Vitamin B1 with scientific name as thiamine is one of 9 water soluble vitamins. Like other water soluble vitamins, it rarely causes toxicity due to overdose. However, vitamin B1 deficiency still exists even among well developed countries, such as the United States. Despite the fortification of vitamin B1 in variety of foods, such as breakfast cereals, flour, bread, etc., there are still 20% of the U.S population failed to meet the recommended daily intake of vitamin B1. It’s speculated that there would be at least 50% of total U.S population failed to meet the RDI if the vitamin B1 fortification was no longer regulated. Now, half of the total population is a huge number. Why do they fail to consume vitamin B1? Because they do not eat WHOLE FOODS. They instead suffer obesity from ingesting empty calories while classifying themselves being “malnourished” at the same time. Now, in the developing countries, such as Malaysia, India, and Vietnam, we start seeing obesity on the rise, but there are still a huge section of population suffer stunted growth and malnourishment. That’s the difference in the health trend between the developed countries and developing countries, I suppose.
If we are to void the refining process of foods, perhaps the risk of vitamin B1 deficiency would not be a concern. The photos I include in this blog are taken during the Second World War and earlier when diseases due to vitamin B1 deficiency was prevalent. When the first milling machine was put in use, it started the rape of vitamin B1: it stripped off the husk that’s supposed to be rich in vitamin B1. When the grains were processed manually, there’s still a thin, light brown coat on the grain. When milling came in practice, the grain came out as white as possible. So, there’s no vitamin B1 left in the grain. Mostly that grain now will provide just a bunch of carbohydrates and a small amount of protein. Until recent years, Beriberi, one of cardiovascular and neurological disease directly related to vitamin B1 deficiency, still occurs, mostly in countries that consume milled grains (rice, wheat, etc). Guess what? Vietnamese eat rice and noodle every day that are as 100% milled to strip off vitamin B1.
1/ Functions of vitamin B1
- Thiamine participates in blood cell formation
- Play a role in carbohydrate metabolism
- Play a vital role in neurological activities, cardiovascular system, and skeletal system.
- Affect level of energy
2/ Recommended Daily Intake (RDI)
- 0-6 months old: 0.2 mg/day
- 7-12 months: 0.3 m/day
- 1-3 years: 0.5 mg/ day
- 4-8 years: 0.6 mg/day
- 9-13 years: 0.9 mg/day
- Male from 14 years old: 1.2 mg/day
- Female from 14-18 years: 1.0 mg/day
- Female from 19 years: 1.1 mg/day
- Lactating women: 1.4 mg/day
3/ Who are vulnerable to vitamin B1 deficiency?
- Alcoholics or those with liver diseases
- People on strict diet (teenaged girls and women tend to fall into this category)
- People who cannot afford food
- Those with congenital heart diseases
- Those with gastrointestinal conditions that prevent absorption (bariatric surgery, AIDS, cancer treatment etc.)
- Those on dialysis treatment.
4/ Signs and symptoms:
Lethargy, indigestion, depression, memory loss, black outs, spasms, poor concentration, and enlarged heart are signs and symptoms of vitamin B1 deficiency in the first stage. At this point, one should receive a blood test to check for thiamine level. In most cases, signs and symptoms will go away after a few days to a few weeks if people start getting vitamin B1. If admitted to hospital, usually patients will be given vitamin B1 through oral route or intravenous route. The condition may be improved in a few hours.
If the deficiency is not addressed, it may advance to one or more of the following diseases.
5/ Beriberi disease, Wernicke’s disease, and Korsakoff syndrome:
Beriberi is a neurological and cardiovascular disease. The signs usually include the loss of sensation in the hands and feet, loss of tendon reflexes, involuntary eye movement, shortness of breath, fast pulse, and edema. Edema is the type of fluid retention usually in lower limps, which will leave an impression when we press in the flesh (See photo). This condition is also common in renal patients.
In infants, there may be other signs, including weak cry (paralysis of laryngeal nerve), vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, irritation, pale skin, very fast pulse, and convulsion.
b) Wernicke’s Disease:
This is a set of neurological disorders, including mental confusion, loss of eye movement, and even paralysis on one side of the body. Wernicke’s disease may lead to other complications such as hypothermia (extremely low body temperature), hypotension (low blood pressure under 90/60), and lactic acidosis (muscle cramps).
c) Korsakoff’s syndrome:
This condition may go hand in hand with Wernicke’s disease. Mostly Korsakoff affects memory capacity and language ability. People with Korsakoff’s syndrome may experience memory loss, amnesia, occasional black-outs, inability to recall recent events or old information. Guess what? These symptoms are pretty much in line with those of Alzheimer’s disease. And, it’s true that vitamin B1 does have something to do with Alzheimer’s disease prevention, which I’ll discuss next.
6/ Benefits of Vitamin B1
Since thiamine plays a vital role in cardiovascular and neurological activities, deficiency in thiamine will take a toll on the central nervous system. Thiamine certainly can’t treat Alzheimer, but a diet rich in vitamin B1 does slow down and/or lessen the negative effect of brain aging. Vitamin B1 also will lessen the risk of developing cataracts in older population. People also tend to have better concentration if they are on diet high in vitamin B1. People who work jobs demanding physical strength (construction job or professional athletes) will appreciate thiamine more because it plays a big role in carbohydrate metabolism which is the type of energy the body prefers.
In my opinion, all functions are reduced as we age, but some individuals may experience much more severe symptoms, which may have something to do with how they treat their body: drug use, alcohol use, poor diet, etc.
7/ Common Foods
- 100 g pork, cooked: 0.45 mg vitamin B1
- 35 g raw sunflower seeds: 0.52 mg (RAW please)
- 100 g cooked eggplant: 0.08 mg
- 100g steamed or blanched spinach: 0.08 mg
- 100 boiled cabbage: 0.06 mg
- 100 cooked black beans: 0.25 mg
- 100 g cooked/canned tuna: 0.14 mg
- 100 g boiled green peas: 0.3 mg
As you see, we need about 1.2 mg vitamin B1 a day, and as long as you consume a wide variety of foods, it’s easy to obtain vitamin B1 without the use of supplements.
7/ Impact of cooking on vitamin B1 retention:
In the post about vitamins, I emphasized how unstable water soluble vitamins can be under the impact of processing. Some vitamins are sensitive to heat, while others are sensitive to only light. Vitamin B1 is extremely unstable when exposed to heat. However, studies have shown that the cooking time plays the key in preserving (or destroying) vitamin B1. Say, vitamin B1 is sensitive to heat, right? If you cook it at 85 Celcius , it’s high enough to destroy it. So, if you cook it at 200 Celcius, thiamine is still destroyed. Now, the cooking time comes in: if pork is supposed to be dried out in the sun for 7 days, it loses, say, 94% of its vitamin B1. You have another piece of pork of the same weight, from the same pig and roast it for 40 minutes, you may lose just 50% of vitamin B1. Now if you happen to have a pressure cooker, you can cook that pork in less than 15 minutes, your pork now may lose just 25%. So you see the cooking time plays a bigger role than the cooking temperature: the lesser the time, the more vitamin B1 retained.
Cut long story short: if you have pressure cookers, use them. If you don’t, try to steam the food or at least blanch it. If you have to boil, remember to savor the juice because the thiamine is leaked into water. At all time, please avoid deep fry method (pan searing is better) and baking/roasting (baking or roasting at 205 Celcius for 1 hour is enough to destroy 95% of vitamin B1 content.