If you adhere to a vegan or plant-based diet chances are you've fielded a question that sounds a little like... 'But if you're a vegan, how do you get enough B12?'.
While it's true that vitamin B12 deficiency can be a health risk, there are some common misconceptions when it comes to B12 when following a vegan diet. We're here to demystify and clarify what you need to know about it, including a list of the best vegan food sources of B12.
What is B12 and why is it so important?
Vitamin B12 is an essential micronutrient that plays an important role in maintaining the body’s nerve and blood cells. It is also known as cobalamin as it is a biochemical compound of cobalt. It helps to make DNA, the genetic material found in all cells, and it prevents a severe type of anemia known as megaloblastic anemia.
Your liver can store vitamin B12 for up to five years, so symptoms of B12 deficiency tend to come on slowly as your levels become depleted and often aren't noticed right away. Common early symptoms are things such as weakness, fatigue and light-headedness. If B12 deficiency continues for longer periods of time, the risk of long-term nerve damage increases and more severe symptoms can manifest, such as memory loss, depression, and numbness in your hands and feet.
You can find a detailed list of symptoms here
Who can be deficient in B12?
While vegans receive most of the concern about B12 levels, the general population should pay a bit more attention to their vitamin B12 intake too. Older people, pregnant women, vegetarians and those with gastrointestinal disorders or pernicious anemia are all at risk of low levels of B12.
Why is vitamin B12 hard to get on a vegan diet?
Simply put, vitamin B12 is synthesized by anaerobic bacteria in our gut and it is important to remember that neither plants nor animals (including humans) have the ability to synthesize B12 without the help of bacteria. For bacteria to synthesize B12, diet needs to be rich in traces of cobalt, usually found in soil.
Herbivore animals digestive systems have evolved to breakdown the plant food they eat in their foregut. After microbial fermentation, synthesized vitamin B12 is absorbed through their small intestines. Compared to humans, where bacteria in the colon synthesize B12 which cannot be absorbed (nutrient absorption only happens in our small intestine) and is excreted.
Traditionally, animal products were sources of vitamin B12 including meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products. But with the industrialization of animal agriculture and factory-farming, now animals get B12 supplement in their feed along with antibiotics.
For vegans & vegetarians, plant-based foods are a source for vitamin B12. The bacteria was once far more prevalent in plant foods, however, due to commercialized agricultural practices, declining soil quality (cobalt deficiency) and improved hygiene practices, sanitation and cleaning, plant foods are no longer reliable sources. Some mushrooms and seaweed still contain B12, however, in order to get the recommended intake (2.4 micrograms per day for an average adult but higher amounts for pregnant & breastfeeding women and elderly), many vegans choose to add food options that are higher in B12 to their diet or simply take a vitamin B12 supplement (commonly containing methylcobalamin or cyanocobalamin).
Vegan foods that are high in vitamin B12
Fortified Nutritional yeast
There are two types of nutritional yeast: unfortified and fortified. Unfortified yeast contains natural B vitamins that the yeast cells produce as they grow but yeast cannot produce B12. Fortified nutritional yeast has synthetic B vitamins (including B12, commonly cyanocobalamin) added to it.
Nutritional yeast is the unsung, delicious hero of vegan foods. Nutritional yeast is the shorter (and much easier to pronounce) name for the type of yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It gets its factual and well-earned name, nutritional yeast, due to good source of protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants it contains. It's similar to the type of yeast that's used in bread and brewing beer, and its slightly cheesy taste makes it a great addition to any vegan meals. Commonly found at wholefood stores and speciality supermarkets.
Fortified non-dairy milk
Nowadays the world is spoilt for choice when it comes to non-dairy milks. Whether you ask your barista for almond, coconut, soy, oat or cashew milk in your latte, it's very likely to be fortified with B vitamins. Fortified non-dairy milks are great alternatives to traditional milk options and are an easy way to add more vitamin B12 to your diet.
Use it as the base of a smoothie, in your tea or coffee, poured over cereal, or even just as a big, dairy-free glass of milk.
If you're a breakfast-for-dinner kind of person then fortified cereals are your dream come true. A lot of them are fortified with B vitamins. So, check the label of your favourite cereal and pour yourself a healthy serving of B12 for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Pair it with some fortified non-dairy milk and you have a food option that contains plenty of vitamin B12 to keep you healthy and feeling your best.
As a bonus, many of the popular fortified cereal brands also contain other nutrients that are beneficial. Meaning you might get your daily servings of iron, calcium, and vitamin D too.
Where to from here?
To your nearest speciality supermarket or wholefoods store! Now that you know more about the importance of vitamin B12 and how to find vegan sources of it, it’s time to start making it a priority in your diet. There are lots of vitamin B12 fortified foods that you can add to your meals on a regular basis, as well as simply get supplemental sources of vitamin B12. Please remember it is always best to consult your medical practitioner before taking any supplements.