Is kefir about to have its moment in the sun?

With Tesco reporting a 400% rise in demand, the fermented dairy product looks primed to be one of the major food trends of 2020 with gut health still all the rage

25 February 2020
dairyfermentedgut healthnutrition

Kefir in numbers

  • Tesco witnessed a 400% increase in demand for kefir products over the last 18 months
  • There are now 10 dedicated kefir manufacturers in the UK, according to Inside FMCG
  • Sainsbury’s currently has 30 kefir products available to buy online
  • Kefir contains up to 61 different microorganisms, making them a rich probiotic source
  • It also has approximately 4 grams of protein for a 175-ml low-at serving, according to Healthline

A quick Google search of the word ‘kefir’ pretty much sums up why this fermented milk drink is proving so popular right now. Each of the top search results ardently talk up the health benefits of this historic, although not yet mainstream, drink, which has been steadily building its profile over the last couple of years among both nutritionists and health enthusiasts alike.

Food Spark began following the fortunes of kefir as early as August 2017, just as the major supermarket chains first began stocking kefir on their shelves.

Biotiful was one of these early innovators in the manufacturing space, with its products today available at nearly every major UK supermarket chain, including, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Kefir now seems ready to make the transition from being just another health fad to joining the mainstream dairy market.

Last week, for example, the aforementioned Tesco picked out kefir as one of the major food trends of 2020 after the UK retailer witnessed a 400% rise in demand in the last 18 months. In response, Tesco is now widening the number of kefir products on its shelves, with four different Biotiful items available to buy online. A dozen kefir products in total are now available to Tesco customers, while Sainsbury’s has approximately double this amount – including kefir shots from Leon.

“Shoppers are really switching on to gut health and demand for kefir is now so strong that in the last few years we have nearly doubled our range and we have plans to add more this year,” Tesco dairy drinks buyer, Vicky Smith, said.

“Its popularity has been building, mainly by word of mouth on a monthly basis to the extent that we now stock seven different drinks as well as four yogurt variants.

“The original natural variety has a slightly sour but wonderfully creamy taste. Last year, in order to widen its popularity, we added cherry, strawberry plus mango and turmeric flavours.” 

Milking it

The origins of the fermented milk drink go back hundreds of years and it is believed to have originated in the Caucasus Mountains that divides Asia and Europe. With the consistency of a drinkable yoghurt, it is usually made from cow, goat or sheep milk, made using starter grains consisting of yeasts, milk proteins and bacteria.

Like traditional milk, it is high in calcium and protein, but its real value among consumers lies in its gut health benefits resulting from having a high probiotic content. Indeed, gut health is a trend that shows little sign of abating as the link between the gut and overall health is investigated further, and there have been a wave of retail releases in recent months focused on this particular area. Research has also shown that kefir has other benefits too.

“I’d love to see kefir become more familiar to British consumers,” Dr. Laura Wyness, freelance registered nutritionist, told Food Spark last year. “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.”

However, not all these health benefits have been proven 100% conclusively and some scientists have poured cold water on many of over-the-top claims made. Wyness believes that while the initial evidence is positive, good quality human studies are "still quite scarce on the health impact" currently.

And speaking at NutraIngredients Probiota 2020 event in Dublin earlier this month, Professor Paul Cotter from APC Microbiome Ireland called for a degree caution and claimed kefir bought at some supermarkets would provide no health benefits.

“The issue is there’s a lot of fake science and a lot of information out there for which there isn’t always scientific background – ideas that these foods could help cure cancer and all sorts of other things,” he said.

Other experts have made similar claims, including Dr Megan Rossi who founded Bio&Me – the UK’s first multi-category food brand dedicated to gut health. Yet while she is cautious of claims made by some companies, Rossi still believes the focus on gut health can only be a good thing for consumers.

“I think it’s really an exciting time,” she said. “We are starting to appreciate, thanks to science, that actually nurturing these trillions of microbes in our gut really can have a huge impact on our health and happiness.”

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