Imagine what the period at the end of this sentence would weigh and that’s how much vitamin B12 you need on a daily basis (2.4 micrograms/day). And for the most part, the way to get it is by ingesting animal-based foods like lean meats, poultry, dairy products, eggs and fish. Since such a small amount is recommended, it might lead you (a vegan) to wonder whether or not it’s important enough to actually make a plan for how to get it. Is it irrelevant or truly essential? Well, in the short term it might seem inconsequential but if you kept up a purely vegan diet for a few years straight (without B12) a deficiency may start manifesting itself as fatigue, depression, mental confusion and anemia. Furthermore, I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that it could also lead to irreversible nerve and muscle paralysis.
B12 is made by microorganisms in the soil and in the intestines of animals, including our own (however, it is not adequately absorbed back into the system so we need to consume it from an outside source).
B12 serves several functions in the body. It aids in the metabolism of carbohydrate, protein and fat and helps produce red blood cells. It also helps to maintain the sheath that surrounds nerve fibers, protecting them and promoting normal growth.
As far as non-animal B12 food sources, there’s some misinformation out there. For instance, there are reports that tempeh, miso, sea vegetables and other plant foods have B12. While this is true, it is also inaccurate and misleading when it comes to using them for supplementation. That’s because it’s an inactive form of the vitamin and can actually interfere with normal B12 absorption and metabolism.
The best sources of food with B12 in its active form are nutritional yeast (not to be mistaken for brewer’s yeast), fortified cereal, fortified soy and almond milk and fortified meat replacements (food made from wheat gluten or soybeans).
A tablespoon of nutritional yeast supplies the daily recommended amount of B12. If you’ve never tried it before, it comes in the form of a powder or yellow flakes and can usually be purchased in bulk form at a store carrying natural foods (such as Sprouts, Sunflower Market, Whole Foods, etc). Nutritional yeast has a cheesy flavor so many vegans like to use it as a cow’s milk cheese alternative. It can be sprinkled over a baked potato, a bowl of popcorn, garlic bread or any kind of salad. You can also put it in soups to give it a creamy effect and to thicken it a little. For storage, do not leave it in the bulk plastic bag you purchased it in. Transfer it to an airtight glass container or sealed freezer bag and keep in a cool dry place away from the sink. If you do this, the yeast will last for a year or two. You can also take a cup of it and place in a shaker to make using it convenient.
As far as fortified foods, read the nutrition facts label to know how much B12 you’re getting per serving but to give you an idea, ½-1 cup of cereal usually does the trick. Be sure and give close attention to the labels while you’re shopping since it might take 2-3 servings of a particular food in order to get your daily requirement.
So do your favorite daily vegan recipes have enough B12? If you don’t typically eat the foods then do yourself a favor and begin making a plan to incorporate them as soon as possible. Also, give yourself some extra time at the grocery store the next time you go shopping to check some labels. There is also another alternative and that is to go with a supplement. More on that next week!
by Melissa Sanborn of Nutritional Brands, PureVegan
- The Vegetarian Resource Group Online www.vrg.org/nutrition/b12.htm
- Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition, Fifth Edition Whitney, Cataldo and Rolfes
- The China Study T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M Campbell