My understanding is that Vitamin B12 is a vitamin that vegetarians and meat eaters get from animals and animal products; how can I obtain this vitamin as a vegan? Can I live without it safely?
Can I live without it safely?
No. B12 is an extremely important vitamin supporting many bodily and psychiatric functions. Fun fact (and I need citation here) is that it is so important you can live without it for months, exactly because your liver caches it in case you don't intake any for a while.
How can I obtain this vitamin as a vegan?
With a supplement. Ignore percent daily value in IU, it is a very misleading and bogus metric. 1000µg a day is what I take per advice from my doctor.
Without a supplement as a vegan, you will become deficient, but you may not feel the effects for over a year. And they are subtle effects more like your health randomly deteriorating.
My bloodwork shows I am awash in B12 which my doctor advises me is ideal.
djechlin answer is quite complete. However, as an ex vegetarian I can confirm the importance of taking supplements for ensuring proper levels of B12.
1) Can I live without it safely?
It is not safe to have lower levels of B12. A mild form is having lower levels without anemia (like I had). However, on the long term it can lead to very serious problems like:
- nerve problems: numbness or tingling, muscle weakness and problems walking
- vision loss
- mental problems: depression, memory loss, or behavioral changes
More details can be found here.
2) How can I obtain this vitamin as a vegan?
I see two possibilities here:
having normal levels of B12: eating fortified foods may be enough. E.g.: eating breakfast cereal fortified with vitamin B12.
having lower than normal levels of B12: supplements are required
B12 deficiency may have more than one cause, regardless of being a vegetarian or not:
- low level of B12 in the food
- an infection with a parasite
- pernicious anemia
So, before starting taking large amounts of B12, you should discuss with a nutritionist or a medical doctor. Although, there is not a clear upper limit for B12 daily intake, higher doses intake should be avoided, if not really necessary (source), especially when some diseases are present.
Anyway, as a vegetarian, one should make sure that Vitamim B12 Test is included in periodical blood testing.
There are a lot of different "milks" that are fortified with B12. Many brands of almond milk or coconut milk contain it. Ironically if you are over fifty (like me) and get you B12 through fortified milks and supplements you are probably less likely to suffer from B12 deficiencies than most carnivores, because as you get older your body does not break down natural sources of B12 as easily. The fortified almond milk and supplements are a better source than meat.
It is widely and highly recommended to take daily B12 supplements to support a healthy and varied vegan diet, because B12 is essential and cannot be produced by the human body.
By the way, a bit off-topic, but I have read and heard that before our modern life, it would be easier to get B12 just by living a vegan natural lifestyle, as we would get traces of it from the soil or rivers. But our excessive use of chemicals sprayed on food and put on water, means that we have less of the bacteria that produce these rare vitamins. I don't have any references on this, so don't take my word for it.
Regarding plant sources, this page seems to contain well-researched information: https://veganhealth.org/vitamin-b12/. The reason I recommend this article is because some plant-based products report the presence of B12, but my understanding is that absorption but the body cannot be guaranteed. It may also be possible to find B12 in Tempeh.
To quote a summary from the site:
Inactive B12 analogues in plant foods compromise the accuracy of traditional methods used to determine the vitamin B12 amounts and activity of a food. Bacterial contamination of a food can create the false impression that all such foods contain B12 analogues. The only reliable way to determine if a food is a source of active B12 is to test various batches of that food to see if it reduces methyl malonic acid (MMA) levels in humans.
As an example, I have a packet of Spirulina that shows in the nutritional information that it contains 170 micrograms of B12 (6800 %NRV) per 100g (the whole packet). And a packet of Chlorella shows 220 micrograms per 100g (8800% RI).
But I still cannot recommend people to rely on these sources after reading a bit from that site. I don't have a medical or nutrition background, and I have not read all of it, so I can't make any conclusions.
I'd say, to be on the safe side, take supplements. There are fortified foods, but I can't be sure that I will have them daily so I use B12 liquid which actually tastes good. I can't stand tablets. That just takes a drop under the tongue.
That said, both Spirula and Chrorella have excellent reputation as "superfoods" which are also very rich in protein, so I suppose it's good to include them in a vegan diet anyway, but not as a sole source of B12, for the reasons mentioned above.
Hopefully, the world will go vegan soon and we'll have more research into this area. Or perhaps because of the environmental benefits of the plant-based diet, nature will return to its pristine form and we'll get it effortlessly. Until then, let's take our B12 :).
A surprising new potential source of Vitamin B12 is fortified grains, such as buckwheat.
In an academic dissertation written by Chong Xie and published by the University of Helsinki in 2020, it is shown that various grains including wheat flour and buckwheat flour can be enriched in situ using the P. freudenreichii microbe.
I've seen at least one commercial example of buckwheat powder that claims to contain vitamin B12, and may potentially be using a microbe-based enrichment process.