So you’ve come to that point in your life where you stare at your milk kefir babies that have worked so diligently for you and wonder….what do you taste like?
In all seriousness, eating milk kefir grains can be very beneficial for some people. Maybe you’ve heard someone claim they've benefited from eating their grains. Maybe you just have a little extra grains and wondered how beneficial it would be to ingest them yourself. Maybe you don't have any grains, but are still looking to eat some. If you haven’t tried it, its not nearly as weird or bad tasting as you might think.
Let’s first look at the basic composition of kefir grains to know exactly what you are biting into.
Milk Kefir Grain Composition
Milk kefir grains are essentially bacteria and yeast encased in a protein and polysaccharide matrix. The polysacharide matrix is constructed out of the complex sugars during the fermentation process. This polysaccharide matrix constitutes about 26% of the total weight of the grain. It's mostly fiber, but possibly a small amount of milk sugar. Throughout the polysaccharide matrix are proteins made from milk casein. The protein constitutes about 13% of the total weight of the grain. Then there are the probiotics. There are lactic acid bacteria, acetic acid bacteria and yeasts that are embedded within the polysaccharide and protein matrix. The rest is essentially water.
There are also stored vitamins to some degree. In one study, they found both calcium and phosphorus in a kombucha scoby. Kefir grains work the same way. It’s the reason why a mineral boost lasts longer than one batch. There is some kind of long term storage mechanism within the grains.
What about that gooey surface?
With milk kefir grains the surface is just as important as the grain itself. Typically on the surface of a milk kefir grains is kefiran which is extremely beneficial. It’s what makes the grains gooey and slightly slimy. It’s mostly made by Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens. There are many studies showing the benefits of kefiran such as anti-tumor, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and has healing abilities. So, in other words, if it’s possible, do not rinse the grains before eating them or you may miss out on these added benefits.
So in summary, when you bite into a grain, you are getting some protein, some fiber, some minerals and vitamins and small amount of calories. But you are getting a very large beneficial dosage of bacteria and yeast within the grain and on the surface.
Benefits of Eating Milk Kefir Grains
Tons of probiotics. Plenty of lactic acid bacteria, acetic acid bacteria and yeast.
The best part is that those probiotics have a much greater chance of surviving the stomach and populating the intestines due to the strong polysaccharide matrix.
Why? That's because milk kefir grains are unbelievably hardy. It takes weeks for them to completely die and that is in hot room temperature conditions. They can survive both freezing and extreme heat and still rebound back to full health.
They can also withstand incredibly low ph / high acid for long durations. We’ve seen grains survive sitting in milk for over 2-3 years. After several months in the fridge the milk sugars have all turned to acid and yet the grains can survive in that for months, if not years. It would likely hold up to stomach acid quite well.
Eating grains is also great option for those who have issues with lactose or diary but still want the probiotic benefits of milk kefir.
Are the probiotics higher in kefir grains than in kefir?
One interesting study sheds light on this question. Bacteria was a little bit lower in the grains compared to the finished kefir. However, yeast was the other way around. It was shown to be higher in the grains and lower in the finished kefir. So basically during the ferment, it seems that the bacteria gets the upper-hand over the yeast. However, they admit that it is difficult to find the exact numbers of probiotics in the grains due to the complex polysaccharide matrix.
What's also fascinating is that the ratios of the strains of bactreria and yeast are different than the finished kefir. For example, lactococci start out with a lower ratio % within the grain, but after a 24 hour ferment, the ratio of lactococci is much closer to lactobacilli. Other studies have confirmed this as well. Scientists don’t exactly know why that is yet. Determining which ratio of probiotics (be the grains or the finished kefir) is more beneficial is really hard to say. But it adds another layer of diversity. So if probiotics is the goal, then why not try both and see which your body prefers?
So why not just eat the grains and not bother with fermenting?
Making kefir is highly beneficial too. Eating the grains won’t give you the metabolites produced by the grains. There are beneficial vitamins and nutrients that are bio-available and thousands of peptides, benficial acids, lipids, butyrate, biotin, folate, enzymes and the list goes on and on.
Even if you pasteurize the kefir and killed off all the probiotics, it would still be a very healthy food. Think sourdough. The sourdough probiotics are killed in the oven, but they still made the bread easier to digest and much healthier.
The beauty of milk kefir is that is has the best of both worlds. Large amounts of probiotics as well as the metabolites from the ferment itself.
Surprisingly, they are quite pleasant. They don’t typically have a strong flavor, but they are gummy if you chew them. We have found out from people that the biggest barrier to eating them is not really the flavor or texture, but rather it’s a mental barrier – just the idea that you are eating some weird slimy little ball that’s alive. Anything new or unusual can be difficult at first. It’s natures way to protect you from eating bad things. People typically find water kefir grains easier to eat because they look like gummy candy. What we have found that once you dive in and get over that initial weirdness, then its usually quite easy. On the flip side, we have found people that absolutely love the idea of eating them and just can’t wait to bite into them.
How to eat the grains
We recommend eating them right after a ferment from the strainer with all the good surface bacteria present. It doesn't really matter if you chew or not.
If you don't like the idea of eating them, you can also blend them up with your kefir or almond milk or anything really. Add some fruit as well if desired. Some people claim that the blender will destroy the probiotics or grains, which is not really true. We've completely blended milk kefir grains and they made beautiful kefir the next day. It took several weeks for them to build back their shape, but remarkably, they eventually returned to their former shape. However, using a blender likely breaks down some of the strong polysaccharide matrix that might help protect them longer during digestion.
You can also eat them on some bread or crackers. Just sprinkle some chives or herbs on top and serve like soft cheese on bread.
People drink kefir for the probiotics as well as all the beneficial metabolites produced by the grains. Eating the grains is mostly just for the probiotic side of things. There are couple reasons why you might consider eating the grains. The grains are packed full of beneficial lactic acid bacteria, polysaccharide matrix may protect the probiotics during digestion and ultimately have a better chance of populating the intestines. Also there are different ratios of probiotics within the grains vs. the finished kefir. So it adds another layer of probiotic diversity.
If you desire to eat the grains, we recommend starting slow as some people are sensitive to it. And as always, just trust your body to know if its working. If you are sensitive to yeast, drinking the kefir (instead of eating the grains) may be a better option as the yeast does seem to decrease during the ferment.
Have you already tried eating milk kefir grains? If so, have you noticed any benefits?