The Lack of Vitamin
K2 in Our Diet: What Went Wrong?
by Dr. Kate Rhéaume-Bleue
Humans began domesticating animals between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago, depending on the area of the world you consider. In an evolution from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, our ancestors realized that by managing the whereabouts of select docile creatures, we could benefit from a reliable source of nutrition without all the running about. The practice was simple enough: restrict the animals’ roaming to a reasonable-sized area of their natural habitat (an area that provided said animals with ample food and water) and protect them from predators, and the animals will, in turn, provide us with dietary protein, essential fats, vitamins, and minerals.
What is common to farming and hunting—the reason we consume animal-origin foods at all—is that it allows humans to profit, in a nutritional sense, from the sun’s energy and the soil’s minerals. These elements are captured by photosynthetic plants, then consumed and metabolized by creatures that are capable of doing so efficiently. During this process, animals conveniently transform the nutrients in these plants into forms that are more bioavailable to us humans. The nutrient content of meat, eggs, and dairy products is a direct result of the composition of the animals’ diet. In a very real sense, then, we are not just what we eat; we are also what our animals eat.
We have a deeply ingrained, and now largely inaccurate, idea of how this domestication thing works—the notion of cows grazing in a meadow. Indeed, if we look back as little as 100 years we would find that the vast majority of livestock did roam freely on green pastures. Times have changed. In 1800, about 95 percent of the North American population was rural, farming was nearly everyone’s business, and most families produced their own food.
By 1920, the rural population of North America had dropped to about 50 percent, and today less than 5 percent of our population makes their living in agriculture. The biggest change is that we are now dependent on a largely centralized, industrialized food supply. Even the folks who do make their living by ranching and farming generally do not produce their own food. Central to the industrialization of our food supply was the removal of livestock from the pasture and the invention of factory farming.
It was the discovery of vitamins A and D in the early 1920s that opened the door for large-scale grain feeding of livestock, the almost exclusive mode of commercial livestock management today. Adding these specific nutrients to feed meant that cattle, poultry, and swine could survive without sunlight, a source of vitamin D, and without green grass, a source of nutrients from which animals can derive vitamin A.
This meant that animals could stay permanently indoors. But, despite that exclusive grain feeding was technically possible at this time, it still wasn’t practical. Grain was expensive and grazing land was relatively cheap. That changed during World War II.
In the early 1940s, agricultural equipment manufacturers perfected the lightweight, self-propelled combine harvester. This grain-harvesting machine enabled farmers to produce much more grain than the nation’s population could consume, and the price of grain plummeted as a result.
Although it had long been common knowledge that providing some carbohydrate-rich grain, especially corn, would help fatten cattle that otherwise existed on green plants, until this time, grain feeding was the exception rather than the rule. With the emergence of the combine harvester, feedlots—also known as confined feeding operations or CFOs—were created, and factory farming was born.
In North America, the trend began in the beef industry. Texas, a state founded on ranching with grazing land aplenty, opened its first feedlot in 1950. The poultry industry began moving chickens off pasture and into buildings later that decade. The dairy industry followed suit in the 1960s, and pork producers did the same in the 1970s. Today the vast majority of North American poultry, eggs, meat, and dairy are produced using confined, intensive farming techniques and grain feeding. Meat and egg marketers even promote the virtues of 100 percent grain-fed products.
So what? Well, when we removed animals from the pasture, we inadvertently removed vitamin K2 from our diet. Humans can’t really convert the vitamin K1 from plants into vitamin K2. Animals can—if they have abundant K1 in their diets to begin with. Grain contains only a fraction of the necessary K2 precursor found in green grass. When animals grazed on pasture, vitamin K2 was abundant in our food supply. The most common dietary staples, like butter, eggs, cheese, and meat, even when eaten in relatively small amounts, easily met our menaquinone needs. Now we consume large quantities of the mass-produced versions of these foods, but we are starving for the nutrients that they no longer contain.
The Grass-fed Vitamin
Dr. Weston Price, the dentist who discovered vitamin K2, which he termed “activator X” (discussed in Chapter 2), noticed and then clearly demonstrated the relationship between grass feeding and vitamin K2 content. He collected samples of dairy products every two weeks from multiple regions of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Over the course of several years, Price analyzed more than 20,000 samples and noticed a very specific trend in the activator X content of butter samples that varied with the quality of cattle fodder. He concluded, “The factor most potent was found to be the pasture fodder of the dairy animals. Rapidly growing grass, green or rapidly dried [to preserve the green colour], was most efficient” to produce activator X.1 Price showed that both the activator X and vitamin A content of diary samples increased in the warmer months—usually with peaks in spring and fall that coincided with periods of rapid grass growth—and plummeted in the winter when cattle were consuming mostly dried (non-green) fodder.
The reason for this seasonal variation, and the reason grain-fed animal foods are lacking in K2, has to do with the intimate relationship between vitamin K and chlorophyll, the pigment that makes green plants green. Vitamin K1 is abundant in the membrane of the chloroplast, the part of a plant cell that captures sunlight for photosynthesis. When cows, chickens, or pigs consume green, chlorophyll-containing plants, they ingest phylloquinone (K1), which is then converted to menaquinone (K2). Grazing animals accumulate vitamin K2 in their tissues in direct proportion to the amount of K1 in their diet.2 The lack of chlorophyll in grains means little K1 and little or no K2 in grain-fed animal foods.
The K2-cholorophyll connection is also responsible for a unique characteristic of the fat of bona fide grass-fed foods: a distinct sunny yellow or orange tinge. Vitamin K1 in green plants is almost always present alongside (but entirely distinct from) beta carotene, another chlorophyll nutrient. Beta carotene is the pigment that imparts an orange colour to fruit and vegetables. Carrots, for example, are famous for their high beta carotene content. Beta carotene is also abundant in green plants—the yellow tone is just disguised by other pigments. When animals consuming green plants convert K1 to K2, beta carotene hitches a ride. So, the fat of grass-fed animals is high in menaquinone and tends to have a more intense yellow or orange hue than the fat of non-grass-fed animals. This is a good rule of thumb to follow when selecting K2-rich foods: in general, the more yellow or orange the fat, the higher the K2 content.
Excerpted from Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox © 2012 by Kate Rhéaume-Bleue. Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. (www.wiley.com, 1-800-567-4797).
Author and Naturopathic Doctor Kate Rhéaume-Bleue, BSc, ND, is a graduate and former faculty member of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto, ON. As a Canadian expert in natural medicine, she lectures across the country on topics related to health and wellness. As an engaging and sought-after speaker, she is a frequent guest on television and radio, a contributor to several health-related publications, and a leading authority on vitamin K2.