Should Vegans Take Vitamin B12 Supplements? Is it Natural?

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I’ve been on a vegan diet now for a few months (no meat, dairy, or cheese). I’ve told some people but I haven’t told everyone that I eat a mostly plant-based diet. People generally don’t like knowing that you are a vegan for ethical reasons because automatically they feel they are being judged on their decision to eat animals, and they can be defensive about this. I find that unless you really know someone well, it’s better to simply order vegan/vegetarian meals at the restaurant and if asked by curious people if you are vegan/vegetarian, tell them that you are but you are doing so for health reasons as there is considerable scientific evidence that a diet optimal for longevity consists of about 95% to 99% plant food. However, it is possible to be on an omnivore diet and be very healthy if you don’t eat too much meat and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. The vegan diet looks good because it’s often compared to the standard American diet. However, compare a vegan diet against a healthy omnivore diet and I don’t think there are that many health benefits, so once you know someone well enough, I think it’s a good idea to switch from using health arguments to using ethical arguments. If someone is a true friend, they’ll accept your values.

While being a vegan, one person has asked me how I got vitamin B12 in my diet. For beginners, vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that cannot be found in any plant. But it can be found in meat.

My friend argued that because vitamin B12 cannot be found in plants it therefore means the vegan diet is unhealthy. I told him this was false because there is a lot of non-animal food available for consumers that is fortified with vitamin B12. For example, the yeast extract Marmite is a vegan/vegetarian product (see Marmite FAQ) that has vitamin B12 in it (see Marmite Nutritional Information). Here in Australia, Marmite is simply available in your local Coles supermarket. There are many other brands of yeast extract with vitamin B12 in it, e.g. Mightymite and Salt Reduced Vegemite. There are a lot of other food that is fortified with vitamin B12, such as Bragg Nutritional Yeast. Nutritional yeast is very popular in America among vegans but here in Australia there doesn’t seem to be too much of it.

Isn’t food fortified with vitamin B12 unnatural?

Some people argue that because vitamin B12-fortified food has vitamin B12 added to it, it is therefore unnatural and therefore unhealthy. These people typically argue that meat is a natural source of vitamin B12. This is false. Firstly, vitamin B12 does not come from animals. Vitamin B12 comes from bacteria. The bacteria is then added to the animal (either by feeding the animal vitamin B12 fortified food or by injecting the animal with vitamin B12) and then we humans eat the animal. About 90% of the vitamin B12 supplements made in the world is fed to livestock, not humans.

Another issue is that just because a food is natural, it doesn’t mean it is healthy. For example, the death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) is a completely raw and natural food, but as you can tell from the name, it is poisonous. However, a multivitamin is highly processed and most brands contains various synthetic chemicals, yet the Harvard School of Public Health recommends that individuals take a daily multivitamin. To simply say that natural = healthy and unnatural = unhealthy is illogical. Something is healthy if it is healthy, regardless of whether it is natural or unnatural.

Another problem with assessing food based on whether it is natural is that a diet consisting only of raw, natural, unprocessed food is not healthy. The most natural diet is a raw food diet consisting of raw vegetables, raw fruit, raw nuts and seeds, and raw meat. This diet can have major problems. Cooking food, although it is human processing, can have many benefits. Firstly, it concentrates calories and makes nutrients more digestible (see Raw Food Not Enough to Feed Big Brains). Of course, it is not the case that cooking is always best. Overcooking food can create carcinogens, e.g. in crispy french fries and overcooked meat. Once again, this goes back to my point that human processing is not necessarily bad and not necessarily good. It depends on what the processing is, and we need to assess the toxicology of each food on a case-by-case basis rather than make assumptions or generalizations about whether a food is natural or unnatural.

Another major issue is that it’s hard to really know what is natural. The fruits, vegetables, and animals we eat today are completely different to what was found millions of years ago. The major problem is that man has destroyed nature. A good example is fish. Fish contains omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D. However, our oceans are now heavily contaminated with heavy metals. The USFDA recommends that we limit our fish to those lower on the food chain and to also limit our intake to about two meals per week. The USFDA states that although some fish contain more mercury than others, mercury is found in all fish. I’d rather trust getting my vitamin D and omega 3 from a trusted supplement company that tests its products for mercury and synthesizes its products under controlled laboratory conditions rather than trust Mother Nature to provide me with clean fish from an ocean that has been polluted by man.

Isn’t supplemented vitamin B12 hard to absorb?

No. In fact, vitamin B12 in supplement form is easier to absorb than vitamin B12 bound to animal protein.

According to Dr Jennifer Rooke (Do Carnivores Need Vitamin B12 Supplements?): “Even if you only eat grass-fed organic meat you may not be able to absorb the B12 attached to animal protein. It may be more efficient to just skip the animals and get B12 directly from supplements. B12 attaches very tightly to animal protein. Strong stomach acids are needed to break down the protein so that B12 can get into your blood.”

According to Harvard University (Nutrition Insurance Policy: A Daily Multivitamin): “Many older people have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from food; the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, in fact, recommends that people over the age of 50 eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 or take vitamin B12 supplements.”

Do you take vitamin B12 supplements?

To cover me in case I am deficient in an important nutrient, I take a multivitamin. If you are a vegan, I recommend looking specifically for vegan multivitamins with non-animal ingredients. Just read the label. Two examples are below:

Taking a vegan multivitamin in the morning everyday ensures you can eat without worrying about nutritional deficiencies. There is a chance that you may have, for example, a hereditary disease that prevents certain nutrients from being absorbed. To hedge your bets, it is best to not only take a daily multivitamin but to go to your doctor every so often and get a complete blood test. In fact, regardless of whether you are vegan or not, you should take a daily multivitamin and get a blood test every now and then.

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