Ask your average Tesco shopper if they’ve heard of kefir and you may be met with blank stares.
Ask them if they’ve heard of gut health and probiotics and chances are you’ll meet more than a flicker of recognition.
And that’s where kefir’s potential lies: the gut has been a health talking point for the last couple of years; the catalyst for fermented food to transcend wellness round-ups to an actual concept the regular shopper might buy into.
Which explains why earlier this week Waitrose added to its kefir offering with Biotiful’s Raspberry Kefir Smoothie (£1.60/250ml) – a palatable, low-sugar blend of kefir, raspberry puree and natural fruit extracts. Arguably one of the easiest ways to get your gut-friendly probiotic hit.
Getting a gut full
Biotiful is leading the kefir crusade on British soil. Founded by Russian-born Natasha Bowes over five years ago, its products – which include pure kefir, riazhenka (a cultured drink where the milk is baked for a sweeter taste) and four kefir smoothies – are now stocked in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and the Co-op.
For Bowes, who was raised “on a glass of kefir at nursery every day,” it has always formed a fundamental part of a healthy diet. “We didn’t even have a word for stomach bug. So after I had my daughter seven years ago I wanted her to be able to eat the same healthy, fermented foods I’d had growing up.”
She was convinced that with the right formula and marketing, the UK would buy into kefir’s health credentials. “When I started the company in 2012, it was obvious health was becoming the main trend in food consumption,” she says. “That’s absolutely proven to be the case – more so than I ever expected.”
Browes started off premium, with Biotiful stocked in Harrods and Selfridges. But her customer base has expanded dramatically, and between August 2016 and 2017 revenue increased by 250%.
But if it’s health claims that have driven this demand (Biotiful got a rap on the knuckles by the Advertising Standards Authority last year for claims around kefir promoting a ‘longer life’ and being ‘secret to better digestion’) it’s worth asking how strong they really are.
“I’d love to see kefir become more familiar to British consumers,” says Dr. Laura Wyness, freelance registered nutritionist and food innovation expert. “Evidence supports many health benefits of kefir, such as improved digestion and tolerance to lactose, reducing cholesterol, improving blood sugar levels and helping to control blood pressure.”
Moreover, gut health is unlikely to fall off the public agenda any time soon. “Research is at an exciting stage. We are now realising the importance of a healthy-gut microbiome for a broad range of health conditions,” she adds. “As more research is conducted and our understanding improves, the gut-health trend should continue for a long time yet.”
But, of course, “taste and convenience is key for any product to stay around”.
Neither Wyness or Bowes believes that kefir should be too much of a departure for a British palette. “If a kefir tastes too sour or too fizzy, it’s probably because it’s low quality,” adds Bowes. “Quality kefir should be light and smooth.”
So where to now? Let’s hand the final word to Sparkie…
Fermented foods were on all the trends watch lists for 2016, so it doesn’t surprise me that 18 months down the tracks we’re starting to see this in supermarkets. And I think it’s a smart move on their part – I really think this is a trend that could blow up, but consumer knowledge is still so limited there’s time to capitalise on it.
I don’t think people will buy into ‘fermented’ foods per se, but as long as it stays high on the health agenda, I do think people will buy into gut-friendly and probiotic foods.
Dairy is the category that will translate most easily. In terms of customer’s attitudes, kefir isn’t a million miles from natural yoghurt or probiotic-style drinks. There’s definitely room for more low-sugar, gut-friendly drinks, shakes and smoothies to come into the market.