Why Everyone (Not Just Vegans) Should Be Taking Vitamin B12
By Dani Taylor
One of the nutrients we hear about time and time again when speaking of veganism, is vitamin B12. We all agree, vegans should be taking a vitamin B12 supplement. But are they the only ones who should be?
For health, vitamin B12 (also known as cobalamin) is completely essential. It gives you energy and vitality, helps to make DNA, and keeps the body’s nerves and blood cells healthy.
What you may not know is that bacteria found in the soil, as well as in the guts of animals and humans, produce B12 naturally. If humans produce their own B12, why do we need to take a supplement?
B12 produced is too far down our digestive tract to be absorbed by our body, but rather is excreted in our feces.
In order for soil to produce B12, it needs to contain the mineral cobalt. Hundreds of years ago, farming practices were less sterile than they are now, and vegetables would have bits of B12 containing dirt still on them. Humans would eat those vegetables and consume enough B12 to stay healthy. Humans would also drink what we would now consider to be dirty water that also had remnants of soil and bacteria in it that would give us B12. Today, the soil is so over-farmed, and the vegetables produced are cleaned much better, there is no more B12 left to be consumed by eating plants alone. (Not to mention the soil today is ridden with things we would NOT want to eat such as e.coli and salmonella.) But vegans are not the only people who survive on plants alone! No! Farmed animals, mainly cows, chickens and pigs largely eat plant based diets, which means they also are no longer consuming the B12 rich food either. So, if left to their own devices, most farm animals would be B12 deficient as well.
And yet they are not. Why is that? Because farm animals are fed B12 (and many other) supplements. Yes, the farmed animals take vitamins. These artificial conditions actually make the “veganism is unnatural” arguments seem a bit ironic, don’t you think? In fact, the majority of all B12 supplements manufactured in the world are actually given to farmed animals, not humans.
So folks who then consume the meat from these animals are really just receiving the B12 supplements that were fed to the animals via their meat. Why not cut out the middle-man, or animal in this case, and just take the supplement?
Because of the fact that meat-eaters are consuming second hand B12, and vegans are consuming none at all via their food, one would logically assume that vegans would have significantly higher rates of Vitamin B12 deficiencies. But this actually isn’t the case.
The Framingham Offspring Study in 2000 found that 39% of the average population is low (ranging in deficient to “low”) in B12. The study showed no statistically significant difference between old people and young people. More interestingly, there were no statistically significant differences in B12 between people who consumed meat and people who didn’t. Unsurprisingly, the folks with the highest B12 blood levels were those who supplemented with it and also ate B12 fortified foods.
Because vitamin B12 absorption requires a healthy and functioning stomach, pancreas, small bowel and enough IF (Intrinsic Factor), anyone, regardless of what they do or do not eat, can be at risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency. A B12 deficiency, if left untreated, can cause irreversible brain damage, or worse.
So how does a person make sure that they are getting sufficient B12 in their diet to stay healthy? I would recommend a two fold approach of eating B12 fortified foods and also taking an actual B12 supplement. When it comes to B12, it’s better to err on the side of too much rather than too little as it is a water soluble vitamin, which means you will just urinate out any excess.
Some foods that are fortified with Vitamin B12 and tend to be vegan are breakfast cereals, breads, nutritional yeast, non-dairy milks such as soy, almond and cashew, tofu is often B12 fortified, and some veggie burgers. Just always be sure to check the label to make sure it is vegan and that you’re happy with the ingredient lists, but when you have the option, reach for the fortified food.
As for supplementation, it used to be that the only vegan version of Vitamin B12 was cyanocobalamin. All of the methylcobalamin supplements came from animals. The problem with this was that methylcobalamin is absorbed so much more efficiently, that vegans got the short end of the stick. Luckily, in recent years, they have found a way to synthesize methylcobalamin in a vegan way and we have access to it! There are now so many vegan B12 supplements on the market now. We recommend finding a methylcobalamin one that you like, as it is more readily absorbed. There are pills, sprays, and for people who DO have trouble absorbing B12, you can even get injections from your doctor. You will often find that these supplements list a very high amount of the vitamin, some with nearly 1000% of the RDA, which is only 3mcg per day. This is because we are not particularly efficient at absorbing B12. By taking loads at once, the goal is that you absorb enough.
In general, B12 is a very important vitamin, not one to be overlooked by any means. A deficiency can often take years to develop as we can store it in our livers for 3-7 years, so even if you haven’t supplemented for years and you’re fine now, it doesn’t mean you will be down the line. In an upcoming article, we will go over the symptoms and consequences of a B12 deficiency, but suffice it to say, it is life threatening. Do not risk this incredibly dangerous deficiency, take the supplement and stay healthy -- vegan or not.