When discussing vegan diets, vitamin B12 may be one of the most talked about nutrients, and with good reason. B12, also called cobalamin, is essential for red blood cell formation, cell metabolism, nerve function, and even helps in the production of DNA. Suffice it to say it’s one very important nutrient! However, there are many misconceptions about where it comes from and what that says about a vegan diet.
The Dirt on Vitamin B12
Plants don’t produce vitamin B12, so many people assume it must naturally occur in animals. After all, B12 is commonly found in animal products. So, does that mean a vegan diet isn’t ‘natural’ or nutritionally adequate? Not so fast! The bodies of animals are unable to produce B12 on their own either. Instead, it grows in their guts only after they consume the bacteria that creates it.
Here’s where it gets interesting: according to MIT biologists, 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. Some animals, including ruminants like cows and sheep, traditionally ingest this bacteria from the soil-laden grass they eat, while omnivores like chickens and other birds will get it from worms and insects. For some animals, fecal matter may be another source.
Interestingly, B12 is synthesized in the human body, but it occurs in our colons where it cannot be reabsorbed the way it can in animals such as ruminants who have unique stomach chambers. Rabbits, on the other hand, practice coprography which is the eating of their own partially-digested feces. This is a normal behavior among many animals, and allows them to absorb B12 when they consume their 'pellets' and let them pass through the digestive system a second time.
Our human ancestors likely received sufficient B12-producing bacteria in the same way our primate cousins do today: by consuming insects, soil-covered plants, or by drinking water from mountain streams.
In the modern world, we chlorinate our water to kill most everything in it and the soil used for farming is often so depleted that healthy microbial life is increasingly difficult to sustain. This affects how both humans and livestock acquire B12.
Industrial Agriculture and Livestock Supplements
Many vegans already know that 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 factory operations, which can house over 100,000 animals under a single roof.
Nothing about these operations is natural. These so-called 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 animals do have access to grazing, the soil is often inadequately balanced due to unsustainable farming practices and pollution.
In these conditions, farmed animals like cows are not able to obtain the bacteria and proper minerals, like cobalt, that are required to synthesize B12. For this reason, livestock typically require cobalt or Vitamin B12 supplements to be added to their feed. Just how natural can a source of a vitamin be if the source itself requires a supplement?
Supplements for all
It seems far simpler- and certainly more compassionate- to cut out the middle-man. Plus, our