B12 for vegans

If you are switching from a standard American diet to a plant-based diet you will almost certainly be adopting a more nutritionally complete diet. And while you might be inspired to do some fine tuning – you can generally rest easy knowing that your nutritional needs are being met.

Except, that is, for vitamin B12.

What is B12

B12 which is also known as cobalamin, is a water soluble vitamin essential for the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, and for the formation of blood. It is the largest and most complicated vitamin and can only be produced by certain bacteria.

B12 from animal products

B12 is present in meat and milk because animals either consume food contaminated with B12 producing bacteria (they don’t worry about grabbing a mouth full of earth with their food) or they are ruminants (cows) that can get B12 from bacteria in their gut.

However even the levels of B12 in animal meat and milk can be a concern. B12 in milk is depleted by sterilization (pasteurization or ultra-heat treatment). Most farm animals are fed corn or grain grown on sterilized soil supplemented by inorganic NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) fertilizers – soil that is likely devoid of the B12 producing bacteria. And modern factory farmed animals are pumped full of antibiotics which may inhibit the B12 producing bacteria in their guts.

Some recent studies have shown that B12 deficiencies are actually more prevalent or as prevalent in people on a standard American diet. With maybe two thirds of the population flirting with B12 deficiencies.

Also the ability to absorb sufficient B12 from animal products seems to be an issue especially as people age – with a recommendation that everyone over the age of 50 should take supplemental B12.

B12 From Plants

It has been suggested that B12 can be found in a number of plant food sources such as tempeh, nutritional yeast, spirulina and seaweed. However no reliable plant source of B12 has yet been found.

B12 has been found in batches of mushrooms, seaweeds and fermented foods, but the presence of B12 in these foods is not considered reliable enough for you to bet your health on it.

Spirulina and other algae are of special interest because they contain a pseudo-B12 and these inactive B12 analogues do not work as B12 in humans. In fact its presence can act as a false positive in the immunoassay test used for testing B12. So if you consume spirulina and get a standard B12 blood test – the test could falsely show high levels of B12, but you might actually be deficient in B12.

Nutritional Yeast only contains B12 when it has been artificially fortified with B12 and not all nutritional yeast is fortified so you need to check the nutrition label.

Natural Diet Advocates

Some evangelists really like the idea that a vegan diet is a naturally healthy diet that shouldn’t require supplementation.

However the consensus of the vegan community and the medical evidence show that B12 deficiency is a real risk for vegans who do not supplement.

There maybe cases of vegan’s thriving without B12 supplementation, however these are in the minority and we don’t know the specifics. Maybe they are highly efficient at processing B12, maybe they are consuming B12 supplemented foods without realizing it, maybe they are consuming food contaminated with B12 producing bacteria.

Up to 30 years of B12 can be stored in the body, so maybe some people are just living off their reserves and storing up trouble for the future.

It may be, as some suggest, that most healthy individuals don’t require B12 supplementation and all cases of B12 deficiency in humans are due to some other confounding factor.

However, supplementation with B12 is safe and easy and a B12 deficiency can result in permanent neurological damage, so it would seem that the sensible option would be supplementation.

B12 Supplements

B12 can be found in most supplements and many foods such as soy milk are fortified with B12.

The regular form of B12 (cobalamin) used in supplements is cyanocobalamin – which is an inactive form of B12 bound to cyanide. This is broken down by metabolism into methylcobalamin and cyanide. Cyanide is a poison but is assumed to be tolerable at these small doses except for people who exhibit cyanide sensitivities. Flushing the cyanide out of your system does use up some antioxidants so this form of B12 may be putting a slight additional strain on your body.

A number of quality supplements contain an active form of B12 methylcobalamin that does not need to be metabolized making it more bioavailable which could be an advantage for people with certain health issues. It also has the advantage of not exposing you to that small dose of cyanide.

The natural form of B12 is hydroxocobalamin and can be intravenously injected to treat diagnosed B12 vitamin deficiencies.

B12 can also be absorbed sublingually (under your tongue). This method bypasses the digestive system so it may be more suitable for people with serious digestive disorders.

My Conclusion

Based on my research I have chosen to take a supplement that contains the high quality form of B12 methylcobalamin. I expect any form of B12 supplimentation would be sufficient, but I have been able to find this potentially better form of B12 in a quality multivitamin which keeps my life simple.

I take Dr Fuhrman’s Gentle Care Formula Vegan Multivitamin, but there are hundreds of other methylcobalamine B12 products on Amazon.

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