Six years ago Nigel Oliver got a request from a customer: could he order some kefir for the dairy counter?
Oliver, a category analyst with Ontario independent grocer Vince’s Market, hadn’t heard of kefir, but started ordering units of the fermented dairy drink from Quebec-based Liberté every week.
He’d order two plain units for that one customer and two raspberry.
“If he came in every week, he’d take them,” Oliver says. “And if he didn’t come in, they would sit there.”
Fast-forward to today, and Vince’s Market sells kefir in all of its three locations north of Toronto.
“Now I feel like it’s something I don’t ever want to run out of,” Oliver says.
Pronounced “kuh-FEER,” the effervescent dairy beverage is made by adding kefir “grains”–seed-like pellets of yeast bacteria–to milk and then heating the concoction to produce a drink that tastes similar to yogurt.
One distinguishing factor, though, is kefir contains anywhere from 10 to 20 different strains of probiotics, while most yogurts only have a few.
Typically found in the organic dairy aisle, kefir has surged in popularity.
According to Nielsen data supplied by Liberté, dollar sales of kefir are up 58% in 2014 versus 2013, and unit sales are up 69%.
“Kefir has been around quite some time,” says Don Rees, CEO of Organic Meadow, a kefir maker, “but now it’s attracting new users with new flavours and new distribution.”
Health-conscious consumers are already aware of other perks associated with kefir.
Dr. Joey Shulman, a health expert, author and owner of the Shulman Weight Loss Clinic, in Thornhill, Ont., says “there is significant research on the importance of digestive health, so the more we get probiotics and kefir into the system to pro- mote digestion, the better.”
Kefir sales have benefited from probiotic’s halo.
“Years ago, we weren’t using natural health products, such as probiotics, as marketing tools,” says Shulman. “That has all changed, and he who markets healthiest wins.”
In the last few months, new kefir products have reached shelves. In August, Liberté introduced a non- effervescent kefir to the conventional dairy aisle.
“Kefir has really small bubbles,” says Julie Chrétien- Proulx, senior brand manager at Liberté. “So it’s not as easy to consume [as yogurt] and not everyone wants to taste it.” Offering a non-effervescent version in strawberry, mango and plain and moving it to the conventional dairy aisle should help kefir reach more shoppers, she adds.
As that happens, the segment will likely get more crowded. In July, U.S.-based Lifeway Foods introduced its own line of kefir to more than 1,000 Canadian stores, including Loblaw and Safeway.
Despite the surge in sales and brands, don’t expect kefir to see yogurt-like popularity. “The percentage growth seems pretty big, but the volume is still small,” says Chrétien-Proulx. “Today, the organic segment only represents about 4% of the total yogurt category, and kefir is only about 10% to 15% of the organic segment.”
In the U.S., kefir has taken off, with manufacturers launching unique products such as frozen, Greek, veggie and even coffee-flavoured kefir.
But Canadians may not be quite ready to try coconut- chia kefir just yet.
“We did a study in Canada, and 93% of consumers didn’t know about kefir,” Chrétien- Proulx says. “We have to educate consumers about kefir before we can think of any innovations. But definitely
in the future we’ll be able to launch new products.” Rees, from Vince’s Market, agrees: “We have plans to expand our lineup on both flavour and size,” he says.
So it looks like kefir might be here to stay. “It’s not a flash-in-the-pan new product segment,” Rees says. “This product has a long-term health benefit and there’s opportunity for growth.”