Vegan Vitamin B12 – Sources, Absorption, Supplements and Deficiency

Vegan Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is one of the thirteen essential vitamins that the body requires to survive. It is involved in many crucial processes, including (1) creating DNA, cell division and, maintaining and repairing Myelin Sheath (a protective coating around nerve cells). Unfortunately, there are limited vegan vitamin B12 sources as plant based foods do not naturally contain this vitamin. 

Animal products including meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products are rich in this vitamin.

Consuming enough B12 is crucial for proper blood and brain function and it can be stored in the liver for many years. Deficiency can lead to a range of health consequences including nerve damage and pernicious anaemia. 

It is important for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet ensure they are getting enough each day through foods or supplements.

This article explores vitamin b12 on a vegan diet, where you can find it, supplement recommendations and how to avoid deficiency.

What does Vitamin B12 Do In The Body?

Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that almost every cell in the body requires for proper functioning. It is involved in two main biochemical processes in the body and acts in two main forms – methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin. Each of these forms have a different role.

Methylcobalamin acts as a cofactor to the enzyme methionine synthase, which catalyses the transfer of a methyl group from N-methyltetrahydrofolate to homocysteine, yielding methionine and tetrahydrofolate. This reaction occurs in the cell cytoplasm (2).

From methionine, S-adenosyl-methionine is formed, which is a universal methyl donor for many important substrates, including DNA, RNA, hormones, proteins, and lipids. This reaction is also important as it converts methyltetrahydrofolate to tetrahydrofolate, the active form of folate, which is another essential B-vitamin.⁠

Adenosyl cobalamin acts as a cofactor in the methyl-malonyl CoA mutase transformation of methyl-malonyl CoA into succinyl CoA in the mitochondria (2). ⁠

How is it absorbed?

The absorption of vitamin B12 contains a number of steps.

In animal based foods, it is found in the form of methyl-, deooxyadenosyl-, or hydroxy-cobalamin.

When this form of B12 nutrition reaches the stomach, two digestive enzymes – pepsin and hydrochloric acid break down the binding protein, releasing the cobalamin portion of the nutrient known as “free vitamin b12”.

When synthetic (man made) B12 is added to fortified food or supplements, it is already in its free form and therefore does not require this separation step.

Free vitamin b12 then combines with Intrinsic Factor (IF). IF is a type of protein secreted by parietal cells in stomach. This complex is then able to be absorbed in final section of the small intestine known as the illeum.

Absorption can also be influenced by age, reduced gastric acidity and other gut disorders.

This vitamin also has many inactive analogues. These are molecules that look like its active form, but actually are not, and can interfere with it’s function and absorption.

How much vitamin B12 can be absorbed at once?

Vitamin B12 absorption depends on how much is consumed at one time. When added to foods such as soy milk or veggie delight sausages in low amounts (less than 5 mcg per dose) it has a similar absorption rate to animal products. It is absorbed at approximately 56% of a 1mg dose.

Meaning, if you drank a glass of Sanitarium So Good Soy milk which contains 1mcg per cup, you would only be able to absorb approximately 0.5mcg.

Some brands of plant based milk are fortified with vitamin B12

 

However, absorption decreases significantly with high doses of B12. Doses above 500mcg have absorption of 1% or less.

This means, that if you take a supplement of 500mcg, you’re only able to absorb 5mcg at one time.

How Much Vitamin B12 Do I Need?

How much you require each day is based on the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI). The RDI is the average daily dietary intake that meets the nutrient needs of 97-98% of the population.

A summary of the  RDI for vitamin B12 based on the Nutrition Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand (2):

For children under 12 months of age the RDI cannot be determined and therefore Adequate Intake (AI) is used.  The AI is based on the average daily nutrient intake deemed to be adequate based on estimates of healthy groups.

The nutrient reference values (NRVs) for Infants is measured by adequate intake (AI) and is outlined above (2):

Vegan Vitamin B12 Food Sources:

Our bodies can not create B12, meaning that it must be eaten in the diet. 

Vitamin B12 is bound to protein. It is found in all animal foods with the exception of honey.  This includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products (3).

Individuals who follow plant-based diets must rely on fortified foods and supplements to meet their daily requirements.

Vegan vitamin B12 food sources include:

  • Certain plant-based milks (i.e. Sanitarium soy milk)
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Reduced salt Vegemite (note: the original vegemite is not fortified with B12)
  • Certain meat substitutes (i.e. Vegie Delights products)

If you are wanting to meet your daily needs through fortified foods it is essential that you read the ingredients list and nutritional panel as not all products listed above will be fortified with this nutrient.

Products fortified with vitamin B12 will have this listed on the nutrition panel

It is also important to note that nutritional yeast, also known as savoury yeast flakes, may not be a reliable source. The vitamin levels contained within nutritional yeast can vary between brands, meaning it is not recommended as a sole source B12.

The table above outlines the vegetarian and vegan vitamin B12 food sources (4):

If you want to try and meet your requirements through food alone you will need to consume 2-3 servings of fortified foods, at least 4 hours apart for optimal absorption. 

The number of servings required daily will vary depending on which fortified products you consume. Due to this not being feasible for many individuals, it may be beneficial to consider a vegan vitamin b12 supplement.

Poor Sources of Vitamin B12

Some vegan foods claim that they contain B12. This includes tempeh, seaweed, organic foods and spirulina. Unfortunately these contain inactive analogues. This means, when analysing these compounds in the lab they may look like vitamin B12, but they are not biologically active meaning humans cannot absorb them. 

Signs of Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Deficiency can be common amongst vegans and those following a mostly plant-based diet. 

Sign of vitamin B12 deficiency include (3):

  • Megaloblastic anemia, meaning red blood cells are not produced properly and are larger than normal
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Numbness
  • Tingling of the hands and feet

Signs of deficiency in infants include (7):

  • Failure to thrive
  • Movement disorders
  • Developmental delays
  • Megaloblastic anemia

A 2013 systematic review investigating the prevalence of deficiency among vegetarians and found rates of 62% amongst pregnant women; 32% amongst vegetarians; and 30% to 76% amongst vegans (depending on the definition of deficiency) (6) 

Normally, anaemia is the first symptom of deficiency to occur. Often deficiency can go undetected in vegans as it is masked by high intakes of folate, found in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains (3). If someone’s diet is high in folate and low in B12, the folate will “mask” the anemia and nerve damage will be the first symptom to occur.

Although textbooks and articles state that deficiency can take 2-5 years, our dietitians have seen deficiency occur in as little as 6 months. It is essential to commence supplementation or ensure you are eating adequate amounts as soon as you adopt a completely plant based diet

It is also important for plant-based eaters to regularly check their blood status. Failure to do so can increase the risk of irreversible brain and nerve damage. 

Should vegans supplement Vitamin B12?

Even though there are some plant-based foods fortified with B12, the selection is quite limited and these foods need to be consumed daily to meet the RDI. 

For this reason it is often recommended that those that follow a largely plant-based diet, consider taking vegan Vitamin B12 supplements. 

To work out an appropriate supplement regime for you, book in for a consultation with one of Plant Nutrition and Wellness’s plant-based dietitians

 

 

References

(1)  The Medical Journal of Australia – Vitamin B12 and Vegetarian Diets

(2)  Nutrient Reference Values – Vitamin B12

(3)  National Institute of Health – Vitamin B12

(4)   Food Standards Australia New Zealand. NUTTAB 2010 online searchable database

(5)  https://vegemite.com.au/product/

(6)  How prevalent is Vitamin B12 deficiency among vegetarians?

(7)  Homocysteine and methylmalonic acid in diagnosis and risk assessment from infancy to adolescent

(8) Biochemistry of B12-Cofactors in Human Metabolism 

 

This article was co-written by Plant Nutrition and Wellness’s founder Kiah Paetz and Intern Tessa Funk. You can connect with Tessa on linkedin here.

6 Top Tips for Transitioning To A Vegan Diet

Swapping from a standard Australian omnivorous diet to one completely free of all animal products can be daunting, I completely understand! I see many clients time and time again wanting to transition to a vegan diet because they understand all the facts regarding the health, environmental and ethical benefits that a plant-based diet can provide, but simply don’t know where to start. So I’ve compiled a list of my 6 top tips for transitioning to a vegan diet to help you get started.

 

1. Don’t go vegan overnight

Yes it is possible for some people to go vegan overnight. If that’s you, that’s fantastic! But for the majority of us, thinking about what we need to eat for breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and dessert starting tomorrow can be quite overwhelming. Personally for me, I went pescatarian, then vegetarian, then eventually vegan. I needed that long process to get used to the changes involved. Every step in the right direction counts. Do some research about veganism before, speak to someone who has already transitioned or speak to a health care professional. You know you the best, and you need to find out the best method that suits you, your lifestyle and your dietary habits.

2. Have a support network

The number of vegan individuals, products and restaurants in Australia is on the rise. This also means, there are more people around that don’t look at you with a really weird expression on their face when you say “I think I want to go vegan”. People are becoming more aware and open to different dietary habits and beliefs. If you have some friends that are vegan or vegetarian already, that’s fantastic! Ask them about their journey and for any good recipes or tips. Most people are happy to help! If you’re alone in your transition, join some Facebook groups in your local area. In Brisbane alone I think I’m on about 10 different Facebook pages (it can get overwhelming if you join too many!) – but some include Plant Powered Brisbane, Brisbane Vegans, Brisbane Vegans Unite just to name a few. In addition to this, there are also a growing number of events around, such as the monthly Brisbane Vegan Markets which always provide a great opportunity to meet other likeminded individuals.

3. Check out local vegan restaurants

I cannot recommend the website Happy Cow enough. It’s an easy to use online guide to find vegan/vegetarian friendly restaurants in your local area. One of the biggest tips I give to my client’s is to go out and eat! This is the best way to try a variety of new foods, textures and flavours (like tofu, tempeh and legumes) without the risk of having a cooking experiment go horribly wrong. Write down what dishes you like and use them for inspiration. When I was an omnivore I really enjoyed chicken curries, so I started trying to find vegan restaurants that had similar dishes. If you follow me on instagram (little plus @plantnutritionwellness) you would know my biggest quick and easy, go-to weekday meals is my tasty chickpea and tofu curry! Get started by reading our article on the Top 70 Vegan Restaurants In Brisbane.

4. Try lots and lots of different milks (“mylks”)

We live in an era where if you head to the local supermarket you are sure to find almost ten different types of milks or “mylks”. There’s cow, almond, soy, hemp, cashew, macadamia, oat and rice just to name a few. When trying a different milk for the first time, be open to the different textures and flavours and try many, multiple times. Just like when children are first trying a new foods, it can take 10-20 exposure of a food to actually start to like and accept it. I personally found soy milk to be my preference and the easiest to switch over as it is quite thick and creamy, similar to cows milk.

If you want to learn more about different mylks, read our post on Which Is The Best Plant Based Milk.

5. Phase out meat slowly

One of our biggest tips for transitioning to a vegan diet is to reduce your meat bit by bit. Start off with having meat free Mondays, then move into meat-free lunches and possibly still having meat for dinner. Then, incorporate more veggie-based proteins in with your meat dishes such as tofu, tempeh, chickpeas or legumes. Next, slowly start to reduce the portions of meat you’re having and include some solely plant-based dishes. Eventually, increase the plant-based dishes and see how long you can spread out the meat dishes.

 

6. Swap it, don’t stop it.

This is probably my biggest recommendation. Time and time again I see client’s come into my clinic with nutritional deficiencies after starting a vegan diet. This does not have to happen. I repeat, this does not have to happen. When cutting out parts of important food groups – e.g. meat from the meat and alternatives food group and dairy from the dairy and alternatives food group, it is important to make the appropriate swaps to ensure you are not reducing the nutrients you are consuming. For example, when cutting out meat ensure to swap this to tofu, tempeh, legumes and nuts/seeds to provide adequate protein and iron. When cutting out cow-based dairy products, ensure to swap to calcium-fortified plant milk (soy, almond, etc.) as well as include calcium-set tofu and plenty of Asian greens in your diet to provide adequate calcium. Most importantly of all, Vitamin B12 must be supplemented! Although I may be biased being a dietitian myself, I HIGHLY recommend speaking to a health care professional, such as a dietitian, who specialises in vegan nutrition to ensure you are getting all the essential nutrients you need when making the switch.

 

After more information to help you with transitioning to a vegan diet? Check out our article on Eating Out As a Vegan – Tips You Need To Know

 

Looking for a vegan dietitian? Meet out our team of expert plant-based health professionals at Plant Nutrition and Wellness.