A Month with Kefir

My baby son has an allergy to cows’ milk protein. As all off-the-shelf formula milk contains cows’ milk this has presented us with a problem. Most babies with cows’ milk protein allergy outgrow it by around 3 years of age, perhaps sooner: however long it takes their tiny tummy to repopulate itself with the friendly bacteria required to digest the cows’ milk.

I mentioned all this at a business meeting last month, and the client with whom I was talking promptly furnished me with a few emails containing links to a variety of products that might be of interest. One of the products was by a company called Chuckling Goat, the product being kefir: a cultured, fermented milk drink. Typically the bacteria are grown (and then consumed) via goats’ milk.

This intrigued me. Whilst I love milk I do get a slight gut-ache if I consume it on an empty stomach. The medical theory regarding my son’s allergy is that the necessary bacteria in his gut were Guernica’d by the antibiotics he had to be drip-fed in his first week post-womb. Kefir is advertised as being ideal for the job of repopulating these bacteria.

The mission: if one day (once he’s a bit older, naturally) I’m to give kefir to my son to remedy his belly, then first I need to try it on myself. So, idiot that I am, I ordered a batch, and 4 days later it arrived.

Time to give guinea pig the shit out of this.

The 4 bottles of kefir are accompanied by a colourful instruction booklet, detailing the correct consumption of kefir. First of all I’m advised that when opening the bottle I should act as if this were champagne: potentially explosive. One small test twist of the cap indicates this to be true, as I feel the immense pressure within the bottle surge to the top. I quickly retighten the cap, and decide to open a different bottle, one that isn’t quite so agitated.

The kefir needs to be drunk first thing in the morning – on an empty stomach – followed by a fast of 10 minutes to allow the kefir bacteria a chance to get their figurative hooks into my microbiome. I’m to drink 170ml per day, every day, for 21 days.

Using a measuring jug I pour out the precise amount, and it’s doesn’t look like much; just over half a smallish glass. The instruction booklet makes it clear that this isn’t going to be a 21 day Yakult binge, as kefir is not a delicious McDonald’s milkshake-style flavour blast. In my experience it’s very rare for foodstuff producers to admit their product isn’t particularly palatable, but to give Chuckling Goat their due they don’t shy away from this – they even provide a few brief tips on how to make it more mouth-friendly. The addition of Stevia seems to be their main advice: lots and lots of Stevia.

But I say boo to that: it’s a tiny amount of milk, surely downable in two good gulps, how hard can that be? I’m a seasoned cows’ milk drinker, easily able to sup a pint of the stuff when I fancy it. How bad can this kefir really taste? Really?

I take a tentative first sip.

The taste is bad, nudging the threshold of undrinkable. It’s subtly fizzy, with a bitter, sour flavour, and things aren’t helped by the odour: exactly like the yeast-scented poo that my 7 month old son expels. There’s an aftertaste of cheese curds, which is probably the nicest part, though this is stomped down by the unpleasant and unexpected carbonation.

Holding my nose, and struggling to stifle my gag reflex, I take small, fast gulps in an attempt to make inroads into the now ocean-like quantity of kefir remaining in the glass. It’s vile, awful, horrible, dreadful, and a host of other right-click-synonyms, but I persevere, and I somehow finish the glass.

It’s taken 5 minutes to finish that one glass. My appetite screams for a sugary biscuit to dispel the aftertaste, but I must not: I must remain food free for 10 minutes, and even then avoiding sugar is recommended to prevent the inadvertent culling of the kefir with which I’m now populated.

The weeks pass…I consume the kefir daily…and it isn’t an acquired taste. The trick is to treat it like the removal of a sticking plaster: do it as quickly as possible. Necking the kefir back in as few gulps as possible is the only way to approach it, not least because the longer you take over it the longer you have to go before consuming anything else. That 10 minute gut colonisation period is the worst part of it, as the process of waking up famished and looking forward to a hearty breakfast has now become a semi-carbonated cheese drink gauntlet.

…and then, one day, I’m done. My course of kefir is all gone, and I’m once more a free man. The following day I’m struck by the freedom – the freedom to have a cup of tea the instant I get out of bed. The joy of starting the day with a biscuit, or a yoghurt, and not having to wait that infernal 10 minutes. The 10 minutes that felt like 10 hours, or days, weeks, months or years.

The results of this completely non-scientific experiment are practically non-existent. A sample of just me is inadequate, and all I can proffer is that I don’t feel any different following my month of kefir. The instruction booklet suggests that two or three courses of kefir will be necessary to properly colonise my gut with the stuff, and probably more. I’m not falling into the continuous up-sell of drinking more and more of this, with the promise of only marginal gains. I’ll be leaving kefir alone for now.

The one thing I do know for sure is that there is no way in hell that my son is ever going to allow this stuff to pass his lips, so there’s little point in me even trying. It looks like we’ll just have to wait until he’s a little older, and for his guts to sort themselves out.

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