What’s the difference between milk kefir and regular yoghurt?

The difference between normal yoghurt and milk kefir is the number and varieties of bacteria present.

The smell and taste of yoghurt and kefir are basically the same – a fermented milk product. Normal yoghurt, as you can see from the label of any yoghurt, is made with a couple of strains of lactobacilli, and does not have the wide variety that is present in kefir.

Normal yoghurt is in a sealed vat, and is fermented by just a few strains, as this is all yoghurt-makers need to make yoghurt yoghurty. It is also why kefir tastes different to yoghurt, except if you make milk kefir in a vat (homemade milk kefir versus commercial milk kefir), it can suffer the same lack of diversity.

If you like, think of it like this: home-grown milk kefir is ‘wild’, so it has – according to some tests – up to 26 different varieties of beneficial bacteria and yeasts, and in much higher quantities than most yoghurt offers.

The variety is key here, otherwise jamming yourself full of yoghurt would work more often. Yoghurt is good for some things, but it is often adulterated by added ingredients that make it delicious for your mouth, but not for your vagina or gut bacteria: the bacteria count is often low-to-nonexistent, and you can never test it.

Yoghurt could, theoretically, work just as well, but we didn’t do our experiments with yoghurt for several reasons. You would have to make sure that the yoghurt you are using has high quantities of live bacteria and ask a few key questions:

  • How long has it been in the supermarket fridge?
  • How many strains has it got?
  • Does it list the estimated numbers of bacteria on the label?
  • Does it have sugar added, or other flavourings?
  • Has it been pasteurised (heated to high temperatures)?
  • Does it have preservatives in it?

The milk kefir you make in your own kitchen is very much alive, it’s full of good bacteria, and you know what has happened to it from start to finish because you are the boss. It’s much more reliable from a therapeutic standpoint, despite the fact that you actually won’t ever know (unless you test it at a lab) what’s in it precisely.

You can ‘wildcraft’ (collect from the wild) new types of bacteria in your kefir simply by leaving the lid off as you make your kefir. Bacteria are in the air around us all the time.

Milk kefir made at home by you from your own milk kefir grains is far superior to yoghurt, either homemade or store-bought, simply due to the number and type of bacteria present.

Yes there will be yoghurt that is just as good (kefir is, in fact, a type of yoghurt, but the means to its end are just a bit different – the grains) so if you know this recipe, knock yourself out. There are only guidelines, no rules.

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Jessica Lloyd - Vulvovaginal Specialist Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of the:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)