People who eat little or no animal products run the risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency. That’s why vegans take food supplements or vitamin pills. Researchers from the University of Helsinki, Finland, have now found a way to add the essential vitamin B12 to bread or yoghurt-like products by means of fermentation.

Swiss cheese

Vitamin B12 is naturally present only in animal products. Humans need it for the maintenance of their nervous system and the formation of blood cells. Doctoral student Chong Xie of the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry at the University of Helsinki, Finland, has developed a method to add vitamin B12 to other foods by means of fermentation. This method uses the Propionibacterium freudenreichii bacterium, which is used in the production of Emmental cheese, more commonly known as Swiss cheese.

Basic foods of the world

“The fortification of foods with B12 through fermentation could be a more cost-effective alternative to vitamin pills and other dietary supplements. Cereals are the staple food of the world. They are therefore excellent for micronutrient enrichment,” he explains.

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Xie used 11 different cereal-based materials and fermented them with Propionibacterium freudenreichii, the only B12-producing microorganism permitted for food products. This microbe produced significant amounts of vitamin B12 in most fermented cereal materials. During the three-day fermentation process, rice bran and buckwheat bran showed the highest B12 production.

Natural food enrichment

“When we select the right strains of the microbe and create the right conditions, we can encourage the bacteria to synthesize large amounts of vitamin B12 in its cells,” says Professor Vieno Piironen of the University of Helsinki. “We have been able to establish that this form of vitamin B12 is actually beneficial to humans, while some of the microbes generate a form of the vitamin that is useless to humans. In fact, many previous research results can be traced back to this phenomenon.”

The microbes that produce vitamin B12 can be cultivated in a growing medium of grain or fava beans. These media can then be used as ingredients in various foods, such as bread or yoghurt.

Previous research only now fully exploited

“The natural enrichment of foods is one of my favorite research topics,” says Vieno Piironen. “Many B-family vitamins can be produced by fermentation. We have already overseen many master’s theses and dissertations on this subject and there are more to come. Only now are we starting to make full use of these data.”

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About the author

Author profile picture Arnoud Cornelissen has for many years been writing about science and technology in, among others, various Dutch newspapers.