If there was ever a controversial topic in the field of nutrition, vitamin B12 is it. For every blog or website claiming to have found vegan or vegetarian sources of the nutrient another claims that these plant-based foods are useless. So what’s a vegan to do?
First let’s explore some of the vegan foods that may contain vitamin B12, which include: spirulina, other algae, barley grass, sprouts, nori, other types of seaweed, tempeh, fortified milk substitutes, other fortified packaged foods (meat substitutes and breakfast cereals), mushrooms, miso, fermented foods and nutritional yeast. But, most of these sources are considered controversial because their vitamin B12 is not truly vitamin B12 but analogs that are believed to block absorption.
While the debate on this front continues, here’s what you need to know to get adequate amounts of B12 in your diet. Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient (that’s actually the definition of a vitamin!) that is necessary for good health. Like most B vitamins, it’s involved in energy metabolism, which means it helps to supply the body with the energy it needs for all of its other functions.
It is necessary for DNA production, brain and nervous system health, healthy bones and cardiovascular health. Since B12 requires adequate amounts of gastric juices for absorption, the argument as to whether meat sources are superior to vegan ones is really a moot point after about the age of 50, since by that time most people’s gastric juices seem to be insufficient to absorb it anyway. From that point, it really is best to obtain vitamin B12 from a supplement, in the form that it is most absorbable in the body (methylcobalamin).
Vitamin B12 requires minute amounts of the metal cobalt (hence the nutrient’s other name cobalamin). In addition to strong gastric acid to absorb the nutrient, it requires a strong and healthy liver to convert it into its usable form of methlycobalamin.
Nutritional yeast tends to contain vitamin B12 that can be absorbed, making it a potentially good source of the nutrient. However, since the vitamin is light-sensitive, be sure to choose nutritional yeast products that are in opaque packages rather than clear plastic packages or in clear bulk bins. That helps to ensure that the vitamin content of the nutritional yeast remains intact.
Nutritional yeast can be added to soaked nuts or seeds to add a cheese-like flavor or to make cheese sauces or vegan cheese alternatives. Be sure to check the label to determine the product’s vitamin B12 content, since it can vary widely. One and a half tablespoons of a good quality nutritional yeast can meet your daily needs.
While the jury is still out on spirulina, other algae, barley grass, sprouts, nori and other seaweeds, there are numerous vegan sources of vitamin B12 that are reliable, including: foods fortified with the vitamin, mushrooms and fermented foods. The primary foods that are fortified with B12 are almond milk, rice milk, soy milk (be sure it’s organic since most soy is genetically-modified), hemp milk and oat milk, along with fortified breakfast cereals and vegan meat substitutes. Be sure to check the label to see if the products you choose are fortified. One cup of crimini mushrooms supplies about 3 percent of your daily B12 needs.
Keep in mind that B12, like other water soluble nutrients, can be depleted in cook water, so avoid boiling foods. Just a light sauté is superior. Many websites claim that bacteria cannot make vitamin B12. Actually, many bacteria manufacture vitamin B12 (that’s actually the reason why animal protein contains B12—the bacteria that reside in their intestines manufactured it!).
Actually, bacteria are employed in the manufacture of vitamin B12 supplements as well. A growing body of research demonstrates that lactic acid bacteria (lactobacilli) make vitamin B12, making fermented foods like miso, tempeh and others valuable in the quest for enough of this nutrient.
Most people need at least 3 micrograms of vitamin B12 daily. Based on the absorption and conversion issues I mentioned earlier, most nutritionists recommend supplementing with at least 10 micrograms daily or a single 2000 microgram supplement on a weekly basis. Ideally, choose methylcobalamin lozenges or drops since they are absorbed sublingually (under the tongue) and bypass most of the digestive tract.
Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, DNM is an international best-selling and 20-time published book author whose works include: The Life Force Diet: 3 Weeks to Supercharge Your Health and Get Slim with Enzyme-Rich Foods
James Achanyi-Fontem, is a Senior Health Journalist and Communication Consultant. He worked as a health journalist and broadcaster for 30 years with Radio Cameroon and later Cameroon Radio Television, CRTV before retiring in 2005 to engage fully with Cameroon Link (Human Assistance Programme). Cameroon Link is a registered charity, not-for-profit organisation involved in the promotion of community health, humanitarian assistance, promotion of women and child rights through involvement of communities in Cameroon for mother and child health care. Cameroon Link is a partner to Commonwealth of Learning (COL), Farm Radio International (FRI), International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN Africa), World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA). As the intermediary of Commonwealth of Learning (COL), Cameroon Link is engaged to implement a Cameroon Rural Radio story design Programming through an investigative research, which aims to discover through interviewing beneficiaries of health programmes on their interests, documenting and disseminating new ideas about how radio stations produce and air Healthy Communities Radio Programs in Cameroon.