Riboflavin (E101), also known as vitamin B2, is an easily absorbed micronutrient with a key role in maintaining health in humans and animals. It is the central component of the cofactors FAD and FMN, and is therefore required by all flavoproteins. As such, vitamin B2 is required for a wide variety of cellular processes. Like the other B vitamins, it plays a key role in energy metabolism, and is required for the metabolism of fats, ketone bodies, carbohydrates, and proteins.
Riboflavin is yellow or yellow-orange in color and in addition to being used as a food coloring it is also used to fortify some foods. It is used in baby foods, breakfast cereals, pastas, sauces, processed cheese, fruit drinks, vitamin-enriched milk products, some energy drinks, and is widely used in vitamin supplements.
Large quantities of riboflavin are often included in multi-vitamins; often, the dose is far more than a normal human can use in a day. The excess is excreted in the urine, causing the urine to be colored bright yellow within a few hours of ingestion of the vitamin.
It is difficult to incorporate riboflavin into many liquid products because it has poor solubility in water. Hence the requirement for riboflavin-5'-phosphate (E101a), a more expensive but more soluble form of riboflavin.
A deficiency of riboflavin can be primary - poor vitamin sources in one's daily diet - or secondary, which may be a result of conditions that affect absorption in the intestine, the body not being able to use the vitamin, or an increase in the excretion of the vitamin from the body.
In humans, signs and symptoms of riboflavin deficiency (ariboflavinosis) include cracked and red lips, inflammation of the lining of mouth and tongue, mouth ulcers, cracks at the corners of the mouth (angular cheilitis), and a sore throat. A deficiency may also cause dry and scaling skin, fluid in the mucous membranes, and iron-deficiency anemia. The eyes may also become bloodshot, itchy, watery and sensitive to bright light.
Riboflavin deficiency is classically associated with the oral-ocular-genital syndrome. Angular cheilitis, photophobia, and scrotal dermatitis are the classic remembered signs.
In animals, riboflavin deficiency results in lack of growth, failure to thrive, and eventual death. Experimental riboflavin deficiency in dogs results in growth failure, weakness, ataxia, and inability to stand. The animals collapse, become comatose, and die. During the deficiency state, dermatitis develops together with hair-loss. Other signs include corneal opacity, lenticular cataracts, hemorrhagic adrenals, fatty degeneration of the kidney and liver, and inflammation of the mucus membrane of the gastrointestinal tract. Post-mortem studies in rhesus monkeys fed a riboflavin-deficient diet revealed that about one-third the normal amount of riboflavin was present in the liver, which is the main storage organ for riboflavin in mammals. These overt clinical signs of riboflavin deficiency are rarely seen among inhabitants of the developed countries. However, about 28 million Americans exhibit a common ‘sub-clinical’ stage, characterized by a change in biochemical indices (e.g. reduced plasma erythrocyte glutathione reductase levels). Although the effects of long-term sub-clinical riboflavin deficiency are unknown, in children this deficiency results in reduced growth. Subclinical riboflavin deficiency has also been observed in women taking oral contraceptives, in the elderly, in people with eating disorders, and in disease states such as HIV, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes and chronic heart disease. The fact that riboflavin deficiency does not immediately lead to gross clinical manifestations indicates that the systemic levels of this essential vitamin are tightly regulated.
Riboflavin has been used in several clinical and therapeutic situations. For over 30 years, riboflavin supplements have been used as part of the phototherapy treatment of neonatal jaundice. The light used to irradiate the infants breaks down not only the toxin causing the jaundice, but the naturally occurring riboflavin within the infant's blood as well.
More recently there has been growing evidence that supplemental riboflavin may be a useful additive along with beta-blockers in the treatment of migraine headaches.
Development is underway to use riboflavin to improve the safety of transfused blood by reducing pathogens found in collected blood. Riboflavin attaches itself to the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) in cells, and when light is applied, the nucleic acids are broken, effectively killing those cells. The technology has been shown to be effective for inactivating pathogens in all three major blood components: (platelets, red blood cells, and plasma). It has been shown to inactivate a broad spectrum of pathogens, including known and emerging viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
Recently riboflavin has been used in a new treatment to slow or stop the progression of the corneal disorder keratoconus. This is called corneal collagen crosslinking (CXL). In corneal crosslinking, riboflavin drops are applied to the patient’s corneal surface. Once the riboflavin has penetrated through the cornea, Ultraviolet A light therapy is applied. This induces collagen crosslinking, which increases the tensile strength of the cornea. The treatment has been shown in several studies to stabilize keratoconus.
Because riboflavin is fluorescent under UV light, dilute solutions (0.015-0.025% w/w) are often used to detect leaks or to demonstrate cleanability in an industrial system such a chemical blend tank or bioreactor. (See the ASME BPE section on Testing and Inspection for additional details.)