By David Hewitt
There’s a chance that you have read this about veganism before. If you have, it’s always worth hearing again. If you haven’t, then you need to listen up big style.
Going vegan is the single most important thing that you can do for a trio of unique things - the animals of the planet and rejecting cruelty and exploitation, the environment in which we all live in and, as we will look at in more detail, your own health.
Now something that a few less may have heard of – the importance of vitamin B12. It’s kind of super mega important to not becoming ill and staying alive and other such massively, massively important things.
Note: B12 is actually wrongly classified as a B vitamin, as it originates from bacteria living in the soil. However, because of its similarity in purpose, it has been classified as a B vitamin. So, it’s no surprise that with the modern farming techniques we now have, where we used to able to get B12 from the dirt on vegetables, that’s no longer the case – unless you are buying organic with mud and dirt naturally on them.
Like so much about veganism, there are lots of myths about. Omnivores and out and out anti-vegans like to try and flag B12 deficiency up as being a chink in the armour of the vegan argument. Nothing though could be further from the truth.
First up, let’s quickly zoom in on veganism and health.
The health benefits of making the change to veganism are both huge and profound. By removing meat and animal by-products from your diet, you will, for example, significantly reduce your saturated fat and cholesterol intake – the main offenders when it comes to having things like weight gain problems, diabetes and coronary heart disease issues, to name just a few.
A vegan diet is also rich in fiber, antioxidants and has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels – offering potential benefits to those suffering from Type II Diabetes. It also helps reduce the risk of developing cancers like colorectal or bowel.
While protein is obviously good for us all, you can though of course have too much of a good thing. Many in the West, courtesy of their carnivorous inclinations, eat way too much protein (and a ton of fat along with that) courtesy of their processed red meat intake. In contrast, a vegan diet provides for a reasonable intake of protein from things like spinach, nuts, lentils, legumes, cashews and peas, sans the animal fat and cholesterol.
This is of course all great news for vegan healthy living. However, it would not be reasonable (and vegans are very reasonable people) to stress all of that without sounding a note of caution.
A vegan diet needs to be thought through. It is likely going to be a radical change for many who have probably been brought up as omnivores and are exploring the Veganosphere lifestyle for the first time. It can be wonderfully healthy, but all vegans need to make sure that they are getting enough nutrients, in particular, vitamin B12. And B12 is a vitamin you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of by not inviting round often enough…
Don’t be alarmed though vegan people, there are many ways to get around this B12 issue. Before we look at those solutions though, here’s the run down on what vitamin B12 is.
As nutrients go, this is pretty much a biggie. Even though B12 is only ever needed in much smaller amounts when compared to other vitamins, it’s still crucial to your overall health nevertheless.
Like all the other B vitamins, B12 plays a vitally important role in keeping your central nervous system ticking along nicely. It also helps with making and sustaining your DNA and also keeps your blood cells healthy. If you’re saying “is that all” at this point, you need to stop what you are doing right away and get yourself booked into medical school for the next five years. Because here’s why…
A deficiency in B12 can create any number of health issues, none of which are going to make for you to have a great day. Anemia, weakness, lethargy and constipation are also common with B12 deficiency, as are mental health issues like depression or dementia. Nerve sensation problems in the hands and feet have also been identified as a B12 deficiency issue.
And now, if you’re a new vegan or just vegan-curious, here’s the bit that’s going to make you sit up more in your chair and makes your eyes widen a little as you take this next bit in. Vitamin B12 is not widely naturally occurring in plant foods. A little disconcertingly for vegans, it is though found in a wide range of animal products. (Still, 40% of Americans are B12 deficient and that’s with an omnivorous diet supposedly replete with it.)
However, in the style of Coldplay, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dad’s Army (and my, how I thought I would never type those three things together): don’t panic! Not only are vegans the aforementioned reasonable people, they are also very practical and have B12 options to hand so as to keep them on the healthy straight and narrow without compromising their principles.
Being fortified works not only for castles, it works a treat in vegan produce too. Take non-dairy milks like almond, soy, cashew or coconut. They’re often fortified with a range of vitamins, including B12. When buying, just check out the label – it’s that easy to get easy access to vitamin B12 in just this one scenario alone. It’s also a superb reason to ditch “regular” dairy in the first place.
The same fortification fancy foot-work applies to some cereals too. As with the vegan milk with which to douse it in, fortified cereals are often armed with a whole host of added nutrient goodies, including B12. That label on the box is there for a good reason. (Vegans are easily spotted in supermarkets as they squint at the side of various tins and packages as they meander up and down the aisles.)
And for a trio of fortified goods, you can also get your hands on things like vegan breakfast or energy bars that boast a B12 addition.
Then there is a nutritional yeast. “Nooch” as it is affectionately known, is a deactivated yeast, which comes with a cheesy / nutty taste and is therefore perfect as a cheese substitute flavoring for vegans. Be mindful though, some brands come with B12 fortification, and some don’t. So, as ever as a vegan, a little research beforehand always helps. As a head start - in the UK, try Engevita, while in the US, go for Bragg’s or Bob’s Red Mill. All three are B12 fortified and far from expensive.
Saving the best (and by “the best” I mean “totally contentious”) to last, then there is always yeast extract spread. A savory, dark as the night, yeast extract spread, popular in the UK, it goes well as a breakfast condiment spread on toast. Replete with B12, this is a vegan go-to if, and only if, it suits your palette. It has a history of being divisive between those who love it and those who hate it. Personally, I think it’s greatness should be taught at school on a compulsory basis and it should run for office – but that’s me.
Note: Australia’s version, Vegemite, doesn’t come with B12 in its regular version I’m afraid – sorry Australia (although you’ve been winning the Ashes again way too much, so you can afford to take the hit on this one…) .... that said there is a new yeast extract in Australia that is Vegan and does have B12 in it, its called AussieMite
As ever, knowledge continues to broaden and deepen about additional B12 sources for vegans. Sea vegetables, like seaweed, alaria, kelp, nori (aka sea lettuce) and blue-green algae have all been identified as a potentially good source of B12, containing over 65 percent of the RDA for B12.
Outside of regular food intake, vegans that are still concerned about running a potential B12 deficiency can always add to their diet by taking nutritional supplements. These are becoming ever more popular, widespread and can increasingly be found at a reasonable price. In the UK for example, the Vegan Society offers “Veg 1”:
“(a) nutritional supplement developed by The Vegan Society, it provides as affordable, reliable source of vitamin B12, iodine, vitamin D and selenium.” Source
That is one provider of many, many more, and that’s just in the UK. So, having options when considering your nutritional supplements, wherever you are in the world, shouldn’t be a problem for you.