Vegan FAQ #3 – How Can a Vegan Diet Be Natural/Healthy If B12 Is Only in Animal Products?
Below is most of the text from an email I sent my friend today. From our email exchange over the past few days, she is becoming more and more convinced to aim toward being vegan. The following information is gleaned from various tidbits I’ve read on Vitamin B12 over the past three and a half years as a vegan as well as my own speculation and philosophizing. This is a fascinating and important question to me.
Vitamin B12 is made by bacteria and fungi; it’s not something special made by animals that our body needs. Since there are tons of microbes in the soil, it used to be present there, but the soil has been very worn out by modern agriculture – how intense it is and all the chemicals used. So it is likely that back in the day some used to get absorbed by plants. B12 wasn’t discovered until the 1950s, and modern agriculture with heavy pesticides started right after WWII, when all the chemical warfare companies needed to find something to do with their chemicals. Also, from all the heavy usage of the soil, it’s become more and more demineralized; if there is little cobalt in the soil, then only a little B12 can be made, even if the microbes are there. (B12 is a cobalamin.) So we’ll just never know for sure if plants used to contain B12! I did, however, see a fairly recent study that showed if there is B12 in the soil, then plants can absorb some of it, which offers a possible explanation for why some vegans who do not supplement do not develop deficiencies. Animal agriculture, on the scale that we practice it, does no favors for our farmland. It takes roughly 5-10 times the crops to make animal food than it does to make farm plant food to feed directly to people. So really, this soil depletion may have something to do with the fact that many nonvegans are B12 deficient too; our food supply just is not as in tune with nature as it used to be. One of the ways cows get B12 is by eating lots of soil with grass, and as for the way other farm animals who aren’t grass fed get it – I wouldn’t be surprised if B12 was added as a supplement to their factory produced feed, since I’ve heard that dairy cows are supplemented with calcium (How ironic is that?! We subject cows to horrible living conditions so that we can feed a calcium supplement to them so they can lactate the calcium out for their baby, whom we steal from her and then cruelly confine and slaughter, and so we can take her milk instead and then drink it, all in the name of calcium. We might as well get our calcium from where cows get it naturally when they’re in the wild – plants! Or just cut out the middle man already and take a supplement ourselves.) Today’s lower quality soil could also help to explain why a significant number of nonvegans who eat plenty of animal products are B12 deficient as well. Eating animal products will not insure you against B12 deficiency. Upon learning this fact, B12 ceases to be just the vegan’s issue, but a general health issue for everyone.
Another thing is that our society has become very sanitary about our food. Some soil would stick to vegetables, like carrots and potatoes, and people probably didn’t really bother to scrub their vegetables clean like we do now, and don’t forget that the soil was much healthier and richer then (so don’t think you can get away with meeting your B12 by not washing your produce). There wasn’t such a fear of dirt then either. Also, before massive water purification systems, people would have drunk water contaminated with microbes who make B12; this is why B12 deficiency might not be such a problem in third world countries because they don’t have water where almost all the microorganisms have been killed.
And WAY back in the day, we were probably eating a lot more like the primates we are, a diet of mostly fruit and greens with some insects, dirt, and feces mixed in, all of which are sources of B12. B12 is made by bacteria in your intestines, so yes, you can get B12 from eating your feces; there was actually a study published in the British Journal of Haemotology where B12 was extracted from B12 deficient vegans’ feces and fed back to them, and there was enough B12 in it to get their B12 levels back up to normal. I hope no one would want to do that! But at least it makes a little more sense when you see some animals, like rabbits and other non-ruminant herbivores who can’t make absorb B12 from their digestive tract, eating their own feces. Unfortunately, B12 is made a bit past where it gets absorbed by your body, so you can’t rely on your intestinal flora as a source that you can re-absorb. However, there was a study of Iranian villagers published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and they ate a very small amount of animal products, like a serving of dairy a week and a serving of meat a month, but they had great B12 levels, even though having one serving of animal products everyday, not just once a week/month, would not even provide the B12 RDA. The researchers speculated that their low protein diet allowed the B12 producing bacteria to travel farther up the intestine (probably due to variances in intestinal pH more friendly to the B12 producing bacteria) where it could be absorbed.
Another interesting thing is that we have a very small requirement for B12, I think the smallest of all the vitamins. It’s like 2 micrograms a day. Our bodies hoard it like crazy; your stores can last for years with no intake. It’s almost as if our body knows it’s not a super plentiful vitamin in nature, and we’re only going to come across it infrequently. I think some of it can be recycled in your body too. This is a lot different from how your body treats plentiful vitamins, like C, by just excreting the extra in the urine.
As you can see, this is a very complex issue; it’s not a black and white one that some would like to believe, where we can say we need something that we find pretty much only in the animal products in our food supply now, so that means we must/should eat animal products. Even though at first glance, the B12 question makes people think we must be carnivores, the truth is we’re much closer in physical traits to animals who are mostly herbivorous/frugivorous. To see that, we just need to look to comparative anatomy/physiology. It is so basic, but you probably never learned much about it in school, unfortunately. Please have a look at this chart – (link) And this is a pretty good write-up – (link).
The thing that is really compelling to me that shows we’re not really designed to eat much meat is our basic anatomy. If we were in the wild, naked, could we take down an animal with nothing but our bare hands, blunt teeth, and soft nails? Could we rip apart the animal and eat it? Could we make a clean kill right to the throat like a carnivore does? Could we even catch the animal and hold it in place long enough to hack away at it with our teeth and nails in the first place?! Most animals can outrun humans, obviously, and they can usually squirm away from them once they’re caught too. And would we even have the desire to work that hard to get it? Surely the taste of plain, raw meat isn’t that alluring to make us perform these feats. So a lot of people would say, well we’re meant to kill animals because we have the ability to make tools!…Really? Our rational thinking and intelligence can take us anywhere, make us do anything! Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean that it is right, natural, or healthy for us. Anything our brain can dream will most likely far outpace the human body’s ability to evolve. Fast food, cigarettes, synthetic recreational drugs, processed food, the modern conveniences that allow for sendentariness: all are products of various technologies the human brain dreamed, calculated, and created, and there is no way our body is going to evolve quickly enough to thrive on, let alone safely handle those things in large quantities. Tools used for killing animals are just a much more basic technology we created, and our body has not quite caught up with what it has provided us with. And don’t forget about atomic bombs, torture devices, and chemical/biological warfare; technology does not always take us down the enlightened and peaceful path, and I certainly don’t think that the cavemen technology of spears and rocks is the brightest and best idea so much so that we should perpetuate it with the updated technology of slaughterhouse machinery. I won’t deny that there were times in our history when it was necessary for humans to eat meat to survive, but just because we can eat and digest something (processed food, McDonald’s, cockroaches, dog and cat meat, cardboard, etc.) doesn’t mean it is optimal for us. Our species evolved in the tropics and then eventually migrated from there; we no longer had our optimal food available in the cold climates we moved to, so we had to make do with what was available in each location. If we would have stayed in the tropics, we probably never would have taken up meat eating with the abundant, appealing fruit available to us there.
Take a look at instinct vs. choice when it comes to food. Right now we eat almost exclusively by choice. If we strip away all cultural and habitual conditioning that direct our food desires and just take two things in their raw, natural state: a live rabbit and a ripe apple. Going only on our instinct and not informing our choice from what we have been taught to eat, which one would almost all people choose 100% of the time? Would the rabbit smell appetizing to us? (He would to dogs and cats, since they have such a strong sense of smell; they can probably smell the meat of the rabbit under his fur.) Would the apple smell appealing to us? Of course. What about the taste of each – do we have taste buds for plain, raw meat with no salt or seasoning added to it? Or do we have taste buds for fruit? Babies are born with a desire for sweetness. There have been experiments where babies are calmed with sugar water; I doubt anyone would try to pacify a baby with a hunk of raw meat. Also, the sight of the apple would appeal to us. Bright color attracts our attention (which is why fruit doesn’t turn a vibrant color until it is ripe and ready to be eaten); some (all?) carnivores are color blind; it’s not important for them to see bright colors and to know when fruit is ripe. So not only is our body hard-wired to tell us to eat the apple, but what would most (normal) people’s instinct make them want to do to the rabbit? Cuddle, hug, and protect him, right? So like I said, now with our food environment vastly different than what would be available in the wild, we eat by choice and not instinct. The crazy thing is even though we don’t eat by instinct anymore, we don’t even truly make much of a choice in the matter, since what we eat is really determined by the culture we were raised in, what was put in front of us as a kid, what is served at social functions, and what is available to us in grocery stores and restaurants. Eating a vegan diet is deciding to take back your choice in the matter a bit more and to maybe eat a little closer to what our instincts would have led us to hundreds of thousands of years ago.
I think it makes sense to look at our most similar genetic relative, the chimp, to see what they eat. We are more closely related to a chimp than a horse is to a donkey, and the latter are so close that they can actually mate with each other. Chimps survive mostly on fruit and greens. I’m betting they get their B12 from insects, worms, and soil on the vegetation they eat. I much rather just take a supplement than eat insects and worms :) Sometimes our technology can help us to improve on nature. I’ve also heard that since humans don’t possess any of the traits of a natural predator, we may be more like opportunistic scavengers instead, sometimes feeding on animals that have already died or ones that predators killed. Again, I much rather stick with the supplement than eat roadkill!
This MD has summed up the B12 thing in the best way I’ve ever seen – “I realize some people think there is something ‘unnatural’ and bad about taking supplements, but it is the price we must pay for eating less dirt, feces and insects than our primate ancestors.” http://veganmd.blogspot.com/2007/12/vegan-must-knows-on-vitamin-b12-d.html
Or you can take a different approach to this question entirely: just brush it off. I read part of the chapter on B12 in vegan dietitians Ginny Messina’s and Jack Norris’s new book, Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet, today, and they say, just forget about trying to argue that humans weren’t meant to eat meat and that it’s not natural. Veganism is about changing the future. It’s not about looking to the past and figuring out how to eat and act from there. It’s about showing people it’s time for our society to evolve. The point is that the evidence shows we can be completely healthy on a vegan diet supplemented with B12. If it’s not the most natural way, who cares?! Who’s eating a 100% natural diet from the wild in this day and age anyway? We live in an unnatural society that is very difficult to break away from. I will happily and proudly take my “unnatural” B12 supplement if it means sparing the life of an animal, thank you very much. It’s a win-win situation. I live; an animal lives.
Now since I’ve mentioned Ginny and Jack, I don’t feel right to end this post without reminding everyone…if you are vegan, TAKE A B12 SUPPLEMENT EVERYDAY. (And do it too, if you’re not a vegan.)