- this may improve vegetarian diets in the future
We need vitamin B12 for blood formation, for the nervous system, and for our cognitive skills. Vitamin B12 is almost primarily found in animal sources. However, researchers from the University of Kent in England have just made an important discovery. They have observed how some plants such as cress can absorb the nutrient when cultivated in a certain way. With this knowledge, we can make vegetarian and vegan diets healthier and more complete in the future. Many vegetarians and vegans appear to be doing just fine on their green diets, but many are unaware that a vitamin B12 deficiency can be insidious, and it may take years before they experience obvious symptoms such as anemia, tiredness, poor memory, and other signs of a nervous system that is out of balance. It is therefore a good idea under all circumstances to take a vitamin B12 supplement, until some of these vitamin B12-containing vegetable solutions are available on the market.
Vitamin B12 is also known as cobalamin, and the biosynthesis of its basic structure involves bacteria that are present many places in nature. Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal sources such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products, which is why vegetarians and vegans can easily become vitamin B12-deficient. However, a team of scientists led by Professor Martin Warren has found that regular cress is able to absorb the vitamin when grown in a certain way. The amount of vitamin B12 therefore depends on how much of the nutrient is available in the growth medium, and the scientists from the University of Kent were able to show that vitamin B12 actually ends up in the leaves of the cress.
A discovery that could potentially benefit millions of people in the future
The discovery that certain plants can absorb vitamin B12 is groundbreaking in that it gives us the opportunity to enrich selected foods with this essential nutrient. This could especially turn out to be useful in countries like India that has many vegetarians.
An estimated 12 million people worldwide are believed to be vitamin B12-deficient, especially in the underdeveloped countries where large parts of the population cannot afford the different foods with vitamin B12. In other countries like Denmark, however, vegans and vegetarians also risk lacking the nutrient. Therefore, vegetarians and vegans are advised to take a vitamin B12 supplement, but in the future, supplements may be unnecessary, provided vegetable food sources are enriched with vitamin B12.
The study was conducted in collaboration with a school
The team of Kent scientists collaborated with Sir Roger Manwood’s School in Sandwich, where biology teachers and 11-12-year-old pupils helped study and measure the vitamin B12 content in cress.
The pupils cultivated cress in growth media that contained gradually increasing levels of vitamin B12. After seven days, the leaves of the small sprouts were picked, washed, and analyzed. The study showed that the cress sprouts were able to absorb vitamin B12 and store it in their leaves. In order to confirm this, the Kent researchers produced a special kind of vitamin B12 that radiated a fluorescent light when exposed to laser light. The plants were nourished with fluorescent vitamin B12, and it turned out that the vitamin accumulated in some special cells inside the leaves of the plants. These cells are known as vacuoles and serve as storage facilities in the plants. The study proves beyond doubt that certain plants are able to absorb and store vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12’s unique voyage
Vitamin B12 can only be produced by certain bacteria, which means that the nutrient must endure a rather unique voyage before being able to benefit more complex creatures such as animals and humans. Science has described how to monitor this voyage with help from fluorescent vitamin B12 molecules. This technique can also be employed to show and explain why some people are more likely than others to become vitamin B12 -deficient.
A technique that may help against parasitic infections
Not only did the researchers discover that using the technique with fluorescent vitamin B12 could show how plants absorb the nutrient, they also found that by using this technique, they can monitor the movements of the fluorescent vitamin in parasites such as worms. The study demonstrates that the fluorescent vitamin B12 is an effective method for observing the uptake of the nutrient. Because worms absorb vitamin B12 in a different way than mammals, this knowledge may be useful in the treatment of hookworm infections, which are rather common in tropical and subtropical climates.
Humans can produce their own vitamin B12, but can they absorb it?
Vegetarians and vegans often argue that coli bacteria in the bowel can produce vitamin B12, but the absorption requires the presence of intrinsic factor and normally takes place in the small intestine, so there are some unanswered questions with regard to the uptake of the nutrient.
Beware that vitamin B12 deficiency is often insidious
People who consume to few animal food sources are at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. Even if you feel perfectly healthy for a long time, you should still be careful. Vitamin B12 deficiencies can often go undetected for years before causing symptoms. This is because vitamin B12 from the diet is stored in the liver, and we only lose one thousandth of the body’s surplus each day. However, if you continue eating a diet without animal sources, the liver’s vitamin B12 stores will eventually be that low, one or several symptoms may develop.
Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include:
Treatment of vitamin B12 deficiency and quality of supplements
Vitamin B12 deficiency can be detected with a blood test. If the deficiency is caused by the diet, it can be treated by including animal food sources and/or taking a supplement that contains a minimum of 2.5 micrograms of vitamin B12. Lozenges generally give much better absorption of the nutrient, as it is taken up directly by the oral mucosa.
Supplements contain different forms of vitamin B12, some of which are better than others. It is a good idea to study the label.
Cyanocobalamin is synthetic and contains cyanide, which is toxic.
Methyl cobalamin costs more to manufacture but is not toxic.
For people who have lost a major share of their vitamin B12 stores, injections of the nutrient are useful because they often cure the different symptoms quite fast.
When treating pernicious anemia, you must continue injecting the vitamin because of the lack of intrinsic factor, which is necessary for the absorption of vitamin B12 in the small intestine.
Vitamin B12 content in micrograms per 100 gram of food
University of Kent. Vitamin B12 breakthrough for more complete vegetarian and Vegan diets
ScienceDaily May, 2018
Ebba Nexø. Vegetarer risikerer at få for lidt B12-vitamin. Videnskab.dk marts 2018
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