Although there are many sources of vegan vitamin B12 in pills and enriched into foods, B12 is the one nutrient that is just not readily available in plant foods. It's also the one vitamin that I highly recommend every vegan take to ensure they're getting all the nutrients they need to be healthy.
You may have heard from a "concerned" meat-eater that you are at risk for a vitamin B12 deficiency if you choose not to eat meat and dairy products, and you may be wondering if that's true.
Well, yes and no...
If you live in a developed country and consume a variety of foods, you are unlikely to become deficient in vitamin B12. However, if you live in an undeveloped nation and don't have access to reliable sources of food, you run a greater risk of becoming deficient.
If you're reading this website, chances are really high that you're in a developed nation, so why do I recommend adding B12 to your diet?
Let's start with some background information on the vitamin itself...
Vitamin B12 itself develops and grows in the bacteria in soil. When animals eat foods directly out of the ground, the vitamin grows and flourishes in their stomachs, spreading through their blood around their bodies. Then, when humans eat pieces of animal flesh, they also eat vitamin B12.
Therefore, animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy products should be the best sources of vitamin B12 in nature. Of course, while you're dutifully getting all the B12 you need, you're also adding on a slab of cholesterol, saturated fats, animal protein and casein, and rapidly increasing your chances for developing preventable degenerative diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and more. And, of course, you're feeding into the animal abuse system that is the norm in the agriculture system today.
Is all that worth it just to make sure you're getting plenty of vitamin B12? I think not.
Is the idea of eating dirt running through your head?
The funny part is that a few hundred years ago, vitamin B12 deficiency was likely not common because our ancestors weren't disinfecting with the same vigor that we do now. Rather, they pulled veggies out of the ground and ate them raw and dirty. With those dirtier vegetables, they ate a good amount of vegan vitamin B12 and never worried about taking a vitamin supplement.
Unless vegans are willing to eat dirty vegetables, they should think about adding a vegan vitamin B12 supplement to their diets, and/or adding foods that are enriched with B12 into their diets.
There are many vitamin supplements on the market, but make sure your vitamin doesn't contain any animal ingredients. It's common to use animal products as binders in vitamins.
Also, many vegan foods are now fortified with vegan vitamin B12; including nutritional yeast, soy milks, and breakfast cereals. There's even a brand of gum called B-Fresh vegan xylitol gum
that has you RDA amount of vegan vitamin B12 in one serving, and incidentally, it helps to prevent and cure dental cavities.
Vitamin B12 is stored in the stomach, so the human body does have a stockpile of it that lasts for a few years. That means that people actually have a few years of living as a vegan before they even run out of the B12 already stored in their bodies.
How much vitamin B12 do we need each day?
The USDA recommended daily allowance for vitamin B12 is actually really small. Adults need about 2.4mcg each day, and that increases when pregnant to 2.6mcg and when lactating to 2.8mcg. Babies need 0.4mcg each day, and that increases to 1.8mcg by the time they become teenagers.
That is a very small amount, and most vitamin supplements you find have 50, 100, or even 500mcg of vitamin B12. There are no levels set for how much is too much because the toxicity level is too low, so you don't really need to worry about overdosing on B12.
If you're taking a larger dose, you can take it less frequently, perhaps once a week or every two weeks. Or, if it's easier to remember to take it, look for a smaller dosage pill with 5 or 10mcg of vegan vitamin B12.
Is Spirulina a Good Source of Vitamin B12?
Educated vegans will often list the sources of B12 in their diet, including nutritional yeast, fortified cereals and nondairy milks, tempeh, pill supplements, and the blue green seaweeds and algaes like spirulina.
There is some debate in the vegan nutrition world about whether spirulina and tempeh can be considered good sources of vegan vitamin B12. Those who argue it isn't a reliable source cite The Vegetarian Society's 1984 study that showed that spirulina has an analogue of vitamin B12 which might block your body's ability to absorb the vitamin.
On the other hand, spirulina is just packed with vitamin B12, and it's a natural plant source of the vitamin. Plus, it's loaded with other vitamins and minerals, making it a rich source of nutrients. Whether all of the B12 is absorbed or not, it's certainly a healthy food product.
So how rare is the deficiency?
That's hard to say as well. Vitamin B12 deficiency is hard to diagnose because its symptoms can often be confused with other problems, like anemia, and you might end up with the deficiency before you even realize what's happening. The most common symptoms are fatigue, weakness, lightheadedness, pale skin, sleep disturbances, and overall malaise.
Because the deficiency is difficult to recognize, it's hard to know the exact incidence of vitamin B12 deficiency. Some reports say that as much as 39% of the population has low levels of vitamin B12, and many other reports say the levels are much lower.
The moral of the story is that a health vegan should take a vegan vitamin B12 supplement every few days, just to make sure they are covering their bases.