Can Enough B12 be Found in a Vegan Diet ?
Vegetarianism is a big topic these days. People are more concerned about animal rights and the environment than ever before. The factory farming industry has become a monster that resembles little of the traditional farms many people still imagine their eggs come from. Recently I posted on a Google+ board in a discussion about whether milk and eggs were necessary. It's my opinion that,while I am not a complete vegetarian, people have access to the supplements and nutrition that eliminate the requirement for animals to be killed or used otherwise for our diet. Some people do not want to change and have a typical repertoire of knee jerk responses like "I'm the top of the food chain so it's natural", "Why would I have pointy canine teeth", or "we have to eat animals to get Vitamin B12." This last one is an interesting issue and will be the primary focus of this post.
So lets start with the basics. Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy human life and is produced by neither plant nor animal. It is produced by bacteria that live in all animals including humans. For us however the bacteria reside a little further down in the colon than the vitamin can be absorbed in large amounts. Vitamin B12 is only required by humans in very small amounts, and is stored by the body for long periods of time. Thus it takes quite a while for the symptoms of B12 deficiency to show.
B12 is required for a multitude of roles in the body. These include converting carbohydrates into energy, maintaining a healthy nervous system including regulation of mood, good energy levels, cardiac health, protection against some types of cancers, digestion, and is essential for healthy hair, skin and nails. People who have vitamin B12 deficiency may develop anemia.
It is possible that some humans have been able to survive on a true vegan diet without the addition of B12 supplements. Many animal herbivores consume their own feces which is a source of B12 and it was found that extracting B12 from human feces and giving it to humans with B12 deficiency could ward off the symptoms of the condition. In India many vegetarians consume amounts of dairy sources of B12. Some Indian Vegans (who do not consume dairy or eggs of course) also do not have B12 deficiency. Scientists have theorized that insect larva and residues of insect fecal matter and dirt may contain enough B12. Not much is required as the Liver stores somewhere in the vicinity of a 2 year supply of B12. In another case Iranian villagers who ate very how amounts of animal products were found to have normal levels of B12. It was theorized that it was due to the fact they were using human fecal matter as fertilizer and possibly because low protein levels allowed their own B12 producing bacteria to ascend high enough in the digestive tract for the vitamin to be absorbed. It is interesting when some Indians mentioned here moved to the West they were found to be afflicted by B12 deficiency when eating the western diet of food that is cleaned of impurities like dirt and insect residues. One last possibility in these cases is that the water supply in that part of India contained B12 producing bacteria.
The studies mentioned in the seems to have found that by and large the foods that were tested did not have enough B12 to counteract deficiencies. However they did find some interesting evidence that certain types of food may provide the required B12. A good example of this would be the Korean Centenarians who consumed little animal product but did eat Kimchi at every meal and had the proper B12 levels. Certain types of algae like Coccolithophorid algae did seem to produce results of higher B12 level in those who consumed them. In other cases Japanese vegan school children who consumed Seaweed in large amounts seem to have normal B12 levels. In addition some vegans who ate produce which may have had contamination from soil and manure were able to maintain normal B12 levels. These examples warrant further study. For the most part though it has been found that vegans who do not consume B12 fortified foods or supplements are at a much higher risk of B12 deficiency. With all the inexpensive supplements, and B12 fortified products out there it is one of the easiest health problems to avoid though. In fact research has shown that raw fortified foods may be a better source than animal products as cooking may damage the vitamin levels. Finally in the future studies have shown that plants injected with B12 retained the vitamin in significant amounts so this will be an option as well. There is no reason for anyone to be afflicted by B12 deficiencies but the end results of these studies will still be interesting to see in the future.