B12 and the Vegan Diet

Focus on a nutrient…broccoliweb

Can you get it from mushrooms? Seaweed? I heard apricots contained it too! The magical B12 fairy seems to sprinkle it around in the funniest of places. I don’t rely on any of these foods for B12, I get mine from fortified soya milk, Marmite, Engevita Nutritional Yeast Flakes, fortified cereal and the occasional supplement.

The association of vitamin B12 with animal foods such as fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk and dairy products has helped create the myth that this vitamin can only be obtained from these foods and that a vegetarian or vegan diet provides a substandard amount. Consequently B12 has become a contentious issue. Concerns that vegetarians, and especially vegans, are at risk of B12 deficiency prevail even though the evidence suggests the meat-eating elderly are by far the group most likely to be deficient in B12. Furthermore, research suggests that the B12 present in meat, poultry and fish is not as easily absorbed as the B12 present in fortified vegetarian foods. The National Academy of Sciences in the US advise that adults aged 50 and over obtain most of their B12 from supplements of fortified foods, raising the question that maybe younger adults should consider using these sources as well. As the senior researcher and writer for Viva!Health I have researched and written much about B12 over the last decade. Here is a summary of the key points:

  • B12 is also known as cobalamin.
  • B12 helps make fatty acids, DNA, red blood cells and helps the nervous system work.
  • The UK government suggest an RNI of one-and-a-half micrograms of B12 per day.
  • B12 is made by microorganisms in the soil and water and to some extent bacteria in the gut – although production in the gut occurs in a different area to where absorption takes place.
  • B12 is consumed in the diet and taken to every cell in the body, plants generally do not contain B12.
  • Plant-eating primates such as the gorilla (and our human ancestors and many people in developing countries) obtain a plentiful supply of B12 from their consumption of plants due to the presence of bacterial contamination of their plant foods and water.
  • B12 is in red meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products; and in fortified foods: veggie burger mixes, yeast extracts, margarines, breakfast cereals and soya milks; or supplements.
  • Fermented soya foods and seaweeds generally do not provide a reliable source of B12 (with the possible exception of the seaweed nori – this is a recent finding and has yet to be confirmed by more substantive evidence).
  • B12 from meat is bound to animal protein and so is more difficult to absorb than in its natural unbound form produced by bacteria.
  • B12 deficiency can lead to serious health problems especially in the very young.
  • B12 deficiency tends to increase with age; up to 40 per cent of the UK’s meat eating elderly population suffers from low B12 due to a reduction in their ability to absorb this vitamin.
  • Nutritional deficiency of B12 is rare among healthy adults in industrialised countries.
  • A lack of B12, B6 and/or folate can lead to raised homocysteine levels which have been linked to heart disease and stroke; this can affect meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans.
  • B12 deficiency may be treated by a course of injections.
  • B12 intakes among vegans are thought to be increasing, reflecting the increase in the number of B12-fortified products available (and a raised awareness). This will undoubtedly confer an advantage on vegans in later life who are used to ensuring B12 is present in their diet.
  • You can obtain three micrograms of B12 per day by consuming a wide range of fortified foods such as veggie burger and sausage mixes, yeast extracts, vegetables stocks, margarines, breakfast cereals and soya milks.
  • A well-planned and varied vegetarian or vegan diet including B12-fortified plant-based foods not only meets our requirements but provides a healthier and safer source of vitamin B12.
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