Everything Vegans Need to Know about Vitamin B12

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Have you ever heard of people with extreme fatigue going to the doctor and getting an order for B12 shots? Or have you seen those B12 energy drinks at checkout counters? It’s an important nutrient. B12 is important for our energy levels, but is also necessary for our bodies to make red blood cells, and it keeps our nerves healthy, prevents certain diseases caused by deficiency in this vitamin, and more.

The recommended daily intake for vitamin B12 is 2.4ug. 

Vitamin B12 is mainly made by bacteria that typically live in the digestive tracts of animals, including us. As the bacteria make B12, it is absorbed by the animal, which is why our primary source of B12 as omnivores has always been from animal meat. Although we too contain B12-producing bacteria, it’s thought that the bacteria live in the wrong location of our digestive tract (our colons), which accounts for our lower absorption rate.

Some studies have shown that when people become vegan, the bacteria tend to migrate up our digestive tract into the large intestine where we are much better able to absorb it. However, that usually still isnt sufficient to meet all of our B12 needs. In fact, even eating meat isn’t sufficient for meeting all of our B12 needs! The Institute of Medicine recommendeds that every adult (regardless of diet) who is over age 50 take a vitamin B12 supplement or eat B12 fortified foods.

To be clear, though we may all hope that our B12-creating bacteria do migrate higher into our digestive tracts, it is very common for vegans to become deficient in vitamin B12 unless care is taken to ensure we are recieving this nutrient.

Luckily, B12-fortified foods are very common, so even those under age 50 can easily get more of this vitamin through diet alone. The other good news is that since B12 is made by bacteria, vegans don’t need to look for separate products; most if not all B12 on the market is vegan. Supplementing is easy as well since B12 is a very common supplement found at most stores, incluing Dollar Tree.

B12-fortified Foods to Look For

Some of the products listed here are available on Amazon! As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.

  • Some vegan cheese (particularly some Violife and Daiya brand products).
  • Bragg Nutritional Yeast Seasoning can be found with a fortified version (can be used similarly as a spice to add a cheesy flavor to a dish).
  • Some power bars are fortified as well. One brand that I really like is CLIF; not all of their products are fortified, but many are. The Clif Carrot Cake bar is a real treat. Some varieties of Luna bars also contain B12, and a fortified brand that I’ve seen online (but never tried) is Sakara.
  • The Propel electrolyte packets contain 20% DV for B12.
  • Many non-dairy milk products can be found that are fortified with B12, particularly Tempt hemp milk and various Dream brand milks such as Cashew Dream and Coconut Dream.
  • Some breakfast cereals are fortified with B12.
  • If you’ve ever visited Australia or the UK and fallen in love with Marmite, you’ll be pleased to hear that it’s B12 fortified (and can be found on US shelves, often in the International section).

(Source for some of the above ideas, and where more ideas can be found: OneGreenPlanet.org, 13 Vegan Foods and Drinks Fortified with B12)

Plant Sources of B12

Yes, there are plants that contain B12! Here are four plant sources of B12:

  • Some types of seaweed, particularly nori (possibly*)
  • Some types of algae, particularly chollera
  • Duckweed (a freshwater aquatic plant)
  • Some types of mushrooms, particularly shiitakes
  • Tempeh, though only when ‘contaminated’ with B12′

Although the above plants have been shown to be excellent source of B12, it is not the plants themselves that are producing the vitamin but rather bacteria that live on their surface, which means that seaweed or algae that are farmed (in sterile conditions) usually do not provide any B12 value.

*It should be noted that wild seaweed should only be consumed in moderation as it contains high levels of iodine which can affect the thyroid, as well as other harmful substances commonly found in ocean products, particularly heavy metals such as mercury and lead.

However, the other three sources (chollera, duckweed and shiitakes) definitely look promising as a food source that people can adopt to increase B12 levels.

Duckweed is a very recent discovery as a natural plant-based B12 source. The company Parbel who grows duckweed (also known as water lentils) for production into their plant protein powder Lentein tested five times with multiple laboratories to ensure the results were accurate and sure enough: duckweed is a source of B12 they found!

Shiitake mushrooms are one of the best and easily achievable plant sources for vitamin B12 with about 5.16 ug of B12 per 100 grams, which is more than double the recommended daily value of 2.4ug. An easy way to add more shiitake mushrooms to your diet besides all of the traditional ways of cooking mushrooms is to eat mushroom jerky. Many brands are available on Amazon and they come in a variety of flavors. Consuming the 50g of mushrooms daily that would be needed to meet the daily requirement for B12 wouldn’t be easy, so ensuring that you get other fortified foods as well is still important.

Several other mushrooms also have been shown to contain significant levels of B12, though not as much as shiitakes, including golden chantrelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius), black trumpet mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides) and lion’s mane mushrooms (Hericium erinaceus).

Ultimately, vitamin B12 comes from bacteria, so any source (that doesn’t involve animals) is acceptible in a vegan lifestyle. However, it’s very important that you’re sure to recieve B12 regularly as deficiency is common, particularly in older adults.

Comment below with your favorite way to add B12 to your diet!

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