Kefir's Colorful and Romantic History
Kefir dates back many centuries—likely even longer—to the shepherds of the Caucasus Mountains, who reportedly discovered that fresh milk carried in leather pouches would occasionally ferment into an effervescent beverage.
Another legend, from the Islamic peoples of the Caucasus Mountains, claims that kefir "grains" were a gift to the region's Orthodox Christians from Mohammed, who strictly forbade their dissemination, because they would lose their "magic strength." Although Marco Polo mentioned it in his travel accounts, kefir and its secrets remained unknown outside the Caucasus region until reports spread of its value in treating tuberculosis, and for intestinal and stomach disorders. Russian doctors of the Victorian era believed that kefir was beneficial for health and the first scientific studies for kefir were published in the late 19th century.
This mildly self-carbonated beverage continues to be popular in the Caucasus, Russia and southwestern Asia, and recently gained wide popularity in Western Europe. In the United States, most natural food stores and the "whole food" chain markets found in urban areas—such as Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats—carry kefir. Given the ever-increasing popularity of yogurt and yogurt drinks here, I predict it won't be long before the big U.S. supermarket chains follow suit. However, as with yogurt, beware of products laden with sugars and fructose. Buy plain, unsweetened kefir and flavor with mixed berries, including açaí.
Kefir's Health Benefits
In addition to kefir's ancient reputation as a healthy drink, it has been famously credited with the extraordinary longevity of people in the Caucasus. Hospitals in the former Soviet Union use kefir—especially when no modern medical treatment is available—to treat conditions ranging from atherosclerosis, allergic disease, metabolic and digestive disorders and tuberculosis to cancer and gastrointestinal disorders.
A number of studies conducted to date have documented kefir's ability to stimulate the immune system, enhance lactose digestion, and inhibit tumors, fungi and pathogens— including the bacteria that cause most ulcers. This makes a lot of sense as scientists have since discovered that most ulcers are caused by an infection with the bacterium, Helicobacter pylori and not spicy food, stomach acid or stress, as physicians erroneously believed for years.
Scientists are now discovering that a great many inflammatory diseases (including certain types of heart disease) can be triggered by a bacterium. And that provides all the more reason to enjoy kefir as part of your daily diet.
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