We hear that vitamin B12 is only present in animal products – that we can’t get it from plant-based foods. It’s in eggs, fish, meat, dairy and poultry. So, this raises some very tricky questions for vegans:
Do we need B12 – and if so, what for?
If B12 only occurs in animal products, does this mean we need to eat at least some animal-based food?
Are B12 vitamin supplements ultimately derived from animal sources?
How the hell does a vegan get vitamin B12?
We only need B vitamins in tiny micro-doses, but nevertheless B12 is essential to help blood form and for the brain and nervous system to function properly. In fact, B12 is involved in the metabolism of every single cell in the human body. It’s a serious vitamin.
If we don’t get it, early symptoms of a B12 deficiency might include tiredness, light-headedness, rapid heart rate, easy bruising and bleeding, weight loss, bowel upset or a sore tongue. That’s just for starters.
A lack of B12 has been linked to vegan diets and B supplements are often recommended for vegans or those transitioning to veganism for that reason. So there is a real cause for concern.
B12 is a nutrient that is produced by a bacteria. This bacteria is alive in animals and therefore the nutrient is present in animal foods. Does this mean that animals are the only source? Do we have to eat animals to get all of the nutrition our body really needs? Is veganism fundamentally flawed?
Or is there another way?
Historically we could get the vitamin B12 we need from bacteria in the soil that our food grows in but in these days of ultra food hygiene our vegetables can be sterile. Herein lies the problem, it’s not that veganism has a fundamental glitch, it’s that modern food practices are bleaching vegetables of some of their soily goodness.
Now, the only reliable sources of B12 for vegans are from foods fortified with B12. So get stuck into your fortified breakfast cereals, Vegemite, nutritional yeast, fortified nut milks, fortified breads and for obvious reasons meat and dairy substitutes are usually B12 fortified – but check the labels.
B12 supplements and B12 as a fortification in vegan foods is harvested from bacterial micro-organisms and so vegans need not fear about the source being from meat, dairy, eggs or animal products.
Are bacteria little animals?
Bacteria are not animals, they are classed as prokaryotes which are tiny multi-cellular organisms built up of cells which do not contain a nucleus. Safe! Whilst we can’t say that no bacteria were harmed in the consumption of Vitamin B12, it’s safe to say that the little critters don’t have a brain with which to detect or even conceive of pain. Thank God for Science.
Here at the mat movement we love massaging a little bit of nutritional yeast into a kale salad. We often use half a teaspoon of Vegemite to enhance soups, stews or dals, as part of a stock. B12 keeps us bright, cheerful and ready for another wonderful day on this magical rock in space.