The Hype About B12 and Veganism
Where does B12 really come from and who should be concerned about deficiency?
If you’re vegan or vegan-curious, you’re likely to be asked about your B12 intake nearly as often as, “But where do you get your protein?". Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy brain function, a healthy nervous system, and to prevent anemia. It’s especially important for pregnant vegans and vegan infants. Non-vegans commonly assume that veganism is inherently unhealthy or unnatural because vegans need to consciously ensure they’re eating fortified foods with enough of the elusive vitamin, or they may need to take a supplement. But where does B12 really come from and who should be concerned about deficiency?
B12 isn’t made by either plants or animals, it’s made by microbes that can be found in soils and waterways.
Humans used to be able to get enough of the vitamin by drinking from streams or from eating vegetables grown in the soil. However, in our increasingly industrialized, capitalist food system, we treat our water and food with chemicals to kill all of the bacteria and hyper-sanitize food products. Land animals who eat from the ground and drink from natural water sources may still absorb B12, however our commercial agriculture system has greatly depleted the soils, so even grazing land animals may not be absorbing much B12.
Further, the majority of the factory farmed meat we consume in industrialized nations comes from animals who are not allowed out to graze. Instead of the grass their digestive systems thrive on, they’re being fed grains, corn, and soy, leading to a number of health issues. Again, thanks to hyper-sanitation in the capitalist food system, these animals similarly can be B12 deficient, leading farmers to inject cattle with B12 so they can market their products as containing the vitamin.
According to Dr. Jennifer Rooke, “90% of B12 supplements produced in the world are fed to livestock.” In other words, B12 is not simply “naturally” found in meat.
Land animals such as cows and pigs typically got their B12 by eating vegan diets, but today, even they are being fed supplements.
Approximately 40% of people between the ages of 26 and 83 have low levels of B12 and may experience neurological symptoms, according to the Tufts University Framingham Offspring Study. A further 9% had outright deficiency, and 16% exhibited “near deficiency”. Given that vegans and vegetarians make up about 0.5 and 3.2% of the American population, respectively, meat-eaters may have just as much cause for concern with respect to B12 deficiency. This is not a vegan problem, it’s a systemic one.
Dr. Michael Greger, M.D. and author ofHow Not To Die, asserts that animal products are not the healthiest sources of vitamin B12. Yes, we can absorb the vitamin from eating animals that have themselves been injected with B12, but consuming B12 through animal products brings us more undesirables than what it’s worth. For a modest absorption of B12, we’re also ingesting steroids and hormones that are pumped into the farmed animals so that they can survive in unsanitary factory conditions and so that they grow up to size faster, yielding more profits for companies in the animal agriculture industry. We’re also ingesting saturated fat and cholesterol, which can lead to congenital health issues over time.
“To get 47 micrograms of B12 from eggs, because the absorption is so low, we’d have to literally eat hundreds of scrambled eggs a day. 200 to 400 eggs a day,” he says. “If you got all your B12 from scrambled eggs, you’d consume 69,000 milligrams of cholesterol—practically your entire year’s worth every day.”
Knowing this, it makes far more sense to merely cut out the middleman and either supplement your B12 or eat fortified foods such as certain cereals, plant milks, nutritional yeast, and vegan meats. One cup of fortified plant milk, like Silk soy or almond milk, contains 50 percent of the daily required dose of B12, for example. One serving of Tofurky deli slices contains 60 percent. If vegan meats aren’t your thing, just a few teaspoons of fortified nutritional yeast will do the trick.
It is recommended that adults under 65 should aim for at least 250 mcg per day or 2,500 mcg per week through either fortified foods or supplementation. As we age we absorb less and less of the vitamin so vegans who are over 65 should consider increasing supplementation up to 1,000 mcg per day. However, as I’ve said, up to 40 percent of the population in general may be B12 deficient, and so supplementation might be necessary or appropriate whether or not you’ve embarked on a vegan transition.
B12 is an important vitamin and everyone should take steps to ensure they are not deficient. But if an individual’s reason for eating meat is that it’s a “natural” way to get B12, they should think again. If we wanted to get serious about eradicating B12 deficiencies, we would have to address our industrial food system that depletes the soils, hyper-sanitizes our vegetables, and keeps animals in unsanitary, unnatural conditions where they are unable to meet their nutritional needs.
Getting B12 through plant-based sources or supplementation is more compassionate, environmentally friendly, and doesn’t come with the added baggage of saturated fat, cholesterol, steroids, and hormones that themselves can be detrimental to human health. So forget about the hype, B12 is no reason to shy away from veganism.