A yoghurt-like milk drink containing ‘gut-friendly’ bacteria looks set to be one of the major food trends of 2020 after sales dramatically rocketed in the last year.

Kefir, was until recently, a very niche dairy product in the UK - bought mainly by Eastern European shoppers, a region where it is very popular.

But now demand for kefir drinks has begun soaring with Tesco seeing a 400 per cent rise in the last 18 months. Food experts believe that could be down to its probiotic qualities with kefir containing 40 types of gut-friendly bacteria as well as being a rich source of protein, calcium and vitamins.

“Shoppers are really switching on to gut-health and demand for kefir is now so strong that in the last few years we have nearly doubled our range and we have plans to add more this year," said Tesco Dairy Drinks buyer Vicky Smith. 

“Its popularity has been building, mainly by word of mouth, on a monthly basis to the extent that we now stock seven different drinks as well as four yoghurt variants. The original natural variety has a slightly sour but wonderfully creamy taste. Last year in order to widen its popularity we added cherry, strawberry plus mango and turmeric flavours.” 

The drink was first discovered by shepherds keeping milk in leather sacks which were open to the yeasts and bacteria in the air.

These natural cultures mixed with the milk and caused it to ferment, creating kefir, which literally means ‘feel good’ in old Turkish.

For 2000 years kefir was a well-kept health drink secret enjoyed mainly by people in the Caucasus Mountains where it originates and in parts of eastern Europe where it is still extremely popular.

It became easier to find in the UK at the start of the noughties when Tesco began stocking it as part of its Polish food offering.

Word about its health-giving qualities grew and as demand took off in the last decade the supermarket brought in its first UK kefir producer, Biotiful Dairy and ranged the drinks in its regular dairy aisle.

There are now nearly 10 dedicated kefir manufacturers in the UK with the top-selling brand being Biotiful Dairy who were ahead of the trend when they were formed by former Russian figure skater turned entrepreneur Natasha Bowes.

“I grew up in Russia where kefir is a way of life and it is rare for anybody to have problems with their gut," said Bowes. 

“When business brought me to Ireland and then England more than 20 years ago I found it hard to find kefir but then had a lightbulb moment of creating my own dairy. We opened in 2013 and since then we have moved helped widen the appeal of kefir by introducing Morello cherry and honey flavours in order to appeal to kids. And there are further big plans in store for later this year.”

Last year, with gut-health becoming a major growth area, the supermarket invited the company to join its Tesco Incubator Programme which helps innovative, entrepreneurial businesses and guide them to the specific requirements of its customers.

Among other UK businesses who have benefited from joining the programme are Scottish craft beer brewer Brew Dog; drinks mixer producers Fever Tree; popcorn manufacturer Propercorn and plant-based food company Bol.

Since joining the incubator programme the Biotiful Dairy have launched into two new categories, a kids’ range and also yoghurts with further expansion set for this year.