Scientists at Cambridge University have discovered that certain algae are rich sources of vitamin B12, claiming they are suitable for producing natural B12-boosting supplements.
Vitamin B12, missing in vegan diets, is an essential micronutrient that manufactures blood and nerve cells. Its deficiency can lead to muscle weakness, fatigue, nausea, and weight loss. It can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes, as well as an autoimmune disorder called pernicious anemia. The elderly, pregnant, and lactating women are at particular risk when exposed to low doses.
In the UK, almost 1.5% of the population is vegan, meaning 2.5 million people rely on supplements to get the vitamin. According to the European Journal of Nutrition, vegan diets supply only a fraction of the B12 required — about 0.5 micrograms per day, which is far below the RDA of 2.4 micrograms.
Food tech companies, aware of algae’s potential, are developing promising ingredients for plant-based foods, including B12. Recently Sophie’s BioNutrients, a B2B food tech based in Singapore, revealed a chlorella-based ice cream claiming it provides more B12 and iron than most dairy or plant-based alternatives. The US startup Plantible Foods extracts from the microalgae duckweed a protein that contains the same amount of B12 found in eggs.
A promising discovery
The scientific team, led by Professor Alison Smith, classified the B12-rich algae varieties the human body can absorb. The research team also demonstrated that bacteria from the surroundings make the vitamin that the algae absorb from the environment. The same happens on the ground. Bacteria living in fields produce vitamin B12, and farmed animals get it by eating pastures.
The advantage of this discovery is that the algal supplements will be made entirely from a natural and sustainable source instead of being chemical-derived, explained Professor Smith. Moreover, these B12-rich algae will help tackle B12 deficiencies in sustainable diets.
Since B12 deficiency is a severe health problem, many institutions have been trying to find solutions. In 2022, scientists at the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park and Durham University developed a method to culture the bacteria that produce B12 at scale using cobalt to make affordable supplemental and solve its shortages in the UK.
“The UK is suffering a serious vitamin B12 shortage, so it is important that the nutrient is made more available in an affordable manner,” said Prof Martin Warren from the Quadram Institute at the time.eggs ice cream cream microalgae protein plant-based startup