Of all the nutrients that vegans must pay attention to, Vitamin B12 is at the very top of the list. It is essential for nervous system health, so every vegan needs to take this nutrient seriously. People with B12 deficiency risk developing numerous conditions ranging from worrisome to horrific.
Only animal-based foods, or supplemented vegan foods, contain Vitamin B12. Unfortified vegan foods contain virtually none of this nutrient. Deficiencies may take several years to arise though. That’s because the liver often stores comparatively large amounts of B12. It’s dangerous to be complacent about finding a reliable source of B12 because deficiency can creep up over time, silently doing damage before symptoms arise.
Do Vegans Need to Take Vitamin B12?
One of the great annoyances of being vegan is that you will sometimes encounter other vegans who insist that there’s no need to take a B12 supplement. Generally speaking these people will say something like, “I’ve been vegan for eight years, never take B12 supplements, and I’m in perfect health,” but meanwhile they’re all twitchy and something just isn’t right. In many cases these people will experience a health crisis, return to eating meat, and then tell the world that a vegan diet leads to failed health. Unfortunately, having a productive dialog with these folks is generally futile, just like there’s no reasoning with the Vegan Police.
Why are there so many vegans who take pride in spurning B12 supplements? It’s because back in the 1980s and 1990s several prominent vegan advocacy books came out that downplayed the need for vegans to take B12. Because these books referred to early and unreliable research, B12 misinformation got a big head start on the truth.
Why Supplements Make Sense
There are all sorts of ludicrous arguments asserting that vegans don’t need B12. Some people contend it’s produced by your intestines (it’s not, at least in a way that your body absorbs). Others claim algae or seaweed are good sources (no again, even though some inaccurate tests yield positive results). And still other people proclaim you can satisfy your B12 requirements by not washing your vegetables (that’s just silly.)
In at least a couple cases, the vegan authors contributing to B12 complacency went back to eating animal products. But the damage these books have done have produced ripple effects continuing to today.
Meeting Your B12 Needs
Vegans can easily meet their B12 needs through supplements or by regularly eating B12 fortified foods. Some of these supplements contain non-vegan ingredients, but all of the supplements featured on this page are vegan.
When swallowed as a pill, B12 is absorbed poorly. You’ll get better absorption from B12 lozenges or ‘sublingual tablets’, which are different words for the same thing. You let these tablets dissolve under your tongue, thereby enabling B12 absorption through the capillaries in your mouth. A sensible dosage is a 1000 to 2000 microgram tablet taken a few times a week. Note that many brands of B12 contain methylcobalamin, but research indicates cyanocobalamin can satisfy your body’s needs with much smaller doses.
Foods commonly fortified with B12 include non-dairy milks, cereals, meat substitutes, energy bars, and nutritional yeast. Check the food’s nutrition label to see its level of B12. Many of these foods contain this nutrient in surprisingly small amounts. Note that B12 fortified foods are dosed with the very same B12 that is put into supplements. This means that obtaining your B12 through fortified vegan foods is in no way more “natural” than purchasing supplements. Additionally, it may be difficult to meet your B12 needs through fortified foods, since comparatively few products are fortified, and B12 fortification of foods is often at low levels.
The Best Vegan B12 Supplement
For most vegans, it’s therefore much easier and more reliable to simply buy a bottle of vegan B12 lozenges. Sublingual B12 supplements are easy to find online or at any natural foods store. Of the dozens of B12 supplements Amazon stocks, probably the best buy is Now Foods’ 2000 microgram cyanocobalamin lozenges. A bottle comes in under $10, and gives you a large dose of B-12, that includes the cyanocobalamin molecule.
Unless you like burning money, avoid sprays or other high-priced B12 products. While sprays may perhaps be better absorbed than lozenges, they also cost vastly more. The one thing you should care about when choosing a vegan B12 brand is bang for the buck. Strive to get the most micrograms of cyanocobalamin per bottle at the lowest cost. And don’t buy tablets intended to be swallowed—instead, choose “sublingual” tablets or lozenges. There’s no good reason to buy expensive brands of B12 . The purchase price of expensive supplements goes primarily to buy slick advertising.
Dealing with Poor B12 Absorption
Ability to absorb vitamin B12 decreases with age, and some people cannot absorb sufficient B12 orally. Luckily, determining your B12 levels is one of the cheapest blood work tests available, and it’s standard on every basic nutrient panel.
If your levels are low despite regular use of sublinguals, injections may be warranted. Since injections go straight into the muscle, they guarantee that high levels of B12 will be absorbed. These injections require a prescription in the United States. But in Mexico and many other countries, you can buy hypodermic needles pre-loaded with B12 at any pharmacy without a prescription. Obviously, only people with proper medical qualifications should administer injections.
For more information about nutrients of special interest to vegans, see our Vitamin and Supplement Guide. Also be sure to check out our Vegan Nutrition Guide.