What Is Water Kefir? Exploring Benefits and Side Effects

Learn what water kefir is, its benefits, side effects, unverified claims, and its differences from kombucha.

A glass of water kefir
by
Sarah Bullard, MS, RD, LD
— Signos
Dietitian and Nutrition Writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
July 19, 2024
July 10, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

You may have heard of kombucha, fermented foods, or kefir made from dairy, but water kefir may be new for you. Water kefir can also be called fruit kefir or tibicos.1, 2 

Water kefir is a fermented probiotic beverage that may have health benefits associated with improved gut health. The origin of water kefir dates back to the 19th century in Europe but may even date further back to Mexico.1, 2 

Let’s learn more about water kefir, its benefits, side effects, unverified claims, and differences from kombucha.

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What is Kefir? A Definition

A jar of water kefir

Kefir is an acidic fermented milk product that tastes slightly sour (similar to yogurt), creamy, and bubbly from the fermentation.3 

Kefir is made by adding kefir starter (or kefir grains) to milk and allowing it to ferment at room temperature for about 24 hours. You can purchase a starter, or someone can give you some. The grains are strained, leaving you with kefir.4 

Water kefir is a traditional fermented drink made from water kefir grains, cane sugar, and dried fruit. Like milk kefir, it can be made at home using sugar water and dried fruit instead of milk. Water kefir is blond or yellowish, acidic, and slightly alcoholic.2 

Many people feel water kefir has a less intense taste than kombucha. Additionally, water kefir is a healthful fermented probiotic source for people who avoid milk due to intolerances and allergies. 

Six Benefits of Water Kefir

Water kefir has many benefits. It can be a healthful addition to your diet, providing a variety of probiotic strains. 

Here are six benefits of water kefir:

  1. Low Sugar Content

A 12-ounce serving of water kefir contains around 7g of added sugar.5 

The American Heart Association recommends that men limit their daily added sugar intake to nine teaspoons (36 grams) and women to six teaspoons (25 grams).6 

For reference, a 12-ounce can of soda contains 42 grams of added sugar.6 

Swapping from sugar-sweetened beverages to unsweetened or limited-added-sugar drinks like water kefir can help you reduce your added-sugar intake. 

  1. Rich in Probiotics

Probiotics are live organisms with health benefits, such as building a healthy community of helpful bacteria or helping treat different medical conditions.7

Water kefir provides a diverse source of probiotics, including several strains of the Lactobacillus species and beneficial yeast such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae,

Dekkera bruxellensis, Hanseniaspora valbyensis, Lachancea fermentati, and Zygotorulaspora Florentina. Bifidobacteria are present in small amounts.1 

Lactobacillus bacteria are present in most probiotic drinks.1 

  1. Supports Healthy Gut Bacteria

What you eat influences the health of your gut bacteria and overall health. Incorporating foods and drinks with beneficial bacteria may improve gut bacteria. 
Research has shown an interplay between gut bacteria and the development and management of allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, asthma, and obesity.1 

The National Institutes of Health summarizes current research and the use of probiotics on 21 different health conditions. For example, research shows that diarrhea caused by antibiotic use may decrease the likelihood of diarrhea by half when taking probiotics.7

Limited research exists on specific bacteria in water kefir and its ability to impact diseases. Hypothetically, similar beneficial components found in water kefir could affect the body similarly.1 

  1. Contains Antioxidants and Anti-inflammatory Properties

Research shows that the microorganisms in water kefir create antioxidants during the fermentation process.9

Therefore, water kefir could have a strong antioxidant effect. Another study concluded it may have potential as an antioxidant. Water kefir research is promising. 

However, research on water kefir is still relatively new compared to milk kefir or yogurt.1  

Antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce chronic inflammation caused by chronic health conditions, aging, stress, and the environment.8 

  1. Suitable for Most Diets

Water kefir is uniquely dairy-free and is a suitable probiotic drink for people avoiding dairy and milk products or those following a vegan or vegetarian diet.

It also contains simple ingredients that are generally tolerated on most diets. When making it at home, you can customize the ingredients. 

Commercial water kefir in stores contains water, kefir cultures, figs, pineapples, lemon juice, ginger juice, apple cider vinegar, turmeric, and black pepper.5 

  1. May Help Lower Cholesterol Levels

Water kefir contains the probiotic strain Lactobacillus plantarum, which, after five weeks, showed the potential to lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides in rats.7 

Further research is needed on humans, but bacteria present in water kefir could be a helpful tool in lowering high cholesterol. 

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href=foods-that-raise-hdl>8 Foods to Increase Hdl Levels: Improve Cholesterol</a>.</p>

Side Effects of Water Kefir

Most healthy people can safely incorporate water kefir (and other probiotic-rich foods) into their diet.8 

However, the risk of harmful side effects from probiotics is increased in people with severe illnesses or compromised immune systems, such as hospitalized patients or premature infants.8

Possible side effects of kefir water:

  • Increased digestive issues like bloating, nausea, constipation, and cramps, especially when first introduced to your body. Side effects tend to reduce after your body acclimates to the new probiotics.9
  • Cases suggest probiotics may increase infection risk for those with weakened immune systems.8 

Check with your healthcare provider to determine if adding probiotics to your diet is appropriate for you. 

Unverified Claims About Kefir Benefits

Unverified claims are not supported by any type of research study. Some research, specifically on water kefir mentioned above, is from test tube research. 

Much research has been done on humans using probiotic supplements or probiotic-containing dairy foods. No human research exists on water kefir at this time. 

Here are some unverified (not supported by research) claims about water kefir:

  • Water Kefir Is Beneficial for Skin Health

Drinking adequate fluid is essential for skin health. Research shows that skin is less dry and rough when adequately hydrated.11 

Water kefir is one way to keep you hydrated, but no research on water kefir and skin exists. 

Research on kefir made from milk shows improvement in inflammatory skin conditions like atopic dermatitis and people with no skin problems after consuming 100mL of kefir for eight weeks.12 

  • Water Kefir Improves Hair Condition

There are some claims that kefir contains amino acids that support hair growth. Kefir made from milk contains amino acids, but water kefir doesn’t.5

Other hair claims state that probiotics help keep your gut healthy, improving hair health and growth.  

As mentioned earlier, water kefir does contain beneficial probiotics, but no research exists on its effects on hair health, condition, or growth. 

  • Water Kefir Aids in Weight Loss

Current research has yet to be done concerning water kefir and weight loss. 

The proposed link is that substituting sugary or high-calorie drinks with water kefir will reduce your overall intake, leading to weight loss.

While true, one could also substitute high-calorie drinks with water, seltzer water, or carbonated water to reduce caloric intake and lose weight. 

  • Improves Mood and Reduces Anxiety

Animal research using cow milk kefir found that kefir helped prevent depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment associated with nicotine cessation.13 

Keep in mind this was a study using milk kefir from and on forty rats. The researchers thought tryptophan (an amino acid in protein-rich foods) helped alleviate the side effects.  Water kefir contains no amino acids. 

Research is promising for both milk kefir grains and water kefir. As research emerges, more can be understood about the unknown benefits of these probiotic-rich drinks. 

Water Kefir vs. Kombucha: What’s Best?

A glass of kombucha

Both water kefir and kombucha are good sources of probiotics, just different kinds. Kombucha is an abundant source of acetic acid bacteria, while water kefir contains mainly lactic acid bacteria, including the Lactobacillus species.14 

If you prefer one over the other, that’s perfectly fine. If you like both, alternate between the two and provide your body with a diverse source of probiotics. 

Kombucha is a probiotic-rich drink that is tangy, slightly sour, and somewhat sweet, like apple cider vinegar. Carbonation gives it a fizzy, bubbly mouthfeel.14

Kombucha starts with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) added to slightly sweetened tea and allowed to ferment for one to four weeks. The bacteria and yeast feed on the sugar to multiply various probiotics.14  

Both water kefir and kombucha have similar nutritional facts. Kombucha is slightly higher, with 20 more calories in a 12-ounce serving, and contains five more grams of carbohydrates and seven more grams of sugar than water kefir.5, 15 

Both versions could have higher added sugars depending on how the kefir or kombucha is made or the brand. Check the food label and choose those lower in added sugars for the most health benefits. 

How to Make Water Kefir

Making water kefir at home can be super easy and fun! Below is everything you need to know about how to make homemade water kefir.

To create your starter culture, combine ½ cup of hot water with ¼ cup of sugar in a glass mason jar and swirl until the sugar is fully dissolved. Next, add three cups of room-temperature water to the jar along with water kefir grains. Cover the jar and place it in a warm area at around 68-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Let the mixture ferment for 24 to 48 hours. 

Next, filter the kefir using a fine sieve or strainer to remove the kefir grains. Set the grains aside for your next recipe. At this point, you can experiment with different flavorings for your fermented beverage by adding vanilla extract, fruit juice, frozen fruit, or mint leaves for a refreshing treat. 

Finally, pour the kefir into pressure-resistant bottles and store at room temperature for 24 to 48 hours. After 24 hours, open and reseal the bottles to check the level of fizz. When you are happy with the level of bubbles, place the mixture in the fridge.

Learn How to Improve Your Nutrition and Monitor Your Glycemic Index Levels With Signos’ Expert Advice.

Swapping from higher-calorie or sugar-sweetened to unsweetened or low-added-sugar beverages like water kefir is just one way you can help safely manage your blood sugar levels

A Signos continuous glucose monitor (CGM) can help you monitor blood sugar levels, improve your health, and encourage you to adopt healthier eating habits. 

This tool (CGM) can help you track your progress as you combine diet, exercise, and medications. A Signos’ CGM can help you prevent or manage type 2 diabetes and related health conditions.

Learn more about nutrition and healthy habits on Signos’ blog or how Signos works. Take a quick quiz to determine if Signos fits your needs.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href=probiotics-blood-sugar>Should You Take Probiotics to Manage Blood Sugar?</a>.</p>

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References

About the author

Sarah Bullard is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in research and clinical nutrition, personalized nutrition counseling, and nutrition education.

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