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Debunking the Myth – Vegans and Vitamin B12

Nutritional Therapist Joe Jackson explains why vegan diets are far from deficient in this important vitamin

 

Everywhere we turn we’re bombarded with information on how great B-vitamins are for us, but how much do we really know about what they do and how we can achieve the right levels in our diet? With eight different types of B-vitamin to worry about including, where do we begin? The long standing assertion about vegans not being able to get any Vitamin B12 in their diet is one we hear all too often, but is there any truth to this claim? I’m here to debunk the veganism and vitamin b12 deficiency myth.

 

What is it and how much do we need?

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a water based vitamin containing the mineral cobalt. It’s the most structurally complex of all the vitamins available in the human diet, earning its rightful place as one of the most hotly debated. Due to its complexity, the only way it can be formulated is by a process called “bacterial symbiosis” (in simple terms: only certain types of bacteria have the tools and skills needed to make it).

 

Vitamin B12 can be found attached to the proteins in the food that we eat. However it is not absorbable this way, therefore it is the role of the proteases (a specialised group of enzymes which aid protein digestion) and hydrochloric acid found in the stomach, to separate the B12 from these foods, breaking them down into a form which can be easily absorbed by the body. Upon absorption in the small intestine, as much as 5mg can be stored in the liver at one time. This may not sound like a lot, but in reality this reserve can be stored for up to five years, as the body only needs around 0.2% of this to be released every day in order to function efficiently. Therefore, even if someone is not obtaining enough through their diet, their past reserves may be able to sustain them for such a long period of time, that symptoms of eventual deficiency may take years to manifest.

 

Why do we need it?

Vitamin B12 is essential for the maintenance and support of most of the vital processes that keep our body vibrant and healthy every day. Perhaps most importantly of all, it plays a vital part in the formation of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to every part of the body. If sufficient B12 is not absorbed in the digestive system, it can sometimes lead to a condition called “pernicious anaemia”, which can affect the quality of red blood cells being produced, leading to reduced overall function. If B12 deficiency (or pernicious anaemia) occurs, it can begin a whole cascade of health problems, due to B12’s many functions in the body. One of which, energy metabolism, is reliant on red blood cells successfully delivering oxygen to every cell in the body. Another of its main roles is the regulation of the nervous system, where it plays a part in the production of a material called “myelin sheath”. This material acts as an insulating cover for nerve cells, and allows for signals to be sent from the brain and spinal chord to the rest of the body. Production of neurotransmitters in the body that are essential for the regulation of mood, pain reception, and sleep also rely on adequate amounts of B12 for them to be synthesised effectively. Without successful neurotransmitter production, neurological decline may occur, possibly leading to imbalances such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, and poor concentration.

 

Studies on cardiovascular health have also shown the relevance of B12 in the maintenance of heart health. It is one of several nutrients that are essential for the breaking down and removal of excess homocysteine in the blood (a substance produced in the body after protein digestion). High levels of homocysteine have been found to positively correlate with those that suffer from various types of heart conditions, and may be associated with fat deposits in the arteries and the formation of blood clots. Connections have also been made between high levels of homocysteine and decreased neurotransmitter function, possibly due to its knock-on effect on the synthesis of metabolites needed to make them. If you still feel that B12 isn’t important, then look at it this way: every cell in the body needs it in order for DNA replication, and for new tissues to be built. In other words, without B12 we would quite literally waste away, and not have our own identity or “blueprint”.

 

Common symptoms of a B12 Deficiency:

  • Neurological changes (depression, poor memory or concentration, dementia, low mood)
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness or dizziness
  • Long term constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Soreness on or around the tongue, with a red appearance

 

B12 and the vegan diet

Now let’s tackle the myth that “vegans don’t get any B12 through their diet”. First I must state that this myth is partly based in fact (partly!). Well-absorbed forms of vitamin B12 are only readily available in foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy; but this does not mean that hope is lost. Many foods such as non-dairy milks, cereals, spreads, and nutritional yeast flakes available in a plant based diet are naturally fortified with B12. This type of B12 can be derived from an isolated bacteria source (not as nasty as it sounds), meaning that we’re not missing out – in fact just one portion of some of the recommendations listed in the table provide well above the recommended daily intake.

 

This is where it gets interesting. In most cases this form of fortified vegan-friendly B12 is not bound to protein, therefore it has a greater bio-availability (increased and easier rate of absorption through the gut lining), unlike animal based versions which rely more on the efficiency of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid in the stomach to break it down to a smaller component, allowing it to pass into the blood stream. Not only is this fantastic for those that choose to eat a plant based diet, but also for those who suffer with digestive problems. Digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Chrohn’s Disease, Dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut flora), or low stomach acid production can negatively affect the way food is digested and absorbed, due to either an imbalance of essential bacteria, a physical manifestation, or inflammation. This readily digestible form of B12 does not require your digestive system to work as vigorously, and therefore may help increase absorption rates dramatically where digestion may otherwise be compromised. It must also be noted that the elderly may also be at risk of B12 deficiency due to declining digestive function with age. Therefore, these fortified versions would also make a perfect addition to their pre-existing diet. Although it was stated earlier that plant based foods do not provide readily available B12, there is a loop hole. The soil that many of these products are grown in may contain elevated levels of B12 due to the presence of naturally occurring bacteria and fungi. I’m not saying that its wise to not wash your fresh produce, but if you are buying organically grown, local produce it is more than likely that you are absorbing some B12 from the soil traces in these foods.

 

Conclusion

“Vegans don’t obtain any B12 from their diet”. It’s a myth. Although those who choose a plant based diet have a narrower spectrum of foods to choose from, it can truly work to their advantage. This challenge allows them to be more mindful about the food they’re consuming, in turn causing them to become proactive about their health, and what food sources their nutrients are coming from. As more and more food companies try to appeal to a wider range of people, the more they become aware of what the market needs; hence an increase in products fortified with vitamins and minerals. Luckily for us, these B12 fortified foods are more easily digested than any of the animal based ones, suggesting that the vegan diet prevails in the health stakes once again.

 

Recommended B12 Products

Marigold – Engevita Yeast Flakes with B12

These flakes are great for including in many recipes, or simply as a sprinkling to season food. The cheesy nutty taste of this product will really hit the spot for those wanting an easily achieved cheese flavour in their food.

Provides 44 μg per 100g

 

Meridian – Yeast Extract with B12

This popular spread tastes exactly like some of its other mainstream counterparts. Love it or hate it, no one can deny it’s a fantastic source of B12. It’s used mainly for spreading, but if you’re feeling brave, you can scoop it straight from the jar.

Provides 70 μg per 100g

 

Koko – Coconut Milk

This is a fantastic alternative to dairy milk, as it has a very similar consistency (and doesn’t curdle in hot drinks like some other alternatives). It can be used in baking, cooking, as a base for smoothies, or you can enjoy it just as it is.

Provides 0.38 μg per 100ml

 

Sun Chlorella Food Supplement (Tablets)

This naturally occurring algae has its cell wall broken open to allow for more effective digestion and absorption. It comes in the form of methylcobalamin which is one of the most readily bio-available of all the forms of Vitamin B12.

Provides 6.9 μg per 15 tablets (average daily consumption).

 

Please note that out of every microgram of Vitamin B12 obtained through diet,

approximately 56% is absorbed. Therefore to go above and beyond this is acceptable, due to B12 not having any known adverse side effects or toxicity risks.

 

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39 Comments

  1. Lily on September 28, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    This post is really appreciable.Please i have Question, Has anyone heard of Eligen B12? It’s a prescription oral tablet
    I recently read about that works as well as the IM B12 injection, even if you don’t have intrinsic factor. Apparently it came out a month or two ago

  2. John Tomlinson on October 3, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    I’ve been vegan for 35 years and never taken a B12 supplement. I believe the whole B12 thing is a MYTH. We cannot possibly need a ‘vitamin’ that can only (or mainly) be found from animal sources, since human beings aren’t supposed to eat meat, nor drink milk, nor eat eggs. Therefore all the vitamins we need MUST be available from plant sources. Furthermore, there are cases of people who have eaten nothing except either crisps or bananas for TEN YEARS who didn’t die. One case was a boy who grew from the age of four to sixteen eating nothing but crisps. How is this possible if we need a certain amount of ‘vitamins’ every day? How can a child of four grow to a teenager of sixteen without dying, if they only eat crisps?

    • Keshav Boddula on November 6, 2018 at 6:50 pm

      I believe John mean to put the emphasis that “the whole !B12! thing is a myth” 🙂 Good comment John, thank you & namaste

    • Alison on April 5, 2019 at 10:07 pm

      Where on this earth do you get the idea that humans aren’t supposed to eat meat, drink milk or eat eggs? We are scientifically proven to be omnivores and the definition of an omnivore is that we survive on a diet of meat, fish etc and also plant based items…we would be classed as ‘herbivores’ if we were only intended to eat vegetation. It is a personal life choice! People like you make all vegetarians/vegans sound like nutters and you don’t help the cause one little bit

      • Bleu pill on July 22, 2019 at 11:53 pm

        Gen. 1:29 says it all God created us to eat from the earth we are apart of it, our body’s are made of dirt! We are natural living beings of electricity we need to eat things that are the same not dead things. We’re not built that way physically nor psychologically.

        • Peter Freeman on November 5, 2019 at 6:57 am

          Bleu pill – you are right about the science but wrong about the theology. No god figure can possibly exist, therefore the source you quote is false.

        • Cath on November 22, 2019 at 10:15 pm

          ….Living beings of electricity so need to eat the same? No, we needs proteins carbs and fats. Within that we need vitamins and minerals. It doesn’t have to have an electrical charge to it. Going by your reasoning we wouldn’t cook veg but eat everything raw. What pure saying is more on the fanciful side.

      • Tony D on September 21, 2019 at 10:08 pm

        Sorry but we are plant eaters. We have the teeth, digestive system, jaw and stomach acid of every other plant eating species. We can not digest meat. That is why a portion stays in our digestive tract every time we eat it. If you were meant to eat meat you would salivate looking at an animal when you’re hungry and you’d eat the flesh immediately after killing the animal without cooking it. When the nutrients and enzymes are still intact. There are no stoves or bbq grills in nature. You’ve been told were “omnivores” by the food industry in effort for them to make a profit. The reason why people think they need meat is because they’ve been addicted to it since childhood. P.s. no need to be angry. Eat all the steaks you want. Just presenting the facts.

        • Cath on November 22, 2019 at 10:34 pm

          We don’t have the digestive system of every other plant eating species. We don’t have a stomach separated into different parts as ruminants do. We don’t chew cud. Our digestive system is somewhere between carnivores and herbivores. We’re omnivores.

          We DO have the ability to digest meat. We have enzymes specifically to digest proteins and we have a very acidic stomach pH. The proteins are broken down in the stomach into peptides and amino acids, then they are absorbed in the small intestine. Contrast this with the digestion of cellulose from plants which carries on into the large intestine and is further digested by bacteria in the large intestine.

          On a low residue diet (before procedures like colonoscopy) you are told to restrict complex starches, fruit and veg and it forms too much bulk in the large intestine. You’re not told to restrict meat or fish. What does that tell you? If anything hangs abljt and rots in the bowel it’s complex carbs, fruit and veg.

          “If you were meant to eat meat you would salivate looking at an animal when you’re hungry and you’d eat the flesh immediately after killing the animal without cooking it.” We probably did at one time. But the fact is, cooking releases more nutrients as it part digests the food for you by denaturing the proteins.

          “ You’ve been told were “omnivores” by the food industry in effort for them to make a profit.”. On the contrary, it’s been constantly rammed down our throats that we should be on a plant based diet because meat is expensive to produce and it’s far easier to get denatured genetically modified crap, add synthetic B12 and other rubbish vitamins to it and flog it to people on the basis that it’s healthy (hello Nestlé?)

          “The reason why people think they need meat is because they’ve been addicted to it since childhood”. I’ll tell you what’s addictive, the little secret that the food industry has of the 50 /50 balance of fat and sugar that makes the brain crave more. Meat is not addictive. What it is is nutritionally dense and satiating.

          “P.s. no need to be angry. Eat all the steaks you want. Just presenting the facts”. myths, supposition. and opinion, not fact. Have another carrot and chill out.

      • Tony D on September 21, 2019 at 10:39 pm

        Because meat; dairy and eggs all cause sickness and disease in the body. Scientistific fact

    • Jeff on April 29, 2019 at 8:45 am

      Always love it when vegans hop on the “we are not supposed to” bandwagon. Not a hint of predestination there. Do you also believe the earth is 5000 years old?

    • Jeffrey Llewellynn on July 23, 2019 at 9:51 pm

      In the beginning of human cultural development the problem was not enough food. After a million years of evolution the problem is food quality and the spiritual desire to achieve higher states of consciousness, “to live in Heaven”, to be more than and move on from being a 3 dimensional predator.

    • Dawn on August 12, 2019 at 2:33 am

      Thank you. I also believe that if we eat a whole food vegan diet that we covered.

    • Terry on September 4, 2019 at 2:26 pm

      Well, if you just ate crisps throughout your development stage, you’d go blind – and possibly deaf – as is the recent case of a 19 year old boy to whom this has happened. He practically ate only that he’s lost his sight and hearing. Very sad.

    • natural vegan on September 24, 2019 at 2:45 am

      man i no what you mean, as a person whos always relied on sticking by whats natural ive become extremely stressed out about this whole b12 thing, only problem is that even animals that people eat can suffer from b12 defficiency symptoms if the soil is deficient in cobalt, we cant turn cobalt into b12 acording to the little science there is even if our soils werent depleted tho so fml.. i cant live with myself taking supplements or eating animals im really cornered and feeling depressed and anxious about it, i need to get off these supplements somehow cause its killing me with stress alone, i went vegan because im a naturalist and naturally i love animals, but ive been reading about b12 deficiency cases for months now and i dont no what the hell to do i feel like nature is punishing me for being a good person.. i no something is missing here, science really needs to catch up to us

  3. Vegan Pregnancy: Eating For Two – Issue 5 on October 10, 2018 at 6:15 pm

    […] of plant-based sources fortified with the vitamin that are easily included in the diet. See our feature on B12 for further info and a list of vegan foods rich in B12. Other B vitamins, plus E and D vitamins […]

  4. Maria on October 24, 2018 at 6:22 pm

    Vitamin B12 deficiency is one of the more common types of vitamin deficiencies. When low, many symptoms can result in the affected person. The majority of food sources for vitamin B-12 come from foods of animal origin.Those of you who eat meat, eggs, and dairy will likely have an easier time getting B-12.Thank you. Fabulous article.

  5. Akhil Arya on November 1, 2018 at 9:49 am

    I really appreciate this post. I’ve been looking all over for this! Thank goodness I found it on this blog . You have made my day! I think this is engaging and eye-opening material. Thank you so much for caring about your content and your readers.

  6. Jaweriya on November 14, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    B12 is essential to us! Specially if you’re a vegetarian. I am taking B12 tablets everyday, but maybe I should see my doctor about getting a shot. Great tip! Thanks!!

  7. Summer on November 18, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Ive just started taking high levels of oral Vit B12 (1200) ..it’s only been a week and wow has my mood improved! I’m happy all day, very little to no stress, my heartburn has disappeared (stress not diet has caused me significant heartburn over the years) & I believe my energy has increased slightly also. Hoping no side effects come up because wow I’m loving it so far!

  8. Shaun on December 6, 2018 at 2:41 am

    First, this is deceitful as it isn’t a “myth” as you stated it’s partly true and by partly you meant that vegans obtain it from fortified foods. You didn’t debunk anything, you just listed sources that vegans can get b12 from. The amount that the average vegan is getting from mushrooms and the residual dirt on organic produce is not conclusive nor enough for you to tout that is a palpable source. Consider that not all vegans are gardeners either, majority of them living in urban environments where they aren’t going to get that in a consistent, abundant amount.

    Fortified foods include milks, certain cereals and faux-meats. I choose not eat faux-meat and plant based milks aren’t something I keep around. Many vegans (and non-vegans) have a fear or soy, question the sustainability of almond farming and the real benefits of what almond milk has to it (unless you’re making your own there’s not much to it) as well as nut allergies. Oat milk is only starting to take off and hemp milk isn’t exactly everyone’s top choice…
    And not everyone find value in eating cereal. I do not eat cereal because I find it to have more cons (carb content- never consistently satieted) than value.

    Please, to those reading this, this is a blog post not a scholarly/journalistic article making a claim that is not supported by science but deficiency in vegan diets isn’t uncommon. That is because when most people go vegan the topic of b12 is not emphasized. Every time someone tells you the story of “a vegan getting sick” it’s almost always related to a b12 deficiency that formed years after being a vegan likely because the person was running on the reserves until there were no more.

    So is it a “myth” absolutely not. Are there ways outside of animal products for vegans to get it, OF COURSE. But you are perpetuating a falsehood with a click bait title, unsubstantiated and frankly dangerous claims that can affect people’s health. And this is coming from a vegan.

    B12 is a necessary vitamin and it is not a myth that it is required nor is it a myth that it is not substantially found in plant/fungi related foods. What is I guess a “myth” is that vegans don’t get any from what they consume… but that doesn’t seem to be what you’re supporting here and you could be sending novices down the path of not taking b12 into consideration when they do go vegan.

    • Bud on January 16, 2019 at 11:15 am

      great response

    • Gary, UK on February 2, 2019 at 8:53 am

      So if B12 comes in abundance from eating animals, where do those animals get it from bearing in mind most of them, sheep and cows for example, are themselves vegans? And if they have bacteria that make it from minerals in their diet, does that not also apply to us? How come all these vegan species have loads of B12 in their bodies, just not humans?

      • Pswca on April 26, 2019 at 8:40 pm

        Gary, the difference is, quite simply that the gut microbiomes of different animals are different according to their respective diets. If we had the same gut bacteria as a cow it would be because we had the diet of a cow. Different gut biota create different chemicals and hormones.

        • Terry on September 4, 2019 at 2:30 pm

          And cows, as you know, have stomachs and enzymes to help extract (excuse my poor chemistry) or make CLA from chewing grass – and ability humans don’t possess. If I had 4 stomachs, I’d be bovine, not human.

  9. efrain on December 14, 2018 at 4:40 am

    I have been a vegan for 6 months and I’m glad I heard of b12 again. I had forgot. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. But thank you soooo much 🙂 10101001010111. I will continue to research and help others anyway that I can. Gonna but a organic protein powder also soon. Source consciousness be with us all

    • Lionel on November 10, 2019 at 9:15 pm

      I don’t get what makes cows and chickens so special that the plants they eat allows them to make or carry the bacteria to make B12.

      Do they get it as a supplement in their diet?

      You should stop insulting each other. It’s not a good look.

  10. Abdul Aziz on December 20, 2018 at 7:48 am

    B12 is essential to us! Specially if you’re a vegetarian. I am taking B12 tablets everyday, but maybe I should see my doctor about getting a shot. Great tip! Thanks!!

    • Dave Norton on July 6, 2019 at 8:13 pm

      Vegetarians Abdul eat cheese eggs and milk..sources of b12.. vegans on the other hand do not eat ANY animal products. a huge difference.

  11. Anisha Rahaman on February 17, 2019 at 9:27 pm

    Thank you for sharing . I’m on a vegan diet for many years and I never took any B12 suppplements. I get annual blood check for B12 and my result are normal for every visit.

  12. jay on April 3, 2019 at 3:16 am

    because are body breaks it down differently and we use to have alot of B12 in are land in the past but all the Chemicals that we use and washing of the veggies we do destroys all the B12 plus we can never consume as much plants as a cow can in a day

  13. Beth McFenn on June 2, 2019 at 12:17 pm

    Whilst this article gives some good information, it completely ignores the fundamental building blocks which can help in our understanding of the body’s relationship with B12.

    1; B12 is a microbe- a bacteria produced by micro organisms.
    It therefore isn’t naturally occurring in anything but is the result of a process.

    2: B12 is the only vitamin with a trace element in it; cobalt.
    Cobalt is essential for all vertebrates and is only absorbed in the form of cobalamin- which is B12’s chemical name because it is at the centre of it’s molecular structure

    3: B12 is synthesised in the small intestine (ileum) by being excreted in the bile and reabsorbed.
    Vegans and vegetarians may get most of their B12 requirements from the re absorption process within the body than from outside food sources.

    4; To properly assimilate B12 coming into the body from outside,, we need to have sufficient intrinsic factor- a mucoprotein enzyme produced in the gastric juices of the stomach.

    Nothing works in isolation in the body so a healthy, varied diet, avoiding antibiotics (including those in dairy and animal products), strong stimulants such as coffee, intoxicants such as alcohol and cigarettes as well as poisons like heavy metals- in particular aluminium, found in vaccinations, a lot of sun creams, deodorants, cooking foil and utensils and the pesticides we ingest through eating non-organic foods will all help keep our intestines in good condition thus helping the body produce its own supply of B12.
    As long as we continue to rely on pharmaceutical drugs and supplements for good health is as long as we will deny centuries of right living by looking around us at medicinal foods and plants and acknowledging the fundamental philosophy that our body is ALWAYS trying to do it’s best for us.
    Don’t punish the body for symptoms; they are a cry for help if we are willing to listen and learn.

    An excellent in depth article re. B12 is:

    THE VITAMIN B12 ISSUE
    by Dr Gina Shaw, D.Sc, M.A., Dip NH, AIYS (Dip. Irid.)

    Also a very comprehensive guide to good nutrition and oriental traditions (the energy of the Five elements) is:

    Healing With Wholefoods
    by Paul Pitchford

  14. natural vegan on August 18, 2019 at 1:00 pm

    So basically eat fortified junk food.. or make yourself useful on this earth and grow your own organic fruit and obtain your b12 like a fruit bat does.. this is why cities and pollution just cant work out.. you cant wash the heavy metals and road dust off your fruit and get b12 at the same time.. now theres the real issue imo.. thoughts??

  15. dibble on August 27, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    What is I guess a “myth” is that vegans don’t get any from what they consume… but that doesn’t seem to be what you’re supporting here and you could be sending novices down the path of not taking b12 into consideration when they do go vegan.

  16. Thomas on September 1, 2019 at 5:50 pm

    This article shows that the body needs B12 and it it can only be obtained naturally through animal products. However, It can be obtained unnaturally through supplements. There is no such thing as “naturally fortified”. Fortified means added afterwards like cereals and how milk has omega 3 added to it. If an essential vitamin cannot be obtained naturally and needs to be supplemented, then humans are not supposed to be vegans. Without science, vegan cannot survive, thus veganism is unnatural.

    • donny on September 9, 2019 at 2:50 pm

      unfortunately no side (plant-based vs. meat-based) is telling us the whole truth because they both have other interests they want to establish without speaking openly and honest about it (even if this interests are maybe good)

  17. Thanh Ngan Tran on September 20, 2019 at 7:40 am

    Vitamin B12 is very important for people. It can help you have a good health and boost many essential nutrient for your body.

  18. Ngan Tran on October 31, 2019 at 3:05 am

    Actually, if you want to have a good health, you need to boost full of essential vitamins. It’s very important for people. When you have a good body, you can do everything you want.

  19. Tracy L Rowe on November 22, 2019 at 10:11 pm

    Vitamin B12 is only bioavailable to humans in meat and meat products. NOTHING ELSE. The b12 in any kind of plant source is a b12 analogue, meaning it is inactive. It is dangerous to promote this information, considering how serious a b12 deficiency is. As someone who suffers from a serious b12 deficiency and who almost died, I CANNOT understand why it is so difficult to simply take a supplement!

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