Summary: This article provides a thorough background on Vitamin B12 needs for people following a vegan diet. But if you simply want our recommendation on how to avoid deficiency, here it is: every day or two take one of these 1000 microgram Now 1000 mcg B12 Lozenges.
What is Vitamin B12?
Of all the nutrients that vegans should pay attention to, Vitamin B12 belongs 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.
The most common indication of B12 deficiency is tingling in the hands and feet. Other symptoms that could indicate deficiency are:
- Confusion and unclear thinking
- Poor coordination or balance and problems with walking
- A swollen tongue
- Unusual weakness or tiredness
Only animal-based foods, or supplemented vegan foods, contain Vitamin B12. Unfortified vegan foods contain virtually none of this nutrient. Yet deficiencies often take several years to become evident. That’s because the liver stores comparatively large amounts of B12. Deficiency can creep up over time, silently doing damage before symptoms arise. Additional time can pass, with yet more harm inflicted, before a B12 deficiency is diagnosed.
Should People on a Vegan Diet Take a Vitamin B12 Supplement?
Despite the clear need to take this nutrient seriously, you may run into vegans who insist that there’s no reason to take a B12 supplement. These people confidently assert, “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 do some vegans seem to take pride in spurning B12 supplements? Perhaps the cause traces back to the 1980s and 1990s, when several prominent vegan advocacy books downplayed the need for vegans to take B12. Because these books cited early and unreliable research, misinformation regarding B12 got a giant head start on the truth.
Why B12 Supplements Make Sense
The arguments against taking B12 supplements are easily debunked. Here are the most common ones:
- Some people contend B12 supplements are unnecessary because this nutrient is produced naturally in your intestines (it’s not, at least in a way that your body absorbs).
- Other people claim algae or seaweed are good B12 sources. Seaweed contains no B12. Some algae (particularly chlorella) contains it, but the amount present varies, it costs much more than conventional supplements, and you have algae’s potential toxicity risks to consider).
- Still other people assert you can satisfy your B12 requirements by not washing your vegetables (that’s just silly).
In at least a couple cases, prominent vegan authors who contributed to B12 complacency went back to eating animal products. But the damage their books have done produced long-lasting ripple effects that continue to lead vegans astray.
Meeting Your B12 Needs
Vegans can easily meet their B12 needs through supplements or by regularly eating B12 fortified foods. Some supplements contain non-vegan ingredients. But plenty of vegan B12 supplements are available, including my top pick.
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 absorbing B12 through the capillaries in your mouth. A sensible dosage is a 1000 to 2000 microgram cyanocobalamin tablet taken a few times a week. Note that many brands of B12 contain methylcobalamin, but research indicates cyanocobalamin will 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. 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 taking supplements. Additionally, you can have difficulty meeting your B12 needs through fortified foods. That’s because comparatively few products are B12 fortified, and fortification is usually at low levels.
Most vegans will therefore find they can more reliably meet their needs by purchasing a bottle of vegan B12 lozenges.
What’s the Best Vegan Vitamin B12 Supplement?
Sublingual B12 supplements are available online or at any natural foods store. Of the dozens of B12 supplements carried by Amazon.com, probably the best deal is Now’s 1000 microgram lozenges. This inexpensive sublingual lozenge contains the cyanocobalamin molecule and gives you a large dose of B12.
Sprays can also satisfy your needs B12 needs but I don’t recommend them. While they might perhaps be better absorbed than lozenges, they also cost vastly more. I don’t think the expense is justified since most people will have no trouble meeting their needs with inexpensive lozenges.
The primary thing to focus on 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 lozenges or “sublingual” tablets. There’s no need to spend a lot for your B12 supplement. The purchase price of expensive supplements goes primarily toward slick and often misleading 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.
It’s therefore prudent to get your B12 levels tested regularly. You could have undetected problems with absorption that can put you at risk of deficiency even if you take a daily supplement.
If your levels remain low despite daily use of sublinguals, your doctor may recommend regular injections. Since injections go straight into the muscle, they guarantee excellent absorption. These injections require a prescription in the United States. But in Mexico and many other countries, you can buy, without a prescription, syringes pre-loaded with B12 at any pharmacy. Obviously, only people with proper medical qualifications should administer these injections.