I’ve led this article with a picture of a snarky kitty. Regular readers of this page may have become accustomed to a fair to moderate level of snippy prose when talking about some of the flat out nonsense surrounding the perception of vegans as being malnourished skeletons crying about animals. Today we’re going to try to change tack a little.
Vitamin B12 is a hot issue when people first turn to the vegan lifestyle, and with good reason.
For example, my mum immediately went out and bought three packs of vitamin B12 supplements for me as soon as I told her, and very welcome a gift it was.
At the time, I only had a vague idea of what B12 was, or what it was used by our bodies for.
Unfortunately, this ignorance is not only prevalent in my own head, but amongst people who are otherwise very well informed.
Spirulina, for example, has been found in multiple studies to be a poor source of B12, as “nori, spirulina, and kombu either contained no active B12 or they contained enough inactive B12 analogue that it overcame the active B12, producing an overall negative effect.
Dagnelie et al. say, “It seems unjustified to advocate algae and other plant foods as a safe source of vitamin B12 because its bioavailability is questionable.”
Sorry, snarky vegan kitty. Looks like a good meme can’t compete with the scientific method. Let’s start from the beginning, and break down the B12 drama once and for all.
So What is Vitamin B12?
B12 is a key vitamin for mammals, affecting the formation of blood, amino and fatty acid metabolism and DNA regulation and synthesis, amongst others.
There’s plenty of information out there on what B12 is, so I’ll be brief and say that without B12 in our diets we humans can become anaemic.
This condition essentially causes the body to produce blood cells that are too large and which are inefficient at carrying oxygen and the other great jobs the little guys do to keep us alive.
The upshot of this is the B12 deficient human can experience extreme fatigue, low energy, headaches and even symptoms of dementia, amongst others.
Ok, now the scary bit is out of the way, where can we get B12?
Well, it is not produced by any large organism.
B12 is only produced by bacteria and archaea, and is only found in larger organisms through a process called bacterial symbiosis.
When humans eat meat, we obtain B12 from this process occurring within the animal; bacteria living in the soil the animal grazes on are consumed and then fermented in the rumen of grazing cattle.
As we humans are single stomached, we cannot ferment plant matter in this way and, for this reason, must seek another source of B12.
Like our progenitors, our relative the gorilla obtains B12 from bacteria present in the wild – living on plants, in the water they drink, and from the consumption of soil or their faecal matter. When primates are in captivity, they often develop B12 deficiency.
Studies show a high level of B12 deficiency amongst vegans, so clearly we are missing some information amongst the broader vegan community.
Apart from certain fermented traditional Asian foods, the presence of B12 in common plant based foods that make up the bulk of the vegan diet is low. Fortunately, we are aided by three factors.
Firstly, the amount of B12 we actually need to remain healthy is incredibly low: 2.4mcg for an adult, per day, is all that is required.
Secondly, the human liver is incredibly efficient at storing essential nutrients. If you are moving onto a vegan diet, you probably have enough B12 stored up in your body from your previous lifestyle to last half a decade- however, and I cannot stress this enough, this store will rapidly deplete if you become B12 deficient.
Thirdly, there are many different sources for the vegan to obtain B12 through common foods.
Sources of B12 for the Vegan Diet
Personally I had never heard of Meridian Yeast extract, so I had a look.
Considering that one slice of toast with this stuff on it provides nearly all my RDA of B12 (and I’m never, ever going to eat one slice of toast on its own) I think this might be a good thing indeed. Then again, slather on marmite over four slices and it’s the same story.
The reason is of course the fermentation of the yeast involved in production of these foodstuffs.
Other sources are fortified cereals and, like the soya milk in the list above, fortified milk alternatives.
I found a hemp milk fortified with B12 which doesn’t curdle in my coffee like soy milk and is pretty good with porridge.
It seems to me that with all the strange and scientifically unsubstantiated claims about eating algae for B12, we can get it in our diets with very minimal fuss.
Taking a B12 Supplement
As I said at the top of the article, my mum got me some B12 supplements at Christmas. Are they necessary? That’s a tricky one.
I feel like I would be fine without taking the supplement, but I’m going to keep going with them for now.
As it stands, I have enough for four months, they cost very little and although I now know the foods I can get B12, I’ll keep up with them for now.
I may reassess at the end of my supply; I see no reason why B12 supplements are essential for vegans provided we are obtaining B12 through our diet.
There is some concern for the vegan who does not pay attention to their nutritional requirements and inadvertently leaves themselves at risk of deficiency- as I was. Thanks mum!
The alert among you may have noticed that the daily RDA is measured in millionths of a gram.
Obviously, this is too small an amount to effectively produce in tablet form, so B12 usually comes in 500mcg form- which is enough for a week.
As stated earlier, the liver is efficient that way. There is also no known side effects from B12 that could be considered negative in terms of overdose.
The Meat Industry: Running Scared
The problem as I see it in the online vegan world is that the vast majority of attacks against veganism are ill-informed, and generally based around expressions of distaste about a system of belief that, at heart, the majority of people feel is actually pretty good. That’s my take on it; let me know in the comments if you think I’m wrong.
Sure, we all know the odd preachy vegan who does nothing for veganism by brow beating.
I would say the vast majority of conversations with omnivores I’ve had have been reasonable, but there are the exceptions who feel like a discussion on meat production is somehow a grand critique of them as a human being.
What doesn’t help clear discussion on vegan issues are articles like this which propagates dangerous information about B12 deficiency. The major problem I find with pro-meat articles when it comes to B12 is it promotes an idea that is then dredged up by people when discussing diet.
Ha! Veganism is unnatural, as you cannot get B12! Therefore, we humans are supposed to eat meat and therefore you are wrong to not eat meat and nothing you ever say has value.
Like we’ve discussed, the bacteria responsible for B12 production live in soil, in water, and yes, in human faecal matter. I’m not suggesting we start eating that though. Unless, like, that’s your thing. I’m not judging you. Still, that’s pretty gross, and you should stop.
Prior to the industrialised production of vegetables, a plant based diet (which the vast majority of people followed out of economic necessity if not choice) would incorporate soil and natural water containing bacteria.
Again, I’m not advocating we eat soil and drink rain water as a matter of course, particularly in the highly polluted world we live in.
The point is, for better or worse, we have a civilisation that washes vegetables in chlorine before they are put out in the supermarket, and it’s common for us to wash them again when we get home before cooking.
The bacteria that would have been present on the plants we eat have been scourged.
Sure, we can buy organic, fresh from the ground, and eat them unwashed, and I really have no opinion on that other than I’m choosing not to out of concern for increasing the presence of pollutants in my body more than necessary.
The Reality of Being Vegan & Getting Enough B12
It is clear that a vegan diet is deficient in B12 if we don’t pay attention to it. I’ll leave the last word to an actual doctor.
Vitamin B12 is made by neither animals nor plants, but by microbes. Thankfully, in our sanitized world there are safe,cheap, convenient sources. Vitamin B12 deficiency is common in vegans who don’t eat B12 fortified foods or take B12 supplements and can result in paralysis, myelopathy, psychosis, or atherosclerosis.
It is imperative that those eating plant-based diets include B12-fortified foods in their diet or take B12 supplements, especially pregnant or nursing women. Testing is not necessary, but supplementing is—it may even increase one’s lifespan.
The recommended intake is 4-7 micrograms a day (but to get that much in daily or weekly supplements you have to take much more). Raw food diets are no exception to this rule. Omnivores under age 50 are rarely deficient in vitamin B12 (though may be deficient in other nutrients).
. -Dr. Michael Greger M.D.
It’s not important whether you choose to up your intake of Meridian Yeast Extract or pop a B12 tab a couple of times per week, so long as you get it. Like with everything else on our vegan journey, it’s our responsibility to investigate, ask questions and provide answers.
There are a lot of nutty people out there saying some nutty things. By all means, if you find anything in this article that you find to be nutty, and can provide a solid argument as to why I am wrong, please let me know in the comments section and I will respond.