By: Pamela Redwine
Nutrition and Food Safety
You have probably heard of B vitamins at some point. You may have known a family member or friend who had to take a B vitamin, but many people don’t realize that there is an entire class of B vitamins that are collectively referred to as the vitamin B complex.
Over the next two articles, we will look at each of the different B vitamins, the role they play in our health, and some of the foods we should eat to ensure that we have enough of each specific vitamin. This article will focus on thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. The second article will focus on pantothenic acid and biotin, folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12.
From a nutritional standpoint, there are six key components we need for good health: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, water, minerals, and vitamins. Vitamins and minerals are called micronutrients because we don’t need a lot of them to receive benefit, but we do need them.
The B vitamins generally have a common name that we may recognize, but they may also be referred to by a B vitamin number. Most B vitamins have a high bioavailability in foods, meaning that it is readily available for the body to use once the food is digested. It is important to consider bioavailability, especially when you consider taking certain supplements. If the particular supplement has a low bioavailability, then no matter how much of the nutrient you take, your body won’t be able to use it.
Thiamin (vitamin B1) is used to help release energy from carbohydrates. In the case of a severe deficiency, the resulting disease is called beriberi. The symptoms include weakness, loss of appetite, general weakness, and poor coordination. Major sources of thiamin; include pork products, whole grains (wheat germ), ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, enriched grains, milk, orange juice, peanuts, dried beans and seeds. Because of the enriched grains and the number of grains we eat in the United States, a thiamin deficiency is rare, with one exception—alcoholics. In the presence of alcohol, thiamin absorption and use is reduced and excretion is increased. Reduced effectiveness coupled with a low-quality diet that often accompanies severe alcoholism may lead to a thiamin deficiency.
Riboflavin (vitamin B2) helps to produce energy in all cells of your body. It is also involved in assisting in metabolism of other vitamins and minerals. A riboflavin deficiency is not common in the United States, but can occur if a person doesn’t have sufficient riboflavin for about 2 months. Symptoms include a sore mouth and tongue, cracking of the skin around the corners of the mouth and various eye disorders. Riboflavin is found in milk and milk products, meat and eggs, and enriched grains. Vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and other leafy green vegetables are considered good sources of riboflavin. An interesting note is that milk is packaged in opaque containers to protect riboflavin from ultraviolet rays that will destroy the riboflavin.
Niacin (vitamin B3) helps produce energy in all the cells of your body. It helps your body use sugars and fatty acids. Niacin also helps enzymes function normally in your body. A deficiency of niacin is called pellagra, which means rough or painful skin. Symptoms of a niacin deficiency include dementia, diarrhea, and dermatitis. If not corrected, death can result. Major food sources of niacin are also typically high in protein. Poultry, fish, beef, peanut butter and legumes are all good sources of niacin. Niacin can also be found in enriched and fortified grain products. Niacin is one of the few vitamins that is very heat stable, so little niacin is lost when cooking.
As you can see, there are several different vitamins that make up the vitamin B complex and each is important to us. Your best bet to make sure you are getting the right amounts of these micronutrients is to follow a well-balanced meal plan that includes whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, fat-free or low-fat milk, and lean protein sources, including dry beans and nuts.
Next week, we will look at the rest of the B vitamin complex.