Do vegans need b12 vitamins or supplements?

Do Vegans Need B12 Vitamins or Supplements?

The quick and dirty:
Vegans need B12, it’s not available in plant-based foods and you should buy a high-quality vegan supplement.

You’ve ditched the meat, cut out the dairy and you’re feeling pretty damn good about your new vegan lifestyle. Then, some friend or a family member has Googled “why veganism is bad” and starts telling you about B12 deficiency, either out of genuine concern (aww) or they just want to burst your bubble (booo). In this article, we’re going to discuss exactly what is B12 and what role it plays in the body. We’re also going to ask whether vegans need B12 vitamins. Straight up, the answer is yes, vegans need to supplement B12 but it’s important to understand why, so read on.

What is B12?

B12 is the most complex vitamin that our body needs.  It’s technically called cobalamin, due to it containing the element cobalt, and is prevalent in every single cell in your body. 

B12 is vital to energy production, DNA formation, the forming of red blood cells, and a healthy nervous system[1]

Certain types of bacteria create B12 in the colons of humans and other animals. The problem, however, is that we can’t make use of the B12 we produce ourselves because the colon is last in the digestive chain. Being after the small-intestine (where nutrients are absorbed) means any B12 in the colon is effectively wasted.

The essential version of B12 was discovered by Dr. Mary Shorb in 1947, alongside the efforts of other scientists. Shorb wanted to discover the reason animal liver extracts alleviated the symptoms of pernicious anemia. Shorb and her colleagues proceeded to identify the exact molecule responsible, which later became known as B12.

Signs You Are Low in B12

Persistent deficiency in B12 can lead to long-term neural damage and anemia. Signs you are low in B12 include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Dizziness and feeling faint
  • Lack of energy
  • A red, aggravated tongue
  • Slight yellowing of your skin

What foods are high in B12?

Animal protein is rich in B12. This is, of course, not a vegan option.

To absorb this kind of non-vegan B12, the body relies on the hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes in our stomachs to break off the B12 from the animal protein. This is not a 100% efficient process as you can imagine. Vegan B12, however, is not bound to a protein. Our bodies, therefore, absorb vegan B12 much better because it requires less digestion.

We call this type of B12 synthetic or Fortified B12. A lot of the foods you already buy will be fortified with this type of B12. It is produced by a process called microbial fermentation[2] which is a bacterial byproduct. We can find fortified B12 everywhere, including soy milk, cereals, tofu products, and nutritional yeast.

Why do vegans need B12 vitamins?

Veganism and B12 deficiency is something the vegan and vegetarian community should take seriously.  Studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans do indeed show deficiencies in B12[3] and are at risk of serious future health complications.

The problem for vegans is that B12 is not found in plant-based foods. There are no good vegan sources of B12.  Our ancestors would have gotten their B12 from animal tissue but also from plants and water-sources that had not been totally cleaned of the soil and contaminants rich in B12. Because B12 isn’t the easiest vitamin for the body to absorb, the little we get from fortified vegan foods may not be enough.

It is the advice of the vegan society, therefore, that vegans should take an easily absorbed B12 supplement in order to ensure they are getting an adequate amount of B12.

How much B12 do vegans need?

You can’t take too much B12.  The risk of toxicity from B12 is almost non-existent so the best answer to the question “how much B12 should I take” is “as much as you can”.

More specifically, however, the average person over the age of 14 should consume 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of B12 a day.

The problem is that we only absorb around 56% of the B12 we consume.  So, for example, take a bowl of B12 fortified cereal that contains roughly 0.6 mcg of B12. We are absorbing only around 0.3 mcg of B12, at best, because of malabsorption and other compounding factors with diet and digestion.

We could proceed to consume 8 bowls of cereal a day, or we could simply take a quality vegan B12 vitamin which can contain up to 1000 mcg of easily absorbable B12.

How often should vegans take B12

Most vegan B12 supplements recommend taking a single lozenge per day.  Because you can’t do yourself any harm by taking too much B12, and because B12 is not a particularly expensive supplement, it is, therefore, advisable to take at least one vitamin a day.