The #1 part of the vegan lifestyle that confuses many is knowing whether or not you should take supplements - More specifically, B12 supplements.
In this article, we will take a stroll through the world of B vitamins. We will talk about the history behind this vitamin, the different types of B vitamins, where vitamin B12 naturally occurs, and much more. We will even share with you our top recommendations for B12 supplements.
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So, grab a snack, get cozy, and let's learn about vitamin B!
First Thing’s First:
"What is Vitamin B?"
Vitamin B is a term used for 8 distinct vitamins, set apart by a number.
Each of these vitamins play an essential part in your health and keep your body functioning properly.
B12 in particular is the most complex vitamin and a water soluble compound that is not found in the human body.
While B vitamins do not provide fuel to the body, they do help it use the fuel received from other sources like carbohydrates. Vitamin B can be found in poultry, fish, eggs and beef and most foods of animal origin.
People who are vegan, as well as those over 50, might need some extra help in getting the right amounts of vitamin B12, so high quality supplements are recommended.
The Various Types of Vitamin B
Let's first start out by listing the main B vitamins:
I know what you're thinking. No, my counting skills are perfectly fine. There are only eight vitamins listed up there (even thought it goes all the way up to 12) on purpose.
It’s pretty clear that some numbers are missing here. This is because compounds like Vitamin B4, B8, B10, and B11 are not found in the human body and therefore not needed by it. So therefore, we will not need to cover them in this guide.
Each Vitamin and its Function
Upon their discovery, vitamin B included all 8 vitamins in its group. With time, doctors split the family into 8 different entities, with each of these performing its own role in various metabolic functions of your body.
- Vitamin B1 is also called thiamin and was discovered in the 1890s. This vitamin helps with digestion, breaking down carbs, and muscle function. It is often found in seeds, nuts, legumes, and pork.
- Vitamin B2, or riboflavin, activates vitamin B6 and aids in the forming of red blood cells and digestion. Riboflavin is found in dairy, but also leafy greens and some types of meat.
- Vitamin B3, or niacin, promotes healthy skin and turns consumed fats and carbs into energy sources. You can get it from eating fish, nuts, whole grain bread, and mushrooms.
- Vitamin B5, known as pantothenic acid, aids in red cell production and metabolises fats and proteins. It is most found in yeast, meats, legumes, and nuts.
- Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is responsible for serotonin production and keeps the nervous system going. You can find it in seafood products, meats, and leafy greens.
- Vitamin B7, also called biotin, metabolizes cholesterol, some fatty acids, and amino acids. Biotin is also needed for healthy hair and nails and is contained by cauliflower, liver, and mushrooms to mention a few.
- Vitamin B9, or folic acid, is a must for pregnant women; as it helps the fetus develop properly. Folate helps the body form red blood cells and is encountered in eggs, citrus, liver and some legumes.
- Vitamin B12, or cyanocobalamin, helps your brain and nervous system, and is closely linked to folic acid as the human body needs both to function. Dairy and various meats are good sources of B12.
A Short history of Vitamin B and Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 was discovered in 1926.
Two doctors, Georg Richard Minot and William Parry Murphy, noticed that anemic patients’ condition improved after consuming liver - an organ that contains high amounts of vitamin B12.
Later on in 1934, the doctors received a Nobel prize for their involvement in finding anemia cures. 1948 marked the year when vitamin B was specifically isolated.
Even though vitamin B has been discovered so late, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been available to humans for a long time. In prehistoric times, indigenous populations used to get their vitamin B dose from plants, which had bacteria containing the vitamin growing on their leaves.
Along with humans becoming civilized, plants have started to be washed and cooked thus greatly reducing the amount of vitamin B required to sustain the body.
How Common are Deficiencies in the Modern World?
In the previous section, we discussed how before the world became as sanitary as it is today, people would get their B12 through organ meats and unwashed plants.
This raises the question of how common B12 deficiencies are. Not only are organ meats not as widely consumed as they used to be, but also plants are thoroughly washed before making it to the supermarket.
Unlike with other vitamins, there hasn’t been any major study regarding vitamin B deficiency in the US in the past 18 years. Back in the year 2000, the Framingham Offspring study showed 40% of Americans having a vitamin B deficiency. As of now, it is estimated that 10% percent of the population is vitamin B12 deficient according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Although the currently accepted vitamin B12 deficiency levels are 148 pg/ml, newly conducted research shows that anyone at lower than 350 pg/ml is actually deficient. The deficiency levels uncovered in the early study seem to match the ones found in Latin America, where about 40% of the population is not getting enough B12.
People in less developed countries like Kenya and India show a much higher percentage, with 70% of Indian adults and Kenyan preschoolers having a vitamin B12 deficiency.
As mentioned before, Vitamin B12 is commonly encountered in foods such as fish, meat, and eggs, all of which are prohibited in a vegan diet. Along with helping the other B vitamins complete their role, B12 offers some particular benefits on its own.
Although vitamin B is essential, it is not naturally produced by the human body. This vitamin helps with numerous functions such as red blood cell formation, better digestion, and a proper functioning of the nervous system.
Taking vitamin B supplements highly decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, helps with maintaining cognitive functions and prevents heart disease. Vitamin B is involved in many metabolic processes that take place in your body and also aids in DNA replication.
Most often, vitamin B is also responsible for our moods. Getting enough vitamin B will stave off depression and anxiety, improve focus, and boost your energy. Vitamin B12 helps against excessive build up of homocysteine, an acid that can provoke stroke and heart attacks when left untreated.
Another benefit of this vitamin is healthier, more radiant looking skin and stronger nails. If your sleep hygiene is poor, taking a vitamin B12 supplement could help you get better rest.
Quick warning: If you've done a search for B12 on YouTube, you will notice a fair share of questionable fellows selling B12 vitamins and touting some serious claims. "The miracle vitamin", "This vitamin replaces coffee!". Whatever claims you hear, take it with a major grain of salt until you're presented with credible research. B12 increases energy if you are deficient in B12. This is not a magical pill that will turn you into a productivity wizard and function the same as a Redbull.
The Consequences of being Deficient
Not getting enough vitamin B can be severely detrimental to your health, and cause several unpleasant and dangerous symptoms in the long run. While most people don’t experience any symptoms until at least 5 years into their ongoing deficiency, others noticed their health starting to decline within only one year.
Being a vegan highly increases the risk of deficiency, regardless of how healthy your overall diet is. One of the effects of a vitamin B deficiency is a low red blood cell count, which causes anemia.
You may start feeling dizzy and unfocused, but also increasingly tired and out of breath. Furthermore, your skin may appear pale due to your body not being able to produce enough red blood cells.
People with a vitamin B deficiency can experience weight loss due to a lack of appetite, mouth sores, as well as a pins and needles sensation in their legs. One of the lesser known effects of anemia is depression and anxiety, which, untreated, can severely impact your high functioning.
Getting too little of vitamin B12 can also provoke infertility, bone disease, and an increased risk of heart disease. Blurry vision is another symptom of a low vitamin B level and is caused by nervous system damage.
In rare cases, vitamin B deficient individuals can experience high temperatures. Some people experience symptoms such as lowered motor coordination and balance issues, although this occurrence is more common in the elderly.
Older people are also more prone to developing a deficiency due to the body not being able to absorb it properly. Although alarming, all the symptoms can be greatly improved with the right vitamin B supplement.
Natural Sources of B12
B12 can be found in various fermented foods. Above is a jar of Kombucha, a 2,000 year-old health beverage. Tempeh, made from fermented soybeans also contains B12.
Unfortunately, there is little vitamin B12 in plants as it can be found mostly in a large variety of foods derived from animals.
Vegan staples like broccoli have been discovered to only contain traces of B12.
The body doesn't need a ton of B12 and is quite good at storing it for years, but it could still be risky taking the chance.
However, Vegans do have some food options to consider when looking to get more of this vitamin.
For instance, one tablespoon of yeast contains about 2.4 micrograms of B12, which makes it a great nutrition source. Furthermore, nutritional yeast is also a protein that provides your body with 18 amino acids.
Consider incorporating B12 fortified foods into your diet for more benefits, as options like almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk or cereals are great choices. One cup of almond or coconut milk contains 3% of your daily B12 requirements, while soy milk and fortified cereal provide 2% and 0.6% respectively.
Kelp, mushrooms, and fermented foods like tofu were found to contain a small amount of B12 too, but not enough to meet the criteria. The human body is said to need around 250 mcg of vitamin B12 per day.
You Eat Fortified Foods: Should you still supplement?
As we previously mentioned, having a vitamin B12 deficiency leaves you open to a significant amount of issues that could easily be avoided. Although research has continuously shown vegans need B12 supplements, there are sources still claiming vegans get sufficient amounts from a plant-based diet.
Vitamin B12 is complex and unlike other vitamins, it’s not easily found in fruits and vegetables, at least not in the right amounts. Additionally, it is not as easily assimilated by the human body as the rest of its family.
This vitamin is encountered in most animal-based products, but it is produced by some bacteria. It’s clear that people don’t need to include meat or other foods derived from animals in their diet to get Vitamin B12 in their system.
One in 6 meat eaters is vitamin B deficient (From the U.S. Framingham Offspring Study), and plant sources like seaweed, which have been promoted to contain enough vitamin B12 for the human body, don’t cover the basic levels to ensure proper functioning.
So, are fortified foods enough or should you supplement?
Vegan Society provided a nice three-choice answer to this question.
They said, you can either:
- Eat enough fortified foods to get three micrograms of B12 every day
- Take a supplement providing 10 micrograms of B12 every day
- Take a weekly B12 supplement that provides at least 2,000 micrograms of B12
To add onto that, you can also take a 1,000 microgram supplement of B12 twice a week. That is the option I currently take with this Nature Made Sublingual Supplement.
The Best Vegan B12 Supplements
#1 Recommendation: B-12 Drops by VeganSafe
This product seems ideal for those who are not comfortable with swallowing large pills, as it comes in the form of a solution. Because of its liquid formula, it is broken down and absorbed faster and easier, therefore, the results will be seen faster.
It was actually ranked #1 in the B12 category by LabDoor, a company that lab-tests popular supplements to see their purity.
This is an organic, cruelty and gluten free Vitamin B12 supplement, certified to be produced in an eco-friendly facility. It also stays free of any animal products, meaning vegans can consider it as an option.
The bottle has 30 servings and one serving is 1 dropper, or 1 ml. You can take it early in the morning on an empty stomach or in early afternoon. This supplement should not be diluted in water, instead just empty the dropper in your mouth, hold for 30 seconds and then swallow.
There are 4 ingredients in this solution: 80% methylcobalamin, 20% adenosylcobalamin, USP Kosher certified vegetable glycerin that gives a sweet taste and triple-distilled water. The supplement is said to fight slugginess and fatigue, prevent heart disease, help your nervous system, and promote hair and nail growth.
Your adrenal glands will be supported and the risk of anemia is highly reduced. Although more pricey than others, this supplement does not contain any of the additives a pill does.
Runner Up: B12 Sublingual by NatureMade
So here is the B12 I ended up going with! You might be wondering why I didn't go with the VeganSafe option or why I didn't rank this NatureMade choice as #1.
The answer to that is that it was completely a personal preference. I prefer sublingual to drops and I have a great trust in the NatureMade brand.
This supplement contains 1,000 micrograms of B12 per lozenge (Fancy word for this kind of pill).
With 1,000 micrograms per lozenge, it's recommended to take two of these every week. Perhaps every Monday and Friday is a good schedule.
It's a nice cherry flavor. You just slip one of these bad boys under your tongue and it will disolve in around two minutes.
Definitely recommend this one! I would put this as my #1 recommendation, but I believe it is only fair to put the most pure choice at the top.
B12 Sublingual by Nested Natural
Here's another Sublingual choice if the first one didn't match your needs.
Jarrow Formula Methyl B12 has been proven to reduce tiredness and help you retain energy for longer. The formula was specifically designed to be easily absorbed by your body and promote brain and cardiovascular health.
Furthermore, the supplement levels out your mood, allows for better sleep and decreases depression caused by stress.
The capsules are more enjoyable than other pills as they can be chewed or simply melted in your mouth. Available in 3 fruity flavours (tropical, lemon, and cherry) these capsules suit pretty much any taste.
Jarrow Formula uses methylcobalamin, which is B12 in its most bioavailable form. This promotes proper assimilation and quick digestion without any negative side effects.
The boxes come in various dosages like 500 mcg, 1000 mcg, 2500 mcg and 5000 mcg. All the products are vegan and don’t contain any allergens, nuts, soy, or chemicals.
Unlike supplements that need to be taken daily, this product should be consumed every 3 to 4 days due to its potency.
The brand is certified and its products are constantly tested to ensure their quality always meets the standards of any consumer. However, make sure to consult with your clinician if you are pregnant, underage, or suffering from any medical condition.
Cherry-Flavor Meltable Tablets by EZ Melts
The EZ Melts B12 supplement comes in an attractive pink box that contains 90 tablets. The supplement is quick to melt in your mouth and has a pleasant cherry flavor.
Unlike other brands, EZ Melts uses methylcobalamin, a bioavailable form of B12 that promotes healthy brain activity, less fogginess even under stressful tasks, and a subtle energy level increase. These B12 supplements support your metabolic system and promote skin, hair, and nail health, but also improved vision and cognitive functions.
100% suited for a vegan lifestyle, the tablets are animal product free as well as soy free. They don’t contain any added preservatives, chemicals, nor any wheat or nut based products.
Additionally, the pills are sugar-free, not overly sweet and only contain natural flavors, which makes them an ideal choice for diabetics. People who can’t absorb vitamins through their stomach are especially recommended to try the EZ Melts as they are assimilated through the bloodstream.
The recommended dose is a tablet a day, with food. To get the best results, allow the tablet to melt in your mouth without any water.
If you are pregnant, underage, or trying to conceive, make sure to follow the instructions on the label. However, the EZ Melts reported no side effects as long as the recommended dose is followed.
Methyl B12 Capsules by Peak Performance
The Peak Performance Whole Food provided by Raw Organic does not include any synthetics. Made only of fruits and veggies, the complex provides great benefits against heart disease, as well as supporting the nervous system and protecting your body against anemia.
Fully organic and allergen-free, this product helps your body assimilate and digest food. This vitamin is ideal for athletes and people who need to be in top shape for maximum performance, including pregnant women.
Perfectly suited for a vegan lifestyle, this vitamin is free of animal-based products, gluten, soy, and preservatives. Some of its ingredients include organic spirulina, wheat grass, and barley grass. With a mix of Methyl B-12 and organic produce, the complex helps fight fatigue and manage your stress levels day after day.
The package contains 30 clear colored capsules that are filled with powder and easy to swallow. According to previous customers, the pills don’t leave a funny aftertaste or have any negative side effects.
Unlike synthetic products, this vegan-friendly vitamin B keeps your energy levels going throughout the day without crashing. Previous customers noted an energy increase within 3 days to a week after starting this supplement.
Supplementing is something that not a lot of vegans expect to have to do. Taking a B12 supplement is not a big deal and nothing you should stress about.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy our complete guide to the world of supplements and our master guide on nutrition.
Stay healthy and Keep It Vegan!
P.S. Below is a video I found super helpful on the topic of B12. It's by Mic The Vegan. I highly recommend you subscribe to his YouTube channel!