those with lactose intolerance or who are vegan. 

    But guess what? 

    The milk kefir grains actually eat up a lot of the lactose sugar during fermentation, meaning lactose intolerant people might be able to enjoy it.  And even more interesting, you can actually make or buy milk kefir that is derived from Non-dairy milks, like coconut milk kefir. 

    Which means those of you who are either lactose intolerant, have a milk allergy or are vegan, can still enjoy some types of milk kefir.  So when it comes to tolerance, I’m going to call it a draw!

    Round 4: Nutrition

    This is where things get interesting!  So first up, let’s talk about milk kefir.

    Obviously, thanks to the cows milk itself you’ll enjoy a lot of nutrients, such as minerals, vitamins and even a good serve of protein.  But of course, you’ll also have some fat in there too, and potentially some leftover lactose sugar.  With that said, a glass of homemade whole milk kefir only has roughly 110 calories in it.  Not bad, right! 

    Now, what about water kefir? 

    Well, assuming you’ve used water rich in minerals, then you’ll enjoy some nutrients, but nothing approaching the level of milk kefir.  But for those of you counting calories, well, that’s when water kefir gets exciting. 

    Assuming your water kefir has fermented long enough, then there should be very little leftover sugar in it and a glass of water kefir should only have around 10-20 calories in it!  In terms of picking a winner here, it really depends on your health goals. If you want more nutrients - go milk kefir. 

    And if you want something with less calories - go water kefir.  So I’m calling this one a tie as well.  

    Round 5: Probiotics

    Up until now, I think you’d agree, the battle between milk and water kefir has been pretty even.  But when it comes to probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria, milk kefir is the undisputed champion. 

    And that’s because milk kefir grains contain a much Richer & diverse world of helpful microorganisms compared to water kefir grains. 

    And so unsurprisingly, they are able to produce so much more good bacteria and yeast in the kefir drink itself. 

    In fact, in a single cup of homemade milk kefir, you can typically find 100-300 billion CFUs of good bacteria & yeast, which can come from a whopping 30 to 100 different probiotic species! 

    Now, let’s compare that to water kefir - which typically has only 5-35 billion CFUs per serving and usually from 10-15 different probiotic species.  So, if your main reason for drinking kefir is to help nourish your gut with probiotics, then milk kefir is your number one option.  

    Which kefir is best for you?

    Well, as you’ve seen in this video, they both have their pros and cons.  For some of you, the Taste may be the deciding factor.  And for others, the probiotic content might be. 

    For me personally, I prefer milk kefir as it has more nutrients and a much Higher probiotic count.  Having said that I think there is a place for Both of them. 

    For example, you can enjoy a huge serving of probiotics by putting milk kefir in your morning smoothie and then enjoy a nice glass of probiotics in the afternoon by drinking some refreshing water kefir. 

    Giving you the best of both worlds!

    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

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