So, you’ve decided to go vegetarian. Or, you’re ready to embrace a vegan lifestyle.
it’s honorable and important to cut animal products out of your diet (and for many reasons). But, be prepared to lose out on (and compensate for) animal-based whole food sources of certain nutrients.
Second: some nutrients absent in plant-based diets are vital. Yes— your health can greatly suffer if you don’t get enough of them. And one of these nutrients is vitamin B12.
Vegans and Vegetarians Are Most Vulnerable to B12 Deficiency
Besides the elderly, vegans, vegetarians, and other plant-based eaters are at the highest risk for vitamin B12 deficiency. That said, is vitamin B12 deficiency a big deal?
Yes. All humans require vitamin B12. Most get it from meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, or fortified foods. When we cut out these foods, we risk deficiency. Deficiency symptoms can include digestive or nervous system problems, anxiety, depression, vision loss, heart problems, and more.
How should vegans and vegetarians make up for less vitamin B12? Luckily, plant eaters have a few options.
Whole Food Sources of B12 or B12 Supplements?
Need more B12 in your all-plant diet? You’ve got a couple choices. You can go the capsule route with vitamin supplements. These tend to contain cyanocobalamin, a synthetic B12 form that converts into more natural forms in your body.
Or, you can go the whole food route, getting natural vitamin B12 from non-animal products. Whole food sources contain methylcobalamin, the B12 version naturally found in foods. Studies suggest you might retain this version in your body better than cyanocobalamin, too.
So, which is best for a completely plant-based diet: supplement or plant-based whole foods? Cyanocobalamin or methylcobalamin? The answer is probably both.
Food sources contain what’s thought to be the best form of B12, methylcobalamin. But, to get anywhere near your daily requirements, you’d have to eat quite a bit of those foods— nowhere near what the average person could possibly eat. This is where supplements help, even if they don’t contain the most ideal form of B12.
Top Whole Food Plant-Based Sources of Vitamin B12
Where do you find vitamin B12-rich foods in the grocery store? Look out for the following non-animal foods shown to contain vitamin B12 to some degree.
#1: Nutritional Yeast
Once initiated into the vegan world, you’re bound to see lots of vegans using nutritional yeast. This yeast is sprinkled atop foods and meals much like seasoning and contains trace amounts of vitamin B12.
Keep in mind: most nutritional yeasts are also fortified with synthetic B12 to make them substantial sources. One tablespoon per day (about 8 mcg of B12), provides more than your daily allowance through cyanocobalamin (about 1 to 25 mcg per day).
#2: Seaweeds and Sea Vegetables
Sea vegetables contain trace vitamin B12. Nori (or laver), a sea algae in Japanese cuisine, is known to be one of the richest sources, sometimes containing 10-22 mcg per tablespoon.
Studies show it’s poorly absorbed naturally though, especially in the elderly or people with compromised digestive health. You’d have to eat roughly 10 to 20 times what healthy people eat to get the same benefit.
Mushrooms show lots of promise as substantial vitamin B12 sources for vegans and vegetarians. Especially dried shiitake mushrooms, which research shows could provide your daily needs— that is, if you eat roughly 6 tablespoons (about 3 ounces) per day.
Vitamin B12 has a knack for showing up in fermented foods, and fermented soybeans (tempeh) are no exception. Tempeh is dubbed a “considerable” source. Still, you’d have to eat roughly 20 single-ounce servings every day to get the B12 you need to be healthy.
#5: Fermented Teas and Kombucha
Tea leaves (like fermented black tea, oolong tea, or kombucha) have noticeable levels of B12. Studies show regular tea consumption in Japan (1-2 liters per day) was enough vitamin B12 to keep rats healthy, but not enough for a human being.
You’d have to drink more fermented tea than the average person in Japan drinks daily to stay healthy.
#6: Kimchi (and Other Fermented Vegetables)
Fermented, or pickled, vegetables— like kimchi— are shown to contain some vitamin B12. However, these B12 levels are incredibly minute. You’d have to eat about 300 tablespoons a day to get your daily allowance.
That’s about 18 cups of kimchi. No one eats that much!
#7: Barley Grass
Barley grass is the young stage of the barley plant. There are many claims (and some studies, here and here) saying it contains vitamin B12. Still, little info exists saying how much (or how well) it’s absorbed when eaten. It might possibly provide some B12 in healthy people, though how much is uncertain.
#8: Fortified Foods
Of course, you can always turn to fortified plant-based foods. The most common are fortified cereals and milk alternatives. However, these only provide cyanocobalamin, the synthetic, less natural, and less retained form of B12 compared to methylcobalamin.
Whole Food Plant Eaters, Vegans, and Vegetarians Face a Dilemma.
If you’re passionate about whole, sustainable foods— but still need more vitamin B12— what do you do?
You can resign to synthetic supplements (or unnatural fortified foods). Or, you can rise to the challenge of getting vitamin B12 from only whole plant sources (which means eating LOTS of them). Or, you can do some combination of both.
#9: Vegan B12 in Supplement Form
Yes, B12 supplements can be a fantastic option as well, and since it's a water-soluble vitamin, B12 is generally safe in larger amounts* although you should always check with your doctor. All Root'd fizzy multivitamins contain healthy amounts of B12 with our Men's and Women's over 100% to give you that extra Boost!
While cheap options exist, whole-food-based Supplements absorb in your body much better and are more likely to be free from additives or other toxins. If you chose to take a supplement, be sure to look for "Methylcobalamin" as the source ingredient.
Yawen Zeng, Xiaoying Pu, Jiazhen Yang, Juan Du, Xiaomeng Yang, Xia Li, Ling Li, Yan Zhou, Tao Yang (2018). Preventive and Therapeutic Role of Functional Ingredients of Barley Grass for Chronic Diseases in Human Beings. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity Vol. 2018 ID 3232080.
Lamia Lahouar, Safia El-Bok, Lotfi Achour (2015). Therapeutic Potential of Young Green Barley Leaves in Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Diseases: An Overview. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine 43(7) 1311-1329.