One of the questions that pops up regarding plant-based diets is how to get vitamin B12. It’s one of the only nutrients that is difficult to come by when you’re eating 100% plant-based and is often erroneously held up as proof that humans need to eat meat and animal products to be healthy.
What is B12 and why do I need it?
B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that is made by anaerobic bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of animals. Translation: B12 is made by bacteria in the guts of animals and is therefore naturally present in animal and animal-based products like meat, milk and eggs. B12 is essential for proper neurological functions and blood cell formation (ie. healthy nerves and blood cells), as well as DNA synthesis. Unfortunately, we humans aren’t able to make our own B12 so we need to consume it in our food. Failure to do so can lead to B12 deficiency with an array of varied symptoms including:
- Tingling/numbness in the hands, feet and legs
- Issues with balance
- Cognitive issues or memory loss
This range of symptoms may appear slowly over time and can easily be overlooked or mistaken for other issues. A confirmed diagnosis of B12 deficiency can only be obtained after a blood test. Over time an untreated deficiency can lead to several problems like neurological issues and blood diseases. Vegan and plant-based individuals are at greater risk for B12 deficiency and should ensure they are getting the recommended daily dose (see below).
How do animals make B12?
While ruminants like cows and sheep absorb the B12 made by their own gut bacteria, many other animals get their dose by eating feces or through bacterial contamination of their food (ie. poop bacteria in their dinner). Others get the vitamin by consuming other animals or animal products like milk or eggs.
Humans aren’t ruminants so we can either eat poop, eat or drink things containing poopy bacteria or eat animals and animal products. Sounds gross but getting bacteria in our food and drink was probably how humans got a lot of B12 back in the day. In today’s sanitized world we no longer “naturally” consume bacteria the way we did years ago. For example, we drink chlorinated water out of a tap instead of fresh from a stream and we wash all of the dirt off of our vegetables before scarfing them down. The days of B12-filled “dirty eating” are gone (as are nasty diseases like cholera, so we’re really not complaining).
Plant-based sources of B12
There a few anecdotal plant-based sources of B12 but none reliable enough to provide the recommended daily dose of 2.4 micrograms (mcg) for adults, 2.6 mcg for pregnant women, and 2.8 mcg for breastfeeding mothers. But fear not, this doesn’t mean you’ll need to start eating steak again (or feces – a terrible idea for a million different reasons). Plant-based and vegan individuals can obtain B12 vitamin in a couple of different and perfectly sanitary ways:
There are a number of foods that are routinely fortified with B12. The most common are plant-based milks (ex. soy milk, almond milk, hemp milk, etc.), breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast and processed vegan meat and dairy alternatives. Read labels to check the amount of B12 per serving and be mindful of added sugars and oils, as well as other unhealthy additives. Remember, just because a food is vegan/plant-based doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
B12 is commonly found in most multivitamins, so if you’re already taking one you’re probably all set. B12 vitamin is available in several forms although some believe that chewable or dissolvable types are more readily absorbed by the body. Shots of B12 are also available but are generally only used as a treatment for deficiency.
There are different types of B12 supplements, the most common being cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin. According to Dr. Gregor of NutritionFacts.org, research indicates that cyanobalamin is the more effective of the two (although others may disagree with his assessment).
As with fortified foods, check the label for added coloring, sugar or flavorings you wish to avoid. Shop around and compare available options. You may find that cheaper products contain more unhealthy additives, so buy the best you can afford.