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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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9 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

  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.

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