Foods derived from animals are the primary sources of vitamin B12. Strict vegans have limited sources or options of vitamin B12 in their diet and are likely to have/develop vitamin B12 deficiency. Reduced vitamin B12 from food leads to a severe deficiency when tissue stores of the vitamin are depleted. Additionally, in countries like India, where the diets are mainly cereal-and-pulse based, vitamin B12 deficiencies are prevalent.
Vitamin B12 is said to be the largest and most complex of all the water-soluble vitamins. The name vitamin B12 is generic for a specific group of cobalt-containing corrinoids with biological activity in humans. Cyanocobalamin is a form of vitamin B12 that is widely used clinically due to its availability and stability. The microbial synthesis produces vitamin B12 in the digestive tract of animals. Therefore, animal protein products are the primary source of vitamin B12 in the human diet, particularly organ meats (liver, kidney) and other sources include eggs, fish, and dairy products.
Innovations to boost vitamins B12
The vegetarian lifestyle has increased in popularity, with a significant portion of the world population opting to exclude animal foods from their daily diet. The decision to opt for such a choice depends on ethical, ecological aspects, and health reasons. However, considering the absence of vitamin B12 in vegetarian food, several studies on the use of plant foods as a source of vitamin B12 have shown promising results. The mind map shown below highlights researches that have increased the vitamin B12 in vegetarian food.
Lactic acid bacterial producing vitamin B12
As an attractive alternative to the chemical synthesis of vitamins, specific biotechnological processes for vitamin inclusion in foods have been developed. Lactic acid bacterial (LAB) strains isolated from fermented foods have been found to be cobalamin. For example, L reuteri CRL1098 (a strain isolated from sourdough) has been the first documented example of cobalamin-producer among LAB. This finding provides a significant advantage for potential metabolic engineering strategies to transfer the B12 production capability to other bacteria.
Studies suggest that plants grown with organic fertilizers often contain higher concentrations of vitamins B1 (thiamin) and B12 (cyanocobalamin) than inorganic fertilizers. Since plant roots were recently shown to absorb B1 and B12, it was thus observed that organic fertilizers (like manure of diverse sources or sewage sludges) introduce additional vitamins into the soil, which leads to increased vitamins in the plants via roots uptake.
Hydroponic cultivation is an emerging technology that allows better control of water and nutrient supply, improves plant productivity, and reduces the use of pesticides.
High vitamin B12 levels are found in dried shiitake mushroom fruiting bodies (Lentinula edodes), used in various vegetarian dishes.
Research data suggest that certain species of algae have a natural presence of Vitamin B12 for growth. For example, Dried green laver (Enteromorpha sp.) and purple laver (Porphyra sp.) contain substantial amounts of Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is one of the absolute requirements for the growth of almost half of the algae species. This information is critical and can be utilized to explore ways in which mass production of the algae with a substantial presence of Vitamin B12.
A company (Parabel Nutrition, Florida) in the USA has claimed a natural occurrence of Vitamin B12 in the Duckweed. The plant (duckweed) can grow on top of still water and doubles in size every 16-32 hours. Therefore, it can be harvested every day. Parabel has developed a patented hydroponic system to grow, process, and commercialize the plant.
Despite the common conviction that there is no vitamin B12 in plant products, it turned out to be present in some plant-based sources, and they are an alternative to supplements and fortified food. It is essential to continue searching for scalable options for plant-based sources of vitamin B12. We need to explore potential metabolic engineering capability to other bacteria as well to produce Vitamin B12.
Dr Navneet Singh Deora is the chief technology officer at Blue Tribe