Smart vegans make sure to supplement with this one essential vital nutrient:
A vitamin B12 supplement.
So what's the deal with nutrient...
...and is it really necessary or can you not meet needs by eating a wide variety of plant foods?
(Hint: YES, supplementation is absolutely necessary and if you're wondering what kind of supplement you should get, this article will also provide the best options for vitamin B12 products).
What is Vitamin B12 (& Why is It So Important?)
Intake of vitamin B12 isn't only something vegans should keep an eye on.
Just about everybody, regardless if they adhere to a vegan or an omnivorous diet, should make sure their getting enough.
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin required for many vital functions in the body such as production of healthy red blood cells, DNA, proper neurological function among other things.
You only need 2.4 microgram of vitamin B12 per day - that's approximately three millionth of a gram.
Quite small quantities indeed, but that doesn't make it any less important. A B12 deficiency can lead to a host of nasty symptoms and in a worst case scenario anemia and permanent damage to the nervous system.
In a 44 year old woman a B12 deficiency manifested itself as:
"three weeks history of uncoordinated speech, aggressiveness, reduced sleep, wandering away from her home, poor concentration and visual hallucinations mainly worsening at night as well as severe anemia. B12 supplementation resolved all symptoms."
Yeah, that's pretty bad.
Unless you're interested in visual hallucinations and the other symptoms... I'd say it's a pretty damn good idea ensuring an adequate B12 intake.
Where Do You Get Vitamin B12 From?
Animals, plants, and fungi all lack the capacity to produce this nutrient.
So... where are we supposed to get our B12 from then?
And in terms of food sources of B12, unfortunately the only option are animal products such as meat, eggs and milk.
That might sound a bit strange as vitamin B12 is made by microorganisms. Here's how this nutrient ends up in animal products:
1. Grazing animals eat plants with soil still adhering to the roots.
2. This soil contains both vitamin B12 and the bacteria that produces said vitamin.
3. Ruminant animals have digestive tracts with a special gut flora that can synthesize and absorb B12.
4. Hence vitamin B12 ends up accumulating in animal tissue, milk and eggs.
5. Humans can then choose to consume these animal products and get their B12
In the human body the same type of bacteria that synthesized B12 is actually active in the colon, although it's too far away from the small intestine to be absorbed and utilized.
Are There Any Vegan Sources of B12?
Before getting harvested many plants have an intimate relationship with both soil and water.
So it's not that far-fetched thinking there should be some vegan plant sources of vitamin B12. Perhaps the roots absorbed some of it or there's still some attached to the plant.
Now there's one big but here...
Often the vitamin B12 present in these plant foods isn't really B12 (say whaat!)
You see, there are active forms of B12 which the body can readily absorb and utilize, and then there are what is known as B12 analogues.
These B12 analogues, or pseudovitamin B12, might look like the real deal but they are either less potent, completely inactive and may even interfere with absorption of active B12.
Basically, in most of the cases vitamin B12 in plant foods is not very well used by the body.
Now one outlier is a study where seventeen B12 deficient vegans and vegetarians supplemented 9 grams of chlorella for 60 days... and after these 2 months there was a significant positive effect on B12 status!
It does seem like it's within the realm of possibilities that some plants such chlorella, or at least some batches, can provide the bioavailable form of vitamin B12.
Though until we have several more studies confirming that a certain plant food consistently and robustly improves B12 status, I definitely wouldn't risk relying on it for B12.
(Moreover, unless you check your chlorella supplement in a lab for B12, there's no guarantee that it will do anything at all. Different batches may vary in their B12 content from zero to several hundred microgram of B12 per 100 g)
Why Vegans Are at Risk of Deficiency
Until a bioavailable plant source of B12 is discovered with plenty of scientific data supporting it's efficacy in improving B12 status, we will have to look elsewhere to meet needs for this nutrient.
One study that measured B12 status in 232 vegans found that half of them were categorized as deficient - not good.
As we definitely don't want to eat animal products, nor have to rely on drinking fecal matter, that leaves us with only one reasonable option:
The body can actually store up to several years worth of B12 in the liver.
Even if you're not consuming any animal products or supplementing your blood levels might look absolutely fine after months.
But given time this storage will run dry (please don't let them run dry)
But If You Have to Supplement B12, Doesn't That Make a Vegan Diet 'Unnatural'?
First of all:
As we've established B12 is not produced by animals, but by bacterial fermentation.
Animals just have the capacity to absorb and accumulate B12 in their flesh and secretions.
Also the B12 found in supplements is produced by the exact same bacterial activity as in the stomach of a ruminant or in soil - there's literally no difference.
Back in the day, not the 70's but tens of thousands years ago, we lived in a more unhygienic environment compared to today's modern society.
If you lived 150.000 years ago you were probably drinking dirty water, eating unwashed fruits and veggies, unintentionally eating your own and others feces - all of which contribute to meeting B12 needs.
Considering that our requirements are microscopic, only a few micrograms per day, it makes sense that this would supply the tiny amount that's required.
And even if it was the case that our ancestors relied on meat for B12 tens of thousands years ago, exactly what relevance does that have for us right now?
It's also practiced to give sheep and cattle supplemental B12 in order for them to reach optimal levels, which means meat-eaters are indirectly supplementing B12 by eating animal products.
Wouldn't it make a lot more sense to get B12 directly from a supplement, instead of it having to pass all the way through a cow or pig or sheep that then has to die?
How Do I Supplement Vitamin B12?
If I haven't made my point across already:
Vegans need to supplement B12.
It is the only consistently reliable way of ensuring adequate B12 status.
As noted above, the RDA by the Food and Nutrition Board for vitamin B12 is 2.4 microgram per day.
However taking 2.4 micrograms every day is just not very practical or realistic. A better way of making sure you get enough is to take a larger dose, one pill of 500-1000 mcg B12, every few days.
"What's the reason for the overkill numbers? I mean 1000 mcg is quite a lot more than 2,4 mcg."
The thing is that our body's ability to absorb and utilize B12 is limited by an enzyme called intrinsic factor... and 500 mcg only translates into about 10 mcg being absorbed.
If you're severely lacking in the intrinsic factor department, a higher intake will ensure you're still absorbing enough.
In contrast fat-soluble vitamin such as vitamin D, B12 is water-soluble so any excess will leave the body with the urine. Meaning there's no need to worry about any negative effects of too much B12.
Which Form is Best: Cyanocobalamin or Methylcobalamin?
There are mainly two different forms of B12 avaiable on the market:
Cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin.
Cyanocobalamin is bound to a cyanide molecule... and methylcobalamin is bound to methyl group of carbon and hydrogen.
The most common form found in supplements is cyanocobalamin.
However it's been proposed that methylcobalamin is the superior alternative due to certain factors.
The theory is that the body absorbs vitamin B12 as cobalamin, but it must then further converted to a coenzyme form, methylcobalamin, to become metabolically active.
B12 in the form of methylcobalamine is bioidentical to the active form found in the body - basically making it more "body-ready" than other forms of B12.
Furthermore, some concerns have been raised in regards to exposing the body to cyanide by using cyanocobalamin.
However this is not something you should worry about: many different foods you eat on a daily basis, such as flax seeds, contain small amounts of natural cyanide and the body is capable of dealing with this.
Now what does the research say on the subject?
One paper from 2015 examined the various forms of vitamin B12 and concluded that:
There was no benefit of using methylcobalamin over cyanocobalamin in terms of bioavailability, biochemical effects, or clinical efficacy.
Bottomline is that there doesn't seem to matter much which form of B12 you choose, both work rather well. To ensure optimal uptake you could alternate between the different forms (probably overkill).
It also doesn't seem to matter whether you go with a sublingual, meaning dissolved under the tongue, or normal pill that you swallow.
Product recommendations for Vegan Vitamin B12
My go-to recommendation for a B12 supplement would be something simple, cheap and effective (and of course 100% vegan without any gelatin or other animal products) such as:
Another great option is VeganSafe B-12
I hope this article was helpful and that you by now should be on your way to hopping aboard the B12 supplement train! Cho cho!
Another supplement you should highly consider is a vegan omega-3 supplement.