As you may know, vitamins are typically associated with having a dedicated purpose. Vitamin A nurtures our vision, and vitamin C improves our immune system. However, the way our body benefits from different vitamins is more much sophisticated. When we look at how vitamins boost all kinds of bodily functions and mechanisms, vitamin B12 can be seen as a real powerhouse. It helps in the creation of DNA, blood, and nerve cells and is vital for a healthy brain and a robust immune system.
Consequently, a vitamin B12 deficiency carries all types of symptoms, and it can be a theoretically life-threatening condition. However, such a deficiency develops very slowly (typically over several years), as the liver can store up to five years worth of B12, and we only excrete around 0.1% of that amount each day.
How modern hygiene standards eradicated our natural B12 intake
B12 deficiency is much less an issue related to one’s veganism and rather an issue that can be attributed to our modern lifestyle. Gorillas, our closest relatives, get their B12 fix by involuntarily eating soil contaminated with fecal matter when munching on plants. However, contemporary vegan mainly eats commercially farmed crops, that are power-washed and grown in cobalt-deficient soil. (Cobalt is a prerequisite for bacteria to be able to produce b12).
The natural approach is not always the best
Fundamentally speaking, it seems that the natural way for us to get B12 is by consuming unwashed vegetables and unfiltered water. However, these unsanitized resources may also be covered in harmful pesticides and bacteria, such as salmonella and E.coli. So while natural is usually better, in this case, it is not. Supplementing B12 is relatively cheap, safer, easier, and more convenient than eating dirt.
B12 is also known as cobalamin. There are different types of cobalamin, with the most prominent ones being cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin. One contains a methyl molecule, the other a cyanide molecule. Cyanocobalamin is the most common type of B12. If you check the ingredients of your B12 supplement, you will read cyanocobalamin 99.9% of the time. It is a cost-effective synthetic version of B12 that cannot be derived naturally. Methylcobalamin is found in nature, and some argue that it may have a better absorption rate.
However, studies are contradictive: This study found that people absorbed 49% of cyanocobalamin and only 44% of methylcobalamin. Another study found that methylcobalamin may be retained better within our bodies, as urinal excretion of cyanocobalamin was three times higher. Ultimately, the difference in resorption rate is not something to worry about, as a vitamin B12 pill typically contains around 150 ugs of B12, which is 60 times the RDA. Thus, if you’re particularly frugal, you may even want to consider splitting pills in half, which is perfectly fine.
Great news: Duckweed for Fundamentalist
Scientists have recently discovered the first bioactive, whole food plant source of B12 in a plant known as duckweed or water lentil. Besides the methylcobalamin mentioned above, they also identified the presence of adenosylcobalamin and hydroxocobalamin (two other bioactive forms of B12). 100 grams of the dry plant material contains around 750 percent of the RDA for B12.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash