After a bit of reflection on the subject, I came to the conclusion that the topic really deserved its own blog post, so here we go!
Which is really better, water kefir or milk kefir? Or, are the benefits between the two basically the same?
The truth is that water kefir is really not a good substitute for milk kefir even if you have a milk allergy.
Milk kefir, made with either dairy milk or coconut milk, far surpasses water kefir in probiotic potency. The benefits of milk based kefir exceed those of water kefir no matter if the water kefir is cultured with fruit juice, vegetable juice, coconut water, or filtered water and a whole sweetener.
Before you go throwing away your water kefir grains, however, let’s be clear on the benefits of water kefir which makes a fantastic base for homemade soda among other culinary uses.
Undeniable Benefits of Water Kefir
Water kefir, just like milk kefir, utilizes a beneficial culture of microbes that consume the simple sugars in the juice, coconut water or sugar water base to create a plethora of probiotics. The water kefir culture’s use of the sugar means that there isn’t much sugar left in the final product. This is good news for those with Metabolic Syndrome in that water kefir doesn’t add to problems with blood sugar fluctuations or feed those sugar cravings.
In addition, the fermentation process releases additional vitamins and minerals. Best of all, there aren’t any additives, chemicals or artificial anything in a kefir soda made with properly fermented water kefir. It even turns out a bit bubbly just like conventional sodas and can be bottled to add further effervescence. Water kefir can also be used as a base for dairy-free smoothies, popsicles, and homemade jello.
Water kefir can be added to non-dairy milks like almond milk too. Use 1/4 cup water kefir to 2-3 cups non-dairy milk, mix and serve. Extra water kefir grains may be used as starter culture for fermenting vegetables.
While the benefits of water kefir are clear and well established, this fermented beverage doesn’t hold a candle to milk kefir made with either dairy milk or coconut milk.
Critical Differences Between Milk Kefir and Water Kefir
According to Donna Schwenk, author of Cultured Food for Life, water kefir is her least favorite fermented drink. She says that she has never experienced the same health benefits from water kefir that she did from homemade milk kefir.
The most likely reason is that there are only 10-15 strains of good bacteria and good yeasts in water kefir made with live grains. This compares with the 30 to 50 in homemade milk kefir made with live grains. This video which shows the difference between dairy kefir grains and water kefir grains based on the live cultures that I use in my kitchen.
Powdered Starter vs Live Kefir Grains
Milk kefir grains and water kefir grains are not interchangeable which is why I always recommend obtaining them from reputable sources I list in my healthy shopping guide. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received over the years from folks trying to ferment milk into kefir with water kefir grains they got from a friend (or vice versa) only to find themselves frustrated with repeated failure or inconsistent results.
What about milk kefir made with a one time use powder? Be aware that, like water kefir, this is also not as beneficial as milk kefir made with live grains.
There are only 10-15 beneficial microbial strains in milk kefir made with powder compared with kefir made with live grains, not to mention it is more expensive too! Use live grains for making milk kefir – they are cheaper and the result is far healthier!
Let’s compare milk kefir vs water kefir strain by strain. See the lists below.
Beneficial Microbes in Water Kefir
- Lactobacillus brevis
- Lactobacillus casei
- Lactobacillus hilgardii
- Lactobacillus hordei
- Lactobacillus nagelii
- Leuconostoc citreum
- Leuconostoc mesenteroides
- Acetobacter fabarum
- Acetobacter orientalis
- Streptococcus lactis
- Hanseniaospora valbyensis (yeast)
- Lachancea fermentati (yeast)
- Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast)
- Zygotorulaspora ﬂorentina (yeast)
Beneficial microbes in Milk Kefir
Compare the number of probiotics in water kefir above to double the strains in a milk based kefir made with live grains listed below.
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Lactobacillus brevis
- Lactobacillus casei
- Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus
- Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. delbrueckii
- Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. lactis
- Lactobacillus helveticus
- Lactobacillus keﬁranofaciens subsp. keﬁranofaciens
- Lactobacillus keﬁri
- Lactobacillus paracasei subsp. paracasei
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Lactobacillus sake
- Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris
- Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis
- Lactococcus lactis
- Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris
- Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. dextranicum
- Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. mesenteroides
- Pseudomonas fluorescens
- Pseudomonas putida
- Streptococcus thermophilus
- Candida humilis (yeast)
- Kazachstania unispora (yeast)
- Kazachstania exigua (yeast)
- Kluyveromyces siamensis (yeast)
- Kluyveromyces lactis (yeast)
- Kluyveromyces marxianus (yeast)
- Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast)
- Saccharomyces martiniae (yeast)
- Saccharomyces unisporus (yeast)
The only benefit probiotically of water kefir compared with milk kefir is the absence of Streptococcus thermophilus.
Jordin Rubin, author of Restoring Your Digestive Health warns about this particular probiotic strain as studies have shown that people who suffer from autoimmune diseases run the risk of aggravating the symptoms of their disease if they consume more than two cups of yogurt or kefir per day that contains Streptococcus thermophilus.
Most Beneficial Water Kefir Made with Fresh Coconut Water
If you choose to make water kefir, note that making it with fresh coconut water is likely the best scenario according to Donna Gates, author of The Body Ecology Diet given that you will obtain a kefir that is rich in potassium and enzymes and contains sulphurated proteins that assist the body in cleansing. Note that many sources claim that coconut water contains monolaurin, which is anti-fungal, however, this is not true according to my research. Monolaurin is in the fat of the coconut, not coconut water.
Other Benefits of Milk Kefir Compared with Water Kefir
Besides a superior probiotic boost, milk kefir also contains calcium and magnesium in high amounts which are absent in water kefir.
And, there are potential problems when brewing water kefir to make sure to watch out for. If you suffer from candida issues or diabetes, note that unless you are extremely careful to ferment the water kefir properly, there can be too much sugar remaining which could actually harm you rather than help. Properly brewed water kefir really should taste only mildly sweet. It is a slightly sweet but mostly sour flavor that does take a bit of getting used to at first.
If you want a sweeter water kefir, brew for the full length of time until the sweetness is gone and then mix with plain juice. Use as little juice as you can get away with to attain the level of sweetness desired.
Note also that it is best to refrain from using 100% juice when making water kefir as you will end up with an alcoholic beverage! For more on making water kefir sodas with juice or sugar sweetened water, check out this article and my how-to video on the subject.
So, what to choose? Water kefir or milk kefir?
The good news is that you don’t have to … you can make both even if you have a dairy allergy!
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Sources and More Information
How to Make Dairy Kefir (recipe plus video how-to)
How to Make Kefir from Coconut Milk (recipe plus video how-to)
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.