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Vitamin B12: How Do Vegans Get It?

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Vitamin B12 Sources For Vegans

If you're a meat eater, you have it easy. Your options of vitamin B12 sources in food come down drastically if you turn down animal products. Needless to say, vegans have the least number of options. The outer skin of white button mushroom and Korean purple laver or nori have been found to carry traces of vitamin B12. There are also options in fortified foods like cereals, rice, malt and cocoa-based milk for the B12 fix.

If you are vegan or planning to become one, chances are that you’ve been warned of vitamin B12 deficiency. It’s scarily prevalent in people who shun any form of animal food. With veganism catching on as a trend, there are more cases being reported of the deficiency of this crucial vitamin.

Here are some statistics to prove it. According to the United States Department Of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, nearly two-fifths of the American population was found to have low or near-deficient levels of B12.1 Dietary deficiency of B12 from vegetarianism has been proven to be a severe problem in countries like India, Mexico, some parts of Central and South America and Africa.2

Despite the vegan population coming forward with suggestions of alternatives to get B12, statistics clearly indicate that a large percentage of the vegetarian and vegan population is deficient in this vitamin.3 A study published in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition found that vegans had a high concentration of the amino acid homocysteinemia from a deficiency in B12 in their bodies, almost double that of vegetarians and four times that of omnivores.4 Elevated homocysteinemia is associated with deadly diseases like cardiovascular ailments, stroke and even certain kinds of cancer.

Statistics indicate that a large percentage of the vegetarian population is deficient in vitamin B12

Read Here: What is vitamin B12 and what does its deficiency do to your body.

Meat Eaters Have It Easy

By now, you know that vitamin B12 is the only vitamin that cannot be obtained from plant sources or sunlight. This is because plants do not need B12 and they do not store it in their bodies. Vitamin B12 is commonly found in animal food like liver, clams, oysters, mussels, milk, eggs, fish, crab, lobster, beef, lamb and pork. This vitamin contains a trace element, in this case, cobalt, which is why it is called cobalamin. And, cobalamin is produced only in the gut of animals. If the plants don’t produce them, where do herbivorous animals get it from? According to a fact sheet published on Vegan Health, a research-backed nutrition recommendation portal, certain herbivorous animals like hares, rabbits and some rodents get their B12 fix from nature or their own body wastes.5 Ruminants or animals like cows, bison, buffaloes, goats, antelopes, sheep, deer and giraffe have gut bacteria that produce B12 in their bodies. Primates, who are considered to be predominantly vegetarian and closest to humans, get it through eggs, insects and soil. Herbivores like horses, zebras, rabbits, elephants, hares get the required amount of this vitamin either through bacteria in their gut, through the soil or by eating their own fecal pellets.

Vitamin B12 is commonly found in animal food like liver, clams, oysters, mussels, milk, eggs, fish, crab, lobster, beef, lamb and pork

If you are a vegetarian and not a vegan (vegetarians eat dairy products while vegans shun any form of animal products including honey), you have more options in vitamin B12 sources. Read here: Non-meat sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians

Vitamin B12 Sources For Vegans

Some Plants Carry Traces Of It

Many studies have been conducted and are still going on about good vitamin B12 sources for vegans. Recent research has found traces of vitamin B12 in the outer skin of white button mushrooms6 and Korean purple laver (commonly called nori).7 Until now, these are the only two non-animal food items, which research says, contains absorbable levels of vitamin B12.

Traces of vitamin B12 are found in the outer skin of white button mushrooms and Korean purple laver or nori

Although alternative sources like seaweed, fermented soy products like tempeh and miso, and yeast have been identified, the debate is still on if they are reliable sources of this vitamin. This is because there are active and inactive forms of this vitamin in foods and the inactive form can actually interfere with vitamin B12 absorption in the body. These vegetarian sources were found to be lacking in active vitamin B12.8

Fortified Foods, Supplements As Last Resort

If you cannot include the above-mentioned food items in your diet due to taste preferences, allergies or availability issues, the only resort is to fall back on fortified food or B12 supplements.

Breakfast Cereals:

According to the National Institute of Health, fortified breakfast cereals are the most readily available source of vitamin B12 for vegetarians, containing as much as 6 micrograms of vitamin B12 per serving.9 Studies have proven that consumption of fortified cereal for breakfast or supper can increase the levels of vitamins B12, B1, B6, folate and iron.10

Fortified Rice:

Fortified rice is another good source of micronutrients that vegetarians can turn to for their B12 requirements. A study published in the Annals of The New York Academy Of Sciences found that there was little or no loss of B12 in fortified rice irrespective of the cooking method employed.11 This finding was seconded by another study in the Journal Of Nutrition12 which found that fortified rice improved the B-12 levels in Indian school children.

Malt and cocoa-based milk:

A study published in Clinical Nutrition recommends the use of fortified malt and cocoa-based milk (nut milk, in this case) to increase body weight, vitamin B12, red cell folate and vitamin B2 in children.13 In the case of infants of vegan or vegetarian mothers, the first six months is not a cause of concern as babies will get their B12 fix from breastmilk alone.14 Once breastfeeding is stopped, studies suggest that the nutrient gap can be filled with soymilk fortified with calcium and B12.

Supplements:

The other way to obtain B12 for vegans is by having supplements. As the body can only absorb a limited amount of B12 at a given point of time, it is advised to take small doses more often. A study found that small doses of vitamin B12 in the range of 0.1–0.5 µg resulted in absorption ranging between 52 percent and 97 percent; doses of 1 µg and 5 µg resulted in mean absorption of 56 percent and 28 percent, respectively, while higher doses had even lower absorption, with 10 µg and 50 µg doses resulting in 16 percent and 3 percent, respectively, being absorbed.15 As these supplements are not made of animal products, it can be safely included in a vegan diet.

Vitamin B12 is generally considered safe and non toxic, but seek medical help if you have abnormal level of red blood cells in the body, are pregnant or are on other medications. This vitamin can be harmful with other health conditions like Leber’s disease. The supplement has been found to cause serious damage to optic nerve in people with Leber’s disease16 and acne.17

So try to work with your diet, add in fortified food and supplements for your B12 requirement and stay healthy.

References   [ + ]

1.McBride, Judy. “B12 deficiency may be more widespread than thought.” United States Department of Agriculture (2000).
2.Stabler, Sally P., and Robert H. Allen. “Vitamin B12 deficiency as a worldwide problem.” Annu. Rev. Nutr. 24 (2004): 299-326.
3.Bissoli, L., V. Di Francesco, A. Ballarin, R. Mandragona, R. Trespidi, G. Brocco, B. Caruso, O. Bosello, and M. Zamboni. “Effect of vegetarian diet on homocysteine levels.” Annals of nutrition and metabolism 46, no. 2 (2002): 73-79.
4.Vitamin B-12 status, particularly holotranscobalamin II and methylmalonic acid concentrations, and hyperhomocysteinemia in vegetarians. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. July 2003.
5.B12 and Non-Human Animals. Vegan health.
6.Koyyalamudi, Sundar Rao, Sang-Chul Jeong, Kai Yip Cho, and Gerald Pang. “Vitamin B12 is the active corrinoid produced in cultivated white button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus).” Journal of agricultural and food chemistry57, no. 14 (2009): 6327-6333.
7.Miyamoto, Emi, Yukinori Yabuta, Chung Shil Kwak, Toshiki Enomoto, and Fumio Watanabe. “Characterization of vitamin B12 compounds from Korean purple laver (Porphyra sp.) products.” Journal of agricultural and food chemistry 57, no. 7 (2009): 2793-2796.
8.Reed Mangels. Vitamin B12 in the Vegan Diet. The Vegeterian Resource Group.
9. Vitamin B12- Fact Sheet. NIH.
10.Powers, Hilary J., Mark Stephens, Jean Russell, and Marilyn H. Hill. “Fortified breakfast cereal consumed daily for 12 wk leads to a significant improvement in micronutrient intake and micronutrient status in adolescent girls: a randomised controlled trial.” Nutrition Journal 15, no. 1 (2016): 69.
11.Wieringa, Frank T., Arnaud Laillou, Christophe Guyondet, Vincent Jallier, Regina Moench‐Pfanner, and Jacques Berger. “Stability and retention of micronutrients in fortified rice prepared using different cooking methods.”Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1324, no. 1 (2014): 40-47.
12.Thankachan, Prashanth, Jee Hyun Rah, Tinku Thomas, Sumithra Selvam, Vani Amalrajan, Krishnamachari Srinivasan, Georg Steiger, and Anura V. Kurpad. “Multiple micronutrient-fortified rice affects physical performance and plasma vitamin B-12 and homocysteine concentrations of Indian school children.” The Journal of nutrition 142, no. 5 (2012): 846-852.
13.Kuriyan, Rebecca, Prashanth Thankachan, Sumithra Selvam, Maria Pauline, K. Srinivasan, Shilpa Kamath-Jha, Sophie Vinoy, Situn Misra, Yvonne Finnegan, and Anura V. Kurpad. “The effects of regular consumption of a multiple micronutrient fortified milk beverage on the micronutrient status of school children and on their mental and physical performance.” Clinical Nutrition 35, no. 1 (2016): 190-198.
14.Vegan Infants & Toddlers. Vegan Health.
15.Herbert, Victor. “Recommended dietary intakes (RDI) of vitamin B-12 in humans.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 45, no. 4 (1987): 671-678.
16.Vitamin B12. University Of Maryland Medical Center.
17.Arora, Megha K., Shashi Seth, and Surabhi Dayal. “Homocysteine, folic acid and vitamin B12 levels in females with severe acne vulgaris.” Clinical chemistry and laboratory medicine 50, no. 11 (2012): 2061-2063.
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.