Tuesday, 17 May 2011

What's the deal with B12?

It's said by some that in in the vegan community the issue of vitamin B12 is sometimes swept under the carpet, or mentioned as an afterthought.  The vegan diet has a lot going for it from a health perspective, including lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases, and a good vegan diet will have ample amounts of all nutrients, but there is one dastardly little vitamin that escapes a plant-based diet: vitamin B12.  Yes, it's true.  The vegan diet is lacking in one nutrient.  And the kicker is that we need such a tiny amount of it.  In a whole lifetime, the average person only needs about 40 milligrams of B12!  But I personally don't think we should ignore this problem and pretend it's not there, but rather bring the issue out into the forefront.  Everyone starting out as a vegan needs to be aware of the need to either consume B12 fortified foods, or take a supplement.
When I first starting contemplating veganism, I was well-aware that vegans needed to supplement with B12.  But it was only when I was collecting a plethora of positive health claims about veganism that I started to wonder why.  Why would such a tiny nutrient, required in only micrograms a day, be left out of this otherwise incredibly healthy diet?  So I looked the subject up, and here's what I found.

B12 is not inherent in animal products.  It grows on bacteria.  Meat is rich in bacteria because the bacteria is attracted to...dead flesh.  Aren't we all?  The story goes that herbivore animals usually obtain B12 from eating their own feces.  Now, apparently in communities where a plant-based diet is the norm, such as in certain parts of India, B12 deficiency does not seem to occur; however, when people from these cultures migrate to more developed countries, they develop a deficiency.  The culprit appears to be our "lifeless" soil that has been overly sterilised from pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals.  Since B12 is produced by bacteria, it doesn't seem to want to grow in this squeaky clean soil.  Studies have also noted that countries such as India often seem to have water that is contaminated with bacteria, including bacteria from feces, and that B12 is sometimes obtained from that water.

Personally, upon hearing that my options are either eating bacteria-ridden dead flesh, my own feces, or drinking water contaminated with other people's feces, my reaction is, um, I'll take the little supplement pill, thanks.  I don't know about you.

Some people have suggested that several plant-based sources of B12 might be used instead, including seaweeds and our own intestinal bacteria, but none of them have been found to be very reliable sources so far.  There is some evidence that organic produce, a certain type of algae, or tempeh might turn out to be reliable, but at the moment, the best we know is that vegans should take either a supplement, or be sure to eat sufficient amounts of B12 fortified food.  I myself take a supplement.  I don't want to be bothered to try and drink a certain amount of non-dairy milk a day, and I don't eat a lot of meat analogues, nutritional yeast, or breakfast cereals, which are the foods typically fortified with B12.  If you are abstaining from both meat and dairy, you really need to be doing one of the following: eat fortified foods with at least 3 micrograms of B12 per day, take a B12 supplement of 10 micrograms a day, or take weekly supplement of 2000 micrograms.*

Even though it's true that many people have a built up store of B12 for several years when they first become vegan, assuming that you are one of these people is not very wise.  Overt B12 deficiency is no sweeping-under-the-carpet matter; it can ultimately result in blindness, deafness, or dementia.  Early symptoms can include fatigue and a tingling in the hands and feet.  Mild B12 deficiency may not come along with any symptoms, but will cause elevated levels of homocysteine, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. 

If there is any tendency in the vegan community to keep quiet about the need for B12, I think it may be due to the concern that in lacking one little vitamin, veganism might seem like an "unnatural" diet.  I think this supposition is illogical on three counts.  First of all, vegans are not the only people who get B12 deficiency.  Lacto-ovo vegetarians and meat-eaters also suffer from it.  In fact, doctors recommend that people older than 50 years take a B12 supplement anyway.  Secondly, while we don't know for sure, the evidence certainly seems to suggest that our soil is the problem, not the vegan diet.  Thirdly, and here's the part where I give these members of the vegan community a little tough love, who cares?  Don't monkey around with your health like that!  You're worried that people won't think veganism is a natural diet?  What does a natural diet even mean?  None of us are eating what our cave people ancestors ate.  We've moved past that.  And I think we need to give people a little credit.  If people are compelled by the ethical reasons of veganism, have heard of all of the fantastic health benefits, and they're at the point where they think they might be willing to actually change their diet, they're not going to be dissuaded from doing so by the fact that they have to take a pill once a week.  And if they are, they were never serious about the change in the first place.

Vegans should be supplementing with B12, and we don't need to make this recommendation in a whisper.  Take the supplement, and tell others to take the supplement.  Unhealthy vegans are a much worse advertisement for veganism than a pill.  And keep in mind that when you are taking that supplement, you are missing the saturated fat, unhealthy animal protein, trans fat, and cholesterol that come along with the B12 in meat and dairy.

*click here to see a complete list of age appropriate B12 recommendations.

Vital Vittles

Vegan Caesar Salad

Since we're talking about a nutrient that's not really food based, there isn't really a related recipe.  So instead I'm giving you Alicia Silverstone's recipe for vegan caesar salad, only slightly modified, because I've been obsessed with it lately.  It's quite salty and tart, so if you're sensitive to these tastes, you might want to add the mustard and soy sauce sparingly.  The original recipe can be found in The Kind Diet, (UK), (Can).

1/2 tsp dried rosemary
1/4 tsp sea salt
3-4 slices wholemeal bread, cut into cubes
Olive oil

2 tbsp blanched or roasted almonds
3 garlic cloves, minced
1.5 tbsp mustard
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil

1 large head romaine lettuce, washed, torn and patted dry

Preheat the oven to 325 F/160 C.  Toss together the bread cubes, rosemary, and salt in a large bowl.  Drizzle with olive oil, and then toss again.  Spread bread cubes onto a baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until dry and toasted.  Cool completely.

Combine the almonds, garlic, mustard, soy sauce, tahini, lemon juice, and oil together in a food processor or blender, process until well-blended.

Toss the lettuce, croutons, and dressing together in a serving bowl.  Serve immediately.

Campbell, T. Colin, The China Study:The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2006.
National Institutes of Health, "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin B12," http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/vitaminb12/, accessed 17 May 2011.
Norris, Jack, R.D., "B12: Are you getting it?" Veganhealth.org, accessed 17 May 2011.
Norris, Jack, R.D., "What every vegan should know about B12," Veganhealth.org, accessed 17 May 2011.