When discussing vegan diets, vitamin B12 may be one of the most talked-about nutritional topics (aside from the protein question, of course!). B12 is required to maintain healthy nerve and blood cells within the body, so we know it’s necessary to have in our diets. However, there are many misconceptions about where it comes from and which is the most effective way to obtain it.
Vitamin B12 Is Bacteria-Born?
Since plants can’t produce vitamin B12, some people assume it must be produced by the animals they eat. Not so fast. Like plants, the bodies of animals are unable to produce B12, also known as Cobalamin, on their own. Rather, B12 originates from microbes that live primarily in soil. That’s right, the most chemically-complex vitamin comes from microscopic bacteria living among plant roots! This bacteria can also be found in water and in the intestinal tracts of animals.
Our human ancestors, as well as today’s indigenous societies, likely received sufficient B12 in the same way our primate cousins do today: by consuming plants with soil on them or drinking water from mountain streams. In the modern world, not only is our water treated so to kill everything in it, but soil used for farming is often so depleted that its difficult to sustain healthy microbic life.
Industrial Agriculture And Livestock Supplements
Modern farming does not take place on sprawling green pastures. According to 2014 USDA reports, 99 percent of farming in the United States takes place in industrialized agricultural factory operations, which can house over 100,000 animals under a single roof.
Nothing about these operations is natural. These ‘farms’ do not allow animals to graze freely, even those with ‘free-range’ or ‘cage-free’ labels. Therefore, they are unable to obtain what they need from the earth. Even when they do have access to grazing, the soil is often inadequately balanced due to unsustainable farming practices and pollution. In these conditions cobalt, a trace mineral that is required for ruminants like cows and sheep to process vitamin B12, isn’t abundant enough. Without cobalt, the microflora in their gut cannot synthesize B12.
For these reasons, livestock require cobalt or Vitamin B12 supplements in addition to their feedstuffs. How natural can a source of a vitamin be if the source itself requires a supplement?
Source Or Supplement? Weighing The Risks
It seems simpler (and certainly more humane) to cut out their middle-man. Especially when you consider that many people may benefit from B12 supplements, not just vegans and vegetarians. In fact, one in six meat-eaters may be B12 deficient. The National Academy of Sciences recommends that everyone over the age of 50 — regardless of diet — take a B12 supplement. Additionally, the USDA advises taking the crystalline form of B12 (that is, the form of B12 found in supplements and fortified foods) because it is more easily absorbed than the Vitamin B12 found in animal products.
If you get sufficient B12 from animal-based products, you probably acquired an abundance of unhealthy risks along with it. For example, consuming a meat and dairy-laden diet gives you a one-in-two chance of dying prematurely from a heart attack or stroke; a one-in-seven chance of breast cancer; or a one-in-six chance of prostate cancer. On the other hand, you could choose a whole foods plant-based diet, along with a daily vitamin, and drastically reduce your risk of some of the world’s most dangerous killers.