Cycles abound in physical systems. Holistic farm management embraces these cycles, identifying as many ways as possible that some output of a farm process ― say, manure as the output of a farm animal’s metabolism ― may in turn be appropriated as an input of another farm process ― say, fertilizer for the growth of crops or forage. Each particular farm process is a single strand that weaves into the intricate and complex ecosystem to which we belong as well. But how precisely do we humans, with our particular metabolic and nutritive input requirements, fit into this ecosystem? Can we direct our strands, so to speak, to constitute some optimal position within this yarn in terms of both ecological sustainability and human nutrition?
I think that we can. And it was this belief that, in part, inspired me to volunteer in Cricket Creek Farm’s creamery from early this past November through late January. This post is the first in what I intend to be a mini-series investigating how the outputs of a farm ecosystem such as Cricket Creek play important nutritive roles in supporting vibrant health. We’ll discuss the nutritional qualities of butter, meats and raw milk and from pastured cows, of aged, full-fat, raw milk cheeses (like Maggie’s Round and Tobasi!), and of eggs from pastured hens. (Though since there are *way* too many deep and extensive discussions out there to discuss in a series of short blog posts, much of my work here will be to point you in those interesting directions.) On the docket for today? An overview of an historically little- discussed vitamin that is quickly gaining attention: vitamin K2.
You may very well be familiar with the form of vitamin K known as Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone).
It’s found in dandelion greens, spinach, kale and other leafy, green vegetables. The second form,
vitamin K2―which is in fact a group of related compounds known as menaquinones―differs in
many respects from vitamin K1. For instance, vitamin K2 is found naturally in animal fats ―including dairy― and organ meats from animals raised on pastures of quickly growing grass as well as in egg yolks (but not whites) and certain fermented products such as natto (a Japanese fermented soybean breakfast food) and aged cheeses. Another interesting difference: studies suggest that increasing our daily intake of vitamin K2―from food or supplements―can reduce our risk for coronary heart disease, osteoperosis and some types of cancer, while vitamin K1 does not appear to have the same effect  (Stephan Guyenet discusses  here .
The reason, research suggests, is that while vitamin K1 is preferentially used by the liver to facilitate coagulation (vitamin K, discovered by Danish scientist Henrik Dam, was first discussed in a German journal and so named for the German koagulation), vitamin K2 is preferentially used by other tissues (including vascular tissue) to direct proper calcium deposition. The latter, in turn, has been connected with the health benefits described above . Both of these functions are performed by certain vitamin-K dependent proteins (also known as Gla proteins), which require vitamin K in order to become activated. In particular, vitamin K2 activates two proteins―osteocalcin and matrix Gla protein (MGP)―that play essential roles in the body’s regulation of calcium metabolism. Osteocalcin guides calcium (and phosphorus) to be incorporated into new
bone and teeth tissue. In other words, osteocalcin directs calcium to the sites and processes where it is needed for robust, healthful function. MGP complements osteocalcin by preventing the calcification of soft tissues―that is, by keeping calcium from depositing in sites where it is not only unneeded but also undesirable, such as arteries.
Though vitamin K2 did not receive much attention in the mainstream medical research community
until relatively recently (its discoverer, Henrik Dam, and those who conducted early research on it
believed the difference between the two naturally occuring forms of vitamin K to be minimal), it was
studied extensively by Dr. Weston A. Price, albeit under the moniker “Activator X” since Price could not identify its chemical structure. Price discovered that he could treat a number of dental maladies with a combination of cod liver oil rich in vitamin A and D and butter oil rich in vitamin K2 (see Stephan Guyenet’s discussion here. Chris Masterjohn’s narrative is unfortunately offline – I’ll link to it as soon as it’s back). In fact, as Chris Masterjohn discusses here, vitamins A and D interact synergistically with vitamin K2. So to get the full benefits of the beautifully yellow (indicative of higher nutritional content!) butter that Suzy talks about a few posts down, you’ll want to make sure that you are actively getting enough vitamin K2 in your diet.
Humans, it turns out, cannot effectively synthesize vitamin K2 from vitamin K1. On the other hand,
ruminants supplied with healthy amounts of green grass can effect this synthesis, which is why butter (more so than milk, evidently) and meats from pastured cows are good sources of vitamin K2. Vitamin K1, from which the cows synthesize vitamin K2, is abundant in the membrane of chloroplasts of plants, hence the relevance of green pasture! Dr. Price himself came to the same conclusion concerning the essential role that the quality of the animals’ fodder plays in the nutritional quality of the food after analyzing over 20,000 samples of butter from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Rhéaume- Bleue 2011 p.53). Certain strains of bacteria are also capable of producing vitamin K2 through fermentation, which is why fermented cheeses also contain healthful amounts of vitamin K2. Egg yolks (but not whites!) are also good sources of vitamin K2 so long as the hens are raised on pasture. For instance, the table of vitamin K2 concentrations Dr. Kate Rhéaume-Bleue provides in her 2011 book on vitamin K2 shows that egg yolks from the Netherlands contains twice as much vitamin K2 as those from the US (Rhéaume-Bleue 2011 p.67).
Hopefully I’ve provided enough to wet your appetite and incite you, the reader, to embark on some
research of your own. I’ve included a couple of sources for further reading towards the bottom of
this post. Keep your eyes peeled – you’ll probably be hearing about this vitamin in the near future, if you haven’t already. But most importantly, keep in mind our original query: how do human nutritive requirements integrate into an ecologically conscious diversified farm operation? We see that, in the case of vitamin K2, working with natural processes ― from the essential role that green pastures (not grain!) play in the nutritional quality of our farm products to the nutrient synergy of the fat soluble vitamins A, D and K2 (all available from a single source given access to green pastures) ― is the key to maintaining vitality and health.
Are the MK-4 and MK-7 forms of vitamin K2 equivalent?(I highly recommend this article
as a follow up, since different food sources such as eggs, cheese and natto will yield different forms of vitamin K2 ― though it’s worth pointing out that, as far as I can tell, each form can contribute to health in the manner described above. MK-4, however, seems to be preferentially utilized by the body).
Rhéaume-Bleue, Kate. Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox: How a Little-Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life. Wiley: 2011.