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)
- 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.
“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.