Are you thinking of being on a plant based diet or already eating that way but are concerned about vegan sources of B12? If so, congratulations on being proactive to improve your health. Vitamin B12 is an important vitamin for our body. It protects our nerves, which is important as too little B12 can potentially cause paralysis.
Do you know the main food sources of vitamin B12? Don’t worry if you are not sure. The main food sources of vitamin B12 are in meat and dairy products. Even though it is not naturally found in plant based sources there are certain foods that are fortified with vitamin B12.
I will be exploring 6 different vegan sources of B12 and why it is important to make sure you get B12 in your diet daily.
Function of B12
What comes to mind for you when I write B12? If nothing comes to mind then no worries that is what I will address here. Firstly, B12 is a water soluble vitamin. It is absorbed by the blood and travels around in the water filled spaces of our body before being expelled as waste in urine.
After B12 is absorbed it maintains and promotes the growth of the myelin sheath, which surrounds our nerves and protects them from damage. It is also necessary in the growth of new red blood cells.
When we eat food with B12 it binds to a molecule called intrinsic factor which occurs after going from the stomach to the small intestine. Together both of them travel down to the end of the small intestine, where B12 is absorbed into the blood.. Later, it is dumped into bile which is then dumped into the intestines where most of the B12 gets reabsorbed.
Our body needs at least 2.4 mcg of B12 per day.
If we reabsorb B12 then you may be wondering why or how a B12 deficiency is an issue. B12 is not naturally present in vegan foods except when fortified. When B12 is not consumed then a deficiency occurs.
For other people they do not make adequate B12 for the body to absorb either due to age or GI issues such as gastric bypass or total gastrectomy (stomach removal). On the opposite end, some people may have trouble absorbing B12 because they are missing the part of the small intestine that absorbs B12.
A B12 deficiency is actually very dangerous because it could be years before you realize you have a deficiency. Symptoms are not usually noticed right away due to B12 being reabsorbed by the body and due to folate.
Folate like B12 is also involved in the growth of new red blood cells. This growth slows down when there is a B12 deficiency. When adequate folate is given it will slowly increase the growth of new red blood cells masking a B12 deficiency. This would have appeared as fatigue due to anemia from lack of B12. The fatigue decreases with adequate folate. However, folate is unable to protect the nerves from harm. So the more deficient in B12 we are the more change we have of nerve degeneration.
Please see a doctor right away if you experience any of these symptoms or suspect a B12 deficiency.
- Nerve degeneration
- Sore tongue
- Loss of appetite
- Paralysis- severe symptom
Currently there are no reported symptoms of toxicity for Vitamin B12. Because B12 is a water soluble vitamin, If we eat or supplement with too much B12 then our body will eliminate it through our urine.
B12 Absorption Issues
However if we drink alcohol or take metformin that can interfere with B12 absorption.
Alcohol and B12
Ethanol is a substance that is in alcohol when we drink it. Ethanol decreases the rate B12 is absorbed by our small intestine (1).
Metformin and B12
Metformin also decreases B12 in our system. Therefore, if you are a person with diabetes and you think you have neuropathy please see your doctor right away especially if you have been on metformin. The tingling in your hands and feet may actually be a sign of a B12 deficiency.
Vegan Sources of B12
Most people in the United states do not need to worry about a B12 deficiency. B12 is found in animal protein sources, dairy products, eggs, and fortified cereals. Vegans need to worry about this as they do not consume these products except for vegan fortified foods.
B12 is fortified in certain vegan products These are the main 6 vegan sources of B12.
1: Nutritional Yeast
Have you ever tried this yellow flaky product? It gives foods a nice imitation cheesy flavor. It pairs well in dishes that would taste better with cheese such as mac n cheese, scrambled tofu or broccoli soup. Beware that not all nutrition yeast is fortified so you will need to read the label carefully.
Also, this is not dry yeast used for baking. If you do use this for baking then your dish won’t turn out as intended.
Use a minimum of 1 Tbsp of nutritional yeast in your dishes for ~100% of your B12 needs. Though brands do vary on the amount of B12 fortified in the product and the serving size.
2: Fortified Plant Based Milks
Plant based milks are very prevalent in the market these days. You can find soy milk, pea milk, almond milk, cashew milk, oat milk, and macadamia milk. Not all of them are fortified. Fortified plant based milks can be a good way to get your B12 intake. It can be drunk by itself, used in soups, casseroles, dinner or dessert recipes. Check the label to double check that it is fortified.
Most fortified milks will contain 40%-100% B12 needs in a 1 cup serving.
3: B12 Supplementation
Checking labels is not for everyone and some may prefer to simply take a supplement. There are a few different types of B12 supplements on the market. Remember to always check with your doctor before starting on a supplement
This is the most common form of B12 on the market. It is an inactive form of B12 that is activated in the body. It is also more stable than methylcobalamin.
This form of B12 absorbs better than cyanocobalamin. It is also the active form of B12. However it is less stable since it is light sensitive.
Consider starting with a B12 supplement with at least 25mcg. For any issues with anemia or GI absorption a larger dose around 300-1000 mcg may be necessary for passive B12 absorption in the intestine (2).
Remember to always check with your doctor before starting on a supplement.
4: Fortified Cereals
If you have ever walked down the grocery aisle housing the cereals then you will have seen the different types and brands of cereals on the market. Some are marketed as healthy but really aren’t. These cereals have whole grains but are full of sugar such as frosted flakes.
If you have a cereal craving then look for a vegan cereal. Most marketers who make vegan cereals will advertise their cereals as vegan on the front of the box. Unfortunately, not all vegan cereals are fortified with B12.
Pro Tip: look for a vegan cereal with less than 5gm of sugar, 3gm or more of fiber, and fortified with B12.
For a vegan who has diabetes, cereal for breakfast with plant based milk is not the best option as cereal is still processed and can raise your blood sugar quickly. The best way to see how you react with certain cereals is by monitoring it with a CGM.
5: Plant Based Meats
Some plant based meats are also fortified with B12. This again means reading the label and understanding how much B12 it is fortified with per serving.
Of course not all plant based meats are created equally and some like the impossible burger mimics its meat counterpart. The impossible burger is full of saturated fat and should not be used as a reliable source of B12 since it should be consumed rarely like its beef counterpart.
A good plant based meat alternative should be minimally processed with whole food ingredients and fortified with B12.
6: Nori Seaweed
Nori Seaweed contains natural B12 (3). In the book, Sustainable Global Resources of Seaweeds Volume 2, it points out that during the process of drying and storing the seaweed an unknown amount of B12 can be destroyed or converted to an inactive form of B12. Most nori seaweed products do not display any nutrition regarding B12. I found two brands that have tested the B12 in their product and have displayed it on the label.
- Emerald Cove, Organic Untoasted Nori Sheets
- Contains ~60% B12 needs in 1 sheet
- Ocean Halo Sushi Nori
- Contains ~100% B12 needs in a 2.5gm serving (~1 sheet)
Nori seaweed does contain B12 however, it should not be the only source of B12 in your diet. It is an unreliable B12 source. More research needs to be done in this area to determine how much B12 nori seaweed contains and how to retain the most amount of B12 in the drying and packaging process.
B12 is an important nutrient for our body and a deficiency can be very serious if not corrected right away. Our bodies have the amazing ability to reabsorb B12 but if we don’t supplement or eat vegan sources of B12 then our bodies will eventually run out of B12.
Not everyone has the ability to reabsorb B12 as they may not produce enough intrinsic factor or they have GI issues. Alcohol and metformin also have an ability to lower B12 in our bodies.
The best vegan sources of B12 are nutritional yeast, plant based milks and supplementation. Fortified plant based cereals, plant based meats and nori seaweed also contain B12 but the amount can vary and these sources are not the most reliable.
Remember to talk to your doctor before starting a B12 supplement or at least get blood work once a year to check your B12 levels.
What are your favorite products or supplements that help you maintain your B12 levels? Comet below. I would love to hear from you!