• Alyssa Fontaine, RD
  • Apr 02, 2024

5 Vegan Sources high in B12

The majority of negative attention directed towards vegan diets can be attributed to its association to vitamin B12 deficiency. This vitamin, vital for many bodily functions, has long been associated with animal-based foods. 

For this reason, it is often questioned how even a balanced vegan diet can supply enough B12 to meet the recommended requirement. However, a B12 deficiency can be prevented while adhering to a plant-based diet. 

What is B12?

Vitamin B12, often simply referred to as B12 or cobalamin, is a nutrient that plays an essential role in our bodies’ overall health and functioning. 

What is the function of B12?

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is needed for several important functions in the body. Here is a list of its key functions:

  1. Red Blood Cell Formation: B12 is essential for the production of red blood cells in the bone marrow. 
  1. Nervous System Health: B12 plays a critical role in maintaining the health of the nervous system.
  1. DNA Synthesis: B12 is necessary for the synthesis of DNA, the genetic material in our cells. It is particularly important during periods of rapid cell division, such as in growing tissues and during pregnancy.
  1. Energy Metabolism: B12 helps convert food into energy by playing a role in the metabolism of fatty acids and amino acids. 
  1. Maintenance of Cardiovascular Health: Adequate levels of B12 are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease as it helps regulate homocysteine levels, an amino acid that, when elevated, can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems.
  1. Skin, Hair, and Nail Health: B12 contributes to healthy skin, hair, and nails by promoting cell regeneration and overall tissue health.
  1. Digestive Health: B12 plays a role in maintaining the health of the digestive tract’s mucous membranes.
  1. Folate Metabolism: B12 is necessary for the activation of folate (vitamin B9), another important B vitamin involved in DNA synthesis and red blood cell formation.

These functions highlight the need for vitamin B12 plays in maintaining overall health and well-being. A deficiency in B12 can lead to a range of health issues.

Therefore, it’s important to ensure an adequate intake through diet or supplements, especially for individuals following vegan or vegetarian diet.

Are there vegan sources of B12?

Yes, of course. While vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal-based foods, vegan sources of B12 exist. However, they are typically limited. 

What is the difference between B12 in animal products and vegan B12 sources?

There are differences between B12 from animal products and B12 from vegan sources. The key distinctions are the following:

  • The source of B12
    • B12 in animal products: B12 found in animal products (i.e. meat, fish, dairy products) is naturally occuring.
    • B12 in vegan sources: B12 found in vegan sources are not typically naturally occuring. Most vegan sources of B12 are derived from fortified foods or supplements, which are often industrially made from synthetic forms of B12.
  • The bioavailability:
    • B12 in animal products: B12 found in animal products can be more readily absorbed.
    • B12 in vegan sources: B12 from fortified foods and supplements may not be as efficiently absorbed as B12 from animal products. Therefore, B12 vegan sources are not as easily absorbed.
  • The reliability:
    • B12 in animal products: B12 in animal products is a reliable source of the vitamin for omnivores.
    • B12 in vegan sources: Not all foods that are vegan sources of B12 are reliable in their bioavailability of B12. 

Can you get B12 from vegan sources?

Yes, there are many fortified products that are vegan, as well as good sources of B12.

What is the best way for a vegan to get B12?

The best way for a vegan to get an adequate supply of vitamin B12 is through a combination of fortified foods and supplements. Here’s a recommended approach:

  1. Introduce vegan sources high in B12 into your diet
  2. Increase dietary awareness and be mindful of dietary choices made
  3. Educate yourself and stay informed about vegan nutrition and vegan sources high in B12
  4. Regularly Monitor B12 status through blood test to help ensure that adequate B12 levels are maintained
  5. Consult a plant-based registered dietitian for personalized guidance on your B12 intake and dietary choice.

What are good sources of vitamin b12 for a vegan?

Vitamin B12 can present a unique challenge for vegans, since it is exclusively found in animal-based foods.

For this reason, it is important for vegans and vegetarians to be aware of their B12 intake and consider supplementation if not regularly consuming vegan sources of B12.

5 vegan sources high in B12

  1. B12 Fortified Foods: Many plant-based foods are fortified with B12 to help vegans and vegetarians meet their dietary needs. These include fortified plant-based milk (such as almond, soy, or rice milk), breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, and meat substitutes. Be sure to check the product labels for B12 fortification.
  1. Nutritional Yeast: Nutritional yeast, often used as a cheese substitute in vegan dishes, is a good source of B12 when fortified. 
  1. Shiitake Mushrooms: Shiitake mushrooms are a great vegan source of B12. Levels of B12 can vary, but they are generally considered sufficient to meet daily requirements. For 100g (dry weight) of shiitake mushrooms, 5.61 mcg of B12 is consumed on average.
  1. Tempeh: Tempeh is made from fermented soybean and whereas the B12 content is near undetectable, tempeh can be a great source of B12. Levels of B12 can vary, ranging from 0.7 mcg to 8.0 mcg of B12 for 100g of tempeh.
  1. Algae or Seaweed: Algae can be a good vegan source of B12. However, it is important to note that there are several different edible types of algae and not all are good sources of B12. Moreover, research on algae as a good vegan source of B12 is in its early-stages. 

However, one study on plant food sources of B12 found that dried green laver (specifically called, Enteromorpha sp.) and purple lave (specifically called, Porphyra sp.) contain significant amounts of Vitamin B12, with approximately 63.6 μg/100 g dry weight and 32.3 μg/100 g dry weight, respectively.

Additionally, for those wondering about chlorella and spirulina, it is advised to check the nutrition labels for these products in search of B12 content. However, these algae supplements often contain a pseudovitamin of B12 that is inactive in humans.

Are there natural sources of B12?

Vitamin B12 is almost exclusively found in animal-based foods. There are very few natural plant-based sources of this vitamin. However, some natural sources of B12 do exist.

Where do vegans get natural sources of B12:

  1. Shiitake mushrooms
  2. Certain Algae or Seaweed
  3. Naturally Fermented Foods

It’s essential for vegans to be aware that these natural sources of B12 may not provide sufficient intake to prevent deficiency-related health issues. Moreover, the content and bioavailability of B12 may not always be reliable or consistent.

For this reason, vegans are typically advised to rely on fortified foods or supplements to meet their B12 needs reliably. 

Regular monitoring of B12 levels through blood tests is essential for vegans to verify that they are maintaining sufficient B12 status. Consulting with a healthcare provider or vegan registered dietitian can provide personalized guidance on B12 intake for vegans.

Can you get B12 from plant sources?

Yes, shiitake mushrooms and algae are considered plant sources of B12.

Which vegan foods are high in B12?

Vegan sources of food high in B12 include: B12-fortified foods, nutritional yeast, tempeh, shiitake mushrooms and algae or seaweed.

Vegan B12 SourcesFood ItemPortionB12 Content (mcg)
B12-fortified foodsSoy milk1 cup (250 ml)1.0 mcg
Almond milk1 cup (250 ml)1.0 mcg
Oat milk1 cup (250 ml)1.0 mcg
Nutritional yeastFortified nutritional yeast, Large flakes16g, 30 mL (2 heaping tbsp.)8.0 mcg
TempehFortified tempeh, Fresh weight100 g0.97  mcg
Shiitake mushroomsDry weighed shiitake mushroom100g5.61 mcg
Algae or SeaweedDried green laver (Enteromorpha specie)100 g63.6 mcg
Purple laver (Porphyra specie)100 g32.3 mcg

Why do vegans lack B12?

If vegans don’t get enough vitamin B12 in their diet, they may eventually have B12 deficiency. Some people might run low on this vitamin in a few months, while it could take years for others. How bad it gets depends on how soon it’s found and fixed.

That being said, there are several factors contribute to the risk of B12 deficiency among vegans:

  1. Dietary Restriction: Vegans exclude all animal products from their diets, including meat, fish, dairy, and eggs, which are the primary sources of naturally occurring B12.
  1. Limited Natural Plant-Based Sources: While vegan foods like shiitake mushroom and algae contain B12, they are generally not considered reliable sources of the vitamin. These sources are inconsistent and may not provide the biologically active form of B12 that the body needs.
  1. Poor Absorption of B12 Analogues: B12 analogs found in some plant-based foods, like algae or seaweed, are structurally similar to B12 but are not biologically active forms of the vitamin. 

Given these factors, it’s crucial for vegans to take steps to prevent B12 deficiencies, such as regular monitoring of B12 levels through blood tests and consulting with plant-based registered dietitians for personalized guidance on B12 intake.

What are the health risks of a vegan diet without B12?

A vegan diet that lacks adequate vitamin B12 can lead to various health risks and potential complications. Here are some of the health risks associated with a vegan diet that lacks B12:

  1. Anemia: A common consequence of B12 deficiency is megaloblastic anemia, which is characterized by larger, immature red blood cells that are less effective at carrying oxygen. 
  2. Neurological Issues: B12 is crucial for maintaining the health of the nervous system. A deficiency can lead to neurological symptoms, including numbness and tingling in the extremities, difficulty walking, balance problems, memory issues, and even nerve damage.
  3. Mood Disorders: Some studies suggest a link between B12 deficiency and mood disorders, including depression and anxiety. Adequate B12 levels are important for mental well-being.
  4. Cognitive Decline: Long-term B12 deficiency can contribute to cognitive decline and an increased risk of dementia, particularly in older individuals.
  5. Cardiovascular Risk: Elevated homocysteine levels, which can result from B12 deficiency, are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
  6. Complications in Pregnancy: Pregnant vegans who are B12 deficient may be at risk of giving birth to infants with developmental delays, neural tube defects, and other health issues.

What are the signs for B12 deficiency?

Vitamin B12 deficiency can manifest through a variety of signs and symptoms, and they can vary in severity. Some common signs and symptoms of B12 deficiency include:

  • Fatigue
  • Pale or Jaundiced Skin
  • Mouth Ulcers and Glossitis
  • Numbness and Tingling
  • Balance Problems
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mental fogginess can occur.
  • Blurred or distorted vision
  • Weakness and Muscle Fatigue
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Nausea and Loss of Appetite
  • Constipation or Diarrhea
  • Nail and Hair Changes

It’s important to note that not everyone with a B12 deficiency will experience all of these symptoms, and the severity can vary. Additionally, some of these symptoms can overlap with other health conditions, making diagnosis challenging without proper testing.

If you suspect you have a B12 deficiency or experience several of these symptoms, it’s crucial to seek medical advice and undergo blood tests to measure your B12 levels. 

Early detection and treatment of B12 deficiency are essential to prevent potential complications and health risks. A healthcare provider can determine the underlying cause of the deficiency and recommend appropriate treatment, which may include B12 supplementation or dietary changes.

How can I raise my B12 level fast?

There are 3 ways you can increase your B12 levels:

  1. B12 supplements
  2. B12 injections
  3. Vegan sources high in B12

The best way to raise B12 levels fast in case of a deficiency is to take B12 supplements. Moreover, for severe deficiencies, there are also B12 injections that can be offered by your doctor for rapid improvement of B12 levels.

In addition to B12 supplements or injections, increasing the dietary intake of vegan sources high in B12 is also a good way to raise B12 levels. This includes: B12-fortified foods, nutritional yeast, tempeh, shiitake mushroom, and certain algae.

How can I increase my B12 absorption naturally?

Vegan sources high in B12, that are also natural, are limited. Therefore, a good answer for this question depends on whether or not B12 deficiency is present.

Without a B12 deficiency:  Include natural foods high in B12 in your diet. Hence, incorporate shiitake mushrooms and the right algae or seaweed into your diet.

With a B12 deficiency: Increasing B12 levels with natural foods alone may not be the best option in the case of a deficiency. While natural foods can contribute to B12 intake, relying solely on these dietary sources may not provide the rapid and consistent increase in B12 levels needed to address a deficiency effectively.

If you suspect or have been diagnosed with a B12 deficiency, consult a healthcare provider or registered dietitian. They can provide personalized guidance on the most appropriate approach to address your specific situation.

What blocks B12 absorption?

There are certain substances that can interfere with the absorption of B12. Here are some examples of substances that could reduce or block B12 absorption:

  1. High fiber intake: Consuming excessive amounts of dietary fiber can block B12 absorption. While a high-fiber diet is generally healthy, it must be balanced with a diet rich in B12 foods or supplements, if needed.
  2. High zinc intake: An excessive intake of zinc, such as through supplements, can reduce B12 absorption.
  3. High tannin intake: Tannins, found in tea and red wines, may inhibit B12 absorption if consumed in large amounts.
  4. Medications: Certain medications can interfere with B12 absorption. Examples include proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), H2 blockers, and metformin.
  5. Alcohol: Excessive alcohol consumption can damage the stomach lining and impair B12 absorption.

How much B12 do you need as a vegan?

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for B12 is of 2.4 mcg per day for adults.

Can you get enough B12 on a vegan diet?

Yes, of course! It is possible to get enough vitamin B12 on a vegan diet alone. However, this typically requires conscious effort and attention to dietary choices. 

Why? Because vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal-based foods, and natural or vegan sources of B12 are limited.

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