What is B12 and where does it come from?
B12 is a water-soluble vitamin and it is important for the good function of the nervous system and in the formation of the red blood cells. B12 is an essential vitamin produced by bacteria, blue-green algae, and yeast. It is not produced by plants, nor animals.
Cattle and sheep will take this bacteria from the dirty grass they eat while the chickens and other birds will get it from worms and other insects, soil, and fecal matter. The pigs, rabbits, beavers, and some wild animals will take it from their own fecal. Bacteria will be then taken to the animal’s digestive system and become part of their gut flora, producing vitamin B12 internally. The vitamin is stored in their livers, organs, muscles and it can be found in their milk and eggs as well. B12 is synthesized in the human body too but it cannot be absorbed because this synthesis takes place in the colon and not in the small intestine.
Therefore, the most common sources of B12 vitamin in our modern society will be from animal food products (meat, fish, dairy, eggs), fortified plant-based products (grains and cereals, soy and coconut milk with added B12, some products like tempeh or seaweed-derived foods such as nori and laver (1), and of course supplements. A recent study conducted by the University of Helsinki shows that substantial amounts of B12 can be produced from dough fermentation, and rice bran or buckwheat bran are great veggie sources of B12. (2)
B12 deficiency – groups at risks and causes
B12 deficiency is a serious health issue and it can bring negative consequences to one’s well-being. It may cause damage to the brain and nervous system. Some of the first symptoms are fatigue, depression, headaches, poor memory, lethargy, breathlessness etc. Causes: low intake, reduced absorption and increased need.
It is generally believed that the B12 deficiency is usually caused by low intake, and vegans and vegetarians are the most affected groups. The scientific evidence is enough to confirm and advise all vegans and vegetarians to take their B12 supplements regularly. (3) However, a study shows that B12 deficiency may be more widespread than thought and up to 40% of the Americans suffer from it. (4) Some researches outlines that 40% of children and adults in Latin America also face a similar problem. (5) B12 is considered one of the most widespread vitamin deficiency worldwide. Most of the researches attribute this shortfall to food cobalamin reduced absorption.
Possible reasons of malabsorption: alcohol and/or drug consumption, acid blockers or medicines for ulcers, diabetes medicines, antibiotics, psychiatric medicines, aspirin, chemotherapy, contraceptives with estrogen and hormone supplements, blood pressure medicine, medicines for heart palpitations (beta-blocker, nitrate sprays, nitroglycerin), cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins), sexual enhancer, high dose of vitamin C, more than 4 cups of coffee per day, heavy smoking, high sugar consumption, very spicy food, etc. (6) Conditions that affect the small intestine, such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, bacterial growth, or a parasite can directly affect the ability to absorb B12 from foods. (7)
Do you see what is obvious here? The data contradicts itself. On one hand, people are advised to eat animal food products in order to secure the right B12 intake that they need to be healthy. On the other hand, we all know and there is a rich scientific proof that animal food products increase the chances to get cardiovascular diseases, high cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, etc. How many people do you know who take medicines to fix these issues? The more meat you eat, the more you damage your health, and the fewer chances you have to absorb one of the good nutrients that meat is supposed to have, which is B12. Crohn’s disease is another good example as it is common to those who consume large amounts of animal food products and the condition improves when meat is removed from the diet. (8)
B12 deficiency is also common to those who are in great need of this vitamin: pregnant and lactating women; people with higher levels of stress; athletes and fitness enthusiasts; smokers; people who have recently had operations using general anesthetics, those exposed to environmental pollution and heavy metals. If we consider the above three causes of B12 deficiency (low intake, reduced absorption, and increased requirement) – it looks like most of the people might have this condition, either as a deficit or at marginal levels.
The good news is that researches show that the body assimilates the synthetic B12 much better than the one from foods. Even the USDA recommends it on their website: “crystalline vitamin B12, the type of vitamin B12 used in supplements and in fortified foods, is much more easily absorbed”.
But there is one more aspect that we should be aware of it, probably the most important one. The B12 in meat comes from supplements given to these animals, so why not just take the supplement and skip the killing and the disease?
Let’s go back to our cattle and pigs and sheep and chicken. Do they grow freely? Do they feed on grass? For gut bacteria to produce vitamin B12 the animal must consume sufficient amounts of cobalt and B12 injections or cobalt supplementation may be required for livestock. What about the pesticides that kill the B12 bacteria in the soil? Or antibiotics used? (By the way, 80 % of all antibiotics worldwide are used on farmed animals (9)). Antibiotics reduce the absorption of B12. An animal fed up with antibiotics will suffer from B12 deficiency. It is a fact. As a result, up to 95% of all the B12 supplements produced worldwide are given to livestock. (10) (11) (12)
The above information makes the B12 an invalid reason to eat meat.
When I switched to a vegetarian and later to a vegan diet, one of the most commonly asked questions (except the protein-related one :)) was regarding the B12 vitamin. So I had to research myself and see what are the implications, risks, and myths. Now I know that taking B12 supplements is not a weak point or Achilles heel but a reason for joy. One single pill per day can keep me healthy and in good shape and save so many innocent lives and ultimately, save the planet itself. So yes, I can proudly say that I do take B12 supplements and I find no excuse in doing otherwise.