Here’s the dirt: vitamin B-12 is a very important micronutrient, essential for the metabolism of every cell in the entire body.
This water-soluble vitamin is essential for the health of the entire nervous system and plays an important role in the formation of healthy red blood cells. But contrary to popular belief, B12 does not originate in either animal or plant-based foods.
So what is B12? And how do we get it?
What is B12?
Vitamin B12 is one of eight B vitamins. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), B12 keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy. It also plays a key role in the creation of DNA—the genetic material found within all cells.
According to Dr. Michael Greger, author of How Not to Die (2015) and founder of NutritionFacts.org, ensuring you consume enough B12 is essential for any healthy diet. Adults require approximately 2.4mcg of B12 every day, while pregnant and breastfeeding people should consume 2.6mcg to 2.8mcg.
According to Nutrition Facts, supplementing with 30-5000 mcg daily has no apparent toxicity. Eating plenty of vegetables, fortified foods, and ensuring a good intake of other nutrients—particularly folic acid—will also support a healthy level of B12.
Studies indicate that B12 can help prevent anemia, support bone health, and improve your mood. Along with B1 and iron, vitamin B12 is sometimes referred to as an “energy vitamin” due to its impact on maintaining healthy energy levels.
The liver, kidneys, and other body tissues can store B12 for up to five years. Because of this, deficiency and associated symptoms can take some time to appear.
What is B12 Deficiency?
Research conducted by Tufts University indicates that up to 40 percent of Americans may be suffering from low B12 levels. This includes people with all diets, from meat-eaters to flexitarians to vegans.
Symptoms of B12 deficiency—also known as pernicious anemia—can include fatigue, heart palpitations, memory loss, numbness or tingling in hands and feet, and poor coordination. It can also cause tongue discomfort and discoloration.
There are a few factors in B12 deficiency. Impaired digestion from low stomach acid, lack of calcium, and age can all lead to reduced absorption. The rate at which humans can absorb B12 naturally decreases as we get older, diagnosing and treating deficiency as soon as possible is preferable.
Folic acid also contributes to the healthy absorption of B12. Folate, which is found in leafy green vegetables, is another B complex vitamin that the body cannot produce and must ingest. It is also essential in the creation and maintenance of healthy cells and DNA.
In addition to dietary factors, there are also genetic factors in B12 deficiency which can impact absorption and retention rates. A blood test from your doctor or physician can reveal your B12 and folate levels, and they can advise you if supplementation is required.
Where Does B12 Come From?
Bacteria in the digestive tract and microbial fermentation of foods produce B12. Previously B12 was found on unwashed vegetables, but modern hygienic practices, mass production, and nutrient-depleted soil all mean reduced B12 in plant foods.
Vegan advocacy group Forks Over Knives confirms that vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria rather than animal or plant-based foods. But animals naturally accumulate B12 throughout their lives, as well as via supplemented feed and exposure to manure. This is why, generally, animal products are typically higher in B12 than plant foods. Though antibiotic use, intensive farming, and other unnatural living conditions may be reducing the B12 content of meat and dairy.
Some vegetables and plant-based options naturally contain B12, too. Commercially available dried shiitake and lion’s mane both contain high levels of the essential vitamin. Some varieties of seaweed and water lentils also contain naturally occurring B12, and can be used to ensure a well-balanced diet.
Fortified foods are increasingly common, too. Many varieties of vegan milk, dairy products, and plant-based meat contain additional B12, while most breakfast cereals are fortified with essential B vitamins and other nutrients.
For many people, nutritional yeast is a go-to for supplementing B12 in a vegan or plant-based diet. Studies indicate it contains around 5mcg of B12 per tablespoon, which is more than double the RDA for adults.
Who Needs to Take B12 Supplements?
The prevalence of B12 deficiency indicates that it does not exclusively impact those following a particular diet.
Vegetarians and vegans who do not supplement or consume fortified foods may be impacted, while those following the Standard American Diet (SAD) are perhaps more likely to be impacted by nutrient deficiencies overall. Regardless of diet, everyone should have their B12 levels checked by a medical professional every few years.
While consuming as many nutrients as possible from food is optimal, both the NIH and Dr. Greger have noted that it may be difficult to meet requirements from fortified foods alone. Both the NIH and Dr. Greger recommend taking a vegan-friendly B12 supplement, which is available in a variety of different forms.
Multivitamin tablets and gummies are abundantly available. But B12 can also be purchased in liquid, sprayable, and lozenge forms—all of which can be taken sublingually, or underneath the tongue. Some vitamin casings include animal-derived ingredients such as gelatine. But producers typically clearly label vegan-friendly options.
B12 supplements are commonly available as either cyano or methyl-cobalamin. Cyano is more commonly available, less expensive, and has a longer shelf-life. Methyl is less common, more expensive, and has a shorter shelf-life, although studies show that it may have an improved retention rate.
B12 injections are also an option for those who have an existing deficiency. Ensure you speak with your doctor or physician before introducing any new supplements into your diet.
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