What began as investigation to assure or corroborate her suspicions that our food supply's vitamin B12 content is on a steep decline—exploded a nutritional bombshell. More than a commentary on modern food, the test results—if proved correct by second and third tests—underline a problem of far reaching scope. The global eco-crisis may have infiltrated unmistakably into America's grocery stores, kitchens and bloodstreams.
Gray was shocked—but hardly surprised. Since controversy over waning B12 content in vegetarian foods first erupted several years ago, she'd spent scores of hours reviewing and analyzing the B12 literature and corresponding with some of the fields leading authorities.
She knew a B12 alarm was going off all over the planet—and few were listening.
The "Vegetarian B12" Crisis
One alarm surfaced in the natural foods community in the past several years. A spate of articles last year in East West, Macromuse and other dietary/ health journals cast concern over adequate B12 in a narrow framework as a vegetarian problem, with possible B12 deficiencies especially in the macrobiotic community and macrobiotic diet scheme.
Concern over "vegetarian B12" crystallized in January 1988 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition report on B12 in 17 macrobiotic mothers and their infants.
Lab tests by Bonnie Specker, PhD at Univ. of Cincinnati Medical Center Dept. of Pediatrics and Harvard Epidemiologist Donald Miller, MS, showed 56 percent of the subjects don't get enough B12 for normal cell function. Two infants showed signs of possible neurological damage, quickly corrected by B12 supplements.
To researchers' surprise, mothers who regularly consumed various seaweeds—previously thought to be rich sources of the vitamin—were among the most deficient. Moreover, many who regularly ate fish showed low B12 levels.
What was going on here?
Specker and Miller soon completed a larger study of 169 macrobiotic adults and children in the Boston area: 51 percent of the adults had B12 levels below the range considered "normal" by nutritionists—though no macro mom showed outward signs of deficiency, and some with over a decade of macrobiotic background showed "normal" serum B12 levels.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Dutch scientists were studying 50 macrobiotic children in Holland, aged ten to 20 months. Pieter Dagnalie, MS, of the Wageningen Agricultural University told East West that low serum B12 levels and enlarged red blood cells (a B12 deficiency symptom) was observed in 12 of the 50 children.
The studies in and of themselves weren't conclusive indictment of the B12 value of macrobiotics. For one, Specker/Miller studied macrobiotics from one small geographic zone who may not represent the continental macrobiotic community. Also, risk factors like alcohol and cigarettes weren't considered in either study. But high-profile instances of severe B12 deficiency in New England macrobiotic children gave scientists' reports human faces and urgent tones.
That May an East West article titled "The Myth of Vegetarian B12" ignited fierce controversy over the B12 value of vegetarian—and especially macrobiotic—dietary practices. Almost overnight many people began eating more animal foods as a hedge against B12 deficiencies.
What is the right answer? What is the problem's exact scope and nature?
The articles didn't sit well with Sylvia Gray. "I was very disturbed," recalls Gray, "since they were not addressing the key issues. After careful review of major B12 texts (over 50 articles), I bombarded leading B12 scientists with letters, asking questions and offering perspectives."
Macrobiotic mom with a background in pre-med, medical terminology and related fields, Gray was armed with indefatigable curiosity and grasp of detail, yet held no title to expertise in B12 biochemistry. Instead of being dismissed as layperson, her inquiries were taken seriously. One authority offered to present her concerns at an international symposium.
Her homework confirmed a gut feeling: critical aspects of the B12 controversy aren't getting a hearing. For one, she explains, "B12 deficiency and issues around it are problems in the general populace, not just macrobiotics or vegetarians." Indeed, B12 weaves a biochemic plot rife with surprise twists.
First, it's simplistic to assume low-B12 diet is the sole, sufficient cause of B12 deficiency. If this is true, how to account for the fair percent of macrobiotic mothers with normal B12 and stable physical condition after ten years or more?
Theoretically, it is difficult to become deficient with even marginal amounts of B12 in diet. For example, if dietary B12 decreases, the intestine compensates to absorb a higher percent. Over 75 percent of what passes into bile to be excreted is recycled through the small intestine.
Also, a human body tenaciously stores B12 for years. Adult bodies store 1,000 times the daily requirement. And our small intestine hosts bacteria that synthesize small but ample amounts of B12.
Several factors complicate the picture. For one, demand surges in pregnancy and breast-feeding, so nursing infants and mothers are most at risk. Also, modern life presents hosts of "B12 antagonists" to inhibit B12 absorption or use.
So while one person may assimilate, utilize and conserve B12 quite well from a diet with minimal B12, another may consume B12-rich foods, yet actually be more at risk of deficiency. Emphasis on foods' B12 content must be balanced with our varying B12 capacity. We'll explore specific, individual dietary factors that can hinder or enhance B12 utilization.
B12 in America
Specker/Miller and Dutch studies beg a larger question: How does the macrobiotic population compare with the general population? There are more clues than answers—but the clues are ominous.
In 1985 Dr. Ralph Carmel of So. California University Medical Center reported a monthly rate of 30 patients with low serum B12, less than a third of whom had typical signs of blood deterioration.
In 1987 a study in the Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine (April 1987) found a condition involving "subtle [B12] absorptive dysfunction... may be relatively common" in Americans. "Subtle absorptive dysfunction" is seen increasingly in people with unexplained low serum B12—those with adequate Intrinsic Factor ("IF", which assists in B12 utilization) and sufficient dietary intake.
Adequate dietary B12; no clinical symptoms; yet, B12 problems. Could B12 malabsorption be the rule in America, rather than exception?
The question isn't as easy to answer as it seems, for what constitutes reliable testing is as fraught with controversy as the question of foods' B12 content.
"This Is Only A Test..."
One alarm triggered by East West's article was the finding many vegetarian and macrobiotic staples' B12 ratings didn't stand up to "new, improved" radioassay-plus-purified-IF analysis. By the new tests, what was believed B12 by older bacterial tests was found to be part "true" B12, but in greater part "B12 analogue"—pseudo-B12 that serves no B12 function and can actually inhibit B12 utilization.
For macrobiotics and vegetarians, reliable B12 sources such as pickles, tempeh, shoyu, miso, seaweed, bluegreen algae were suddenly in doubt. Had we been deluding ourselves? One East West reader angrily denounced macrobiotic teachings (and teachers) that assured adequate B12 in such sources.
Working Out the Bugs
Since Pasteur's premature conclusion about the microbial origins of disease (a position he later refuted), modern man has waged a losing war on bacteria. Losing, not only because microbes are infinitely more adaptable (and far more numerous!) than we humans, but also because if we win the war on bugs, we'll destroy ourselves as well, for bacteria form critical and irreplaceable links in the food chain.
The simple truth of B12 is neither we, nor animals, nor plants, make B12. It is produced only by bacteria. B12-producing bacteria dwell not only in our own intestines and intestines of ruminants (cattle, deer, camels, sheep), but also in the intestines of Earth itself: soil.
B12 is the only vitamin synthesized solely by microorganisms. And the only enzyme containing trace element cobalt. In fact, B12-producing bacteria can't synthesize B12 without cobalt. B12 owes its chemical name—cobalamin—to the cobalt core of its molecular structure. Cobalt is an essential element for humans and all vertebrates—but only assimilated in the form of B12.
Then came a plot twist. Sylvia was convinced radioassay wasn't the atomic clock of accuracy it was said to be. It requires delicate stability, and the testing medium easily becomes too acid for accurate results. Gray believes microbiological test with Ochromonas malhamensis, is superior. "A wealth of research shows O. malhamensis far more specific [for true B12] than Specker's radioassay-with- purified-IF," Gray insisted.
Investigating the accuracy of different tests, we questioned a leading authority on B12 and were assured emphatically the new radioassay is the most reliable. For corroboration, we were referred to O. malhamensis expert Dr. Herman Baker, Ph.D., professor of Preventive Medicine at New Jersey College of Medicine. To our surprise, Dr. Baker refuted radioassay's reputation, contending to the contrary, O. malhemensis is the only test to screen out inactive B12 analogues. Dr. Baker told us:
"O. malhemensis is the most specific tool to analyze true B12, in biological fluids, tissues or any food containing B12. It analyzes only metabolically active forms and will not pick up any analogues. Radioassays, by comparison, are always open to criticism. While O. malhemensis is both accurate and precise, radioassay is precise but not accurate—it gives erroneously high readings."
So a most ironic picture emerges. The entire "vegetarian B12" panic—singling out non-animal foods as devalued B12 currency—may be based to some extent on a red herring. The new radioassay
may be easier to administer, and therefore cheaper and certainly more convenient for large establishments—but it's misleading.
The Truth of "False B12"
So are reports of high B12 analogue ("false B12") in vegetarian fare, says Gray.
Actually, B12 analogues surfaced in research in the early '50s—and not in pickles or tempeh. In 1955 British workers demonstrated analogue presence in dairy foods. By the 1970s it was clear animal foods contained abundant analogues.
Says Gray, "It's a big mistake to think only plant foods like seaweed and algae have analogues. The stuff is ubiquitous."
Asked what factors are identified as causing increased analogues, Gray cites various environmental factors: heavy metals and chlorine in municipal water, soil mineral imbalances and deficiencies, and food refining, especially since niacin and riboflavin are required for bacterial synthesis of true B12. Moreover, says Gray, "evidence, though incomplete, suggests B12 content of both animal and vegetable foods is on a downward trend."
As example, Gray points out in 1968 beef liver samples (tested with O. malhamensis) yielded a B12 content of 122 mcg per 100 grams. Twenty years later Specker found only 3.9 mcg/100 grams in beef liver (her mean on four tests)—approximately 95 percent less!
Gray also noted non-vegetarian infants used as "controls" by Specker showed UMMA excretion—a measure of possible B12 deficiency—that were "horrendously elevated." Below 4 is considered normal, and "controls" registered over 20.
Alarmed by the beef liver and infant UMMA finding, Gray contacted a California lab to run tests using O. malhamensis. The lab's head, Dr. John Fukuoaka, purchased the foods and did repeat tests himself. Tested were Swiss cheese, chicken breast and beef heart. Tests in the '60s showed B12 levels (respectively) of 1.71, 0.5 and 14.2 mcg/100 g.
Yet Dr. Fukuoaka's 1989 tests failed to reveal any traces of B12 whatsoever!
Gray also points out the Dutch and American "vegetarian B12" studies'
tests of vegetarian foods can't be taken at face value because of the testing method used, and also the wide variability in quality that certainly exists in different brands of the same food. Tempeh tested in the van den Berg (Dutch) and Specker (American) studies showed values termed "negligible" in by Specker/Miller. Yet, when Dr. Fukuoaka tested tempeh from Washington's Turtle Island Soy Dairy, it weighed in at a robust 4.6 mcg/100g!
Thus, while eating seaweeds, tempeh and certain other foods may place higher on the B12 spectrum than the panic suggested, that spectrum on the whole may be declining at a precipitous rate.
—JDM, MNM, DY