If anything, the huge number of articles appearing now reminding vegans to take vitamin B12 (also known as cobalamin) is a testament to how far Veganuary has taken root in our collective consciousness. A timely reminder it is too particularly with the campaign likely to be promoted by television advertising.
Someone going vegan for a month is not, of course, going to have any problems. This much was confirmed by Professor Tim Key, professor of epidemiology and deputy director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University.
Professor Key has been a vegan himself for many years and takes B12 supplements. He said: “If people become vegan because of that, and don’t ever bother to read up about what you need to eat as a vegan, I would be worried they won’t know about B12.”
Many vegans are “dangerously short” of vitamin B12
All vegans, and flexitarians to some extent, need to ensure that they do take sufficient levels of vitamin B12.
At a Science Media Centre briefing in London ahead of the Veganuary campaign, experts from the Universities of Oxford, Leeds and King’s College stated that perhaps as many as twenty per cent of vegans may be “dangerously short” of Vitamin B12. This was based on a small study of 172 vegan men in the UK.
Tom Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, commented:
“Of all the micronutrients, B12 is the one we’re most concerned about. I’m concerned many people think B12 deficiency is a myth.
“It’s something that can be easily avoided, and what concerns me is that many new people becoming vegan are unaware of the need to combine sources of plant proteins. And they’re not aware of the need to ensure they have adequate levels of B12.”
Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy nerves, cells and DNA. It is found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, but not in fruits, vegetables or grains. A deficiency can lead to anaemia and nerve damage which can take a few years to manifest. Pins and needles in the hands or feet are the preliminary symptoms of a problem.
A sensible diet is essential
Most vegans who follow a sensible balanced diet will either eat fortified foods such as cereals, milk alternatives, vegan spreads, yeast flakes and extracts. They may alternatively take a supplement – liquid supplements are viewed by many nutritionists as being superior.
The experts warned of the ‘rapid, large increase in processed foods that look like animal foods but are not really designed to be nutritionally equivalent or better’. This is again a reminder that it is essential to follow a balanced diet.
Vitamin B12 is made by micro-organisms and is not produced by plants. Interestingly this deficiency in the vegan diet is pounced upon by opponents of the diet as proof that the diet is not a natural one for humans.
It is important to realise that hundreds of years ago humans received plenty of B12 from the good quality cobalt-rich soil that had not yet been intensively farmed and drained of nutrients. Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria found in soil as well as in the guts of animals but the bacteria can only make B12 if the soil contains the mineral cobalt. additionally, in those days the vegetables were not washed as thoroughly as they are nowadays.
In November the Florida based company Parabel USA Inc announced that it had discovered naturally occurring plant-based vitamin B12 in water lentils, commonly known as duckweed.