11 Best Vitamin B12 Foods for Vegetarians

“11 Best Vitamin B12 Foods for Vegetarians” was written by Haley Bishoff, RD, LD and reviewed/edited by Katie Dodd, MS, RDN, CSG, LD, FAND.

Haley is a plant based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the owner of Rūtsu Nutrition.

What is Vitamin B12?

What is Vitamin B12? Let’s start off by talking about what vitamin B12 is and why it’s so important.

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a water soluble vitamin found naturally in some foods. It can also be added to food through fortification (1).

Benefits of Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 has many roles in the body such as red blood cell formation, DNA synthesis and is crucial for a healthy functioning central nervous system (1).

Deficiency can occur when serum vitamin B12 levels remain inadequate longterm. Vitamin B12 deficiency can present itself in many ways, however the most common side effects include (2):

  • Numbness & tingling in the hands, legs or feet
  • Balance problems
  • Anemia
  • Swelling of the tongue (glossitis)
  • Memory loss
  • Weakness & fatigue

A blood test is required to detect vitamin B12 status. Longterm and untreated deficiency can be irreversible.

Speak with your physician about getting your vitamin B12 levels checked regularly, especially if you are considered to be in a high risk population.

High risk populations include those who follow vegan or vegetarian diets, weight-loss surgery patients, individuals with gastrointestinal disorders and the elderly.

Vitamin B12 and Vegetarians

Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal-based foods.

This is why vegetarians and vegans pose a higher risk for deficiency. But no need to worry, there are many alternative plant-based food sources that contain adequate amounts of vitamin B12.

Let’s discuss what vegetarianism is and what types of foods are consumed with this type of eating pattern.

In general, vegetarians abstain from eating meat products such as poultry, pork, beef, lamb or veal. However, there are a few subtypes of vegetarians, and they include:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Consumes dairy products and eggs; avoids meat and fish.
  • Lacto-vegetarian: Consumes dairy products such as cheese, milk, butter and yogurt; avoids meat, fish and eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarian: Consumes eggs; avoids meat, fish and dairy products.
  • Pescatarian: Consumes fish, eggs and dairy; avoids meat.
  • Vegan: Avoids all animal products and byproducts including meat, dairy, eggs and fish; consumes primarily fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes.

Don’t stress if you are vegan or vegetarian because there are still plenty of ways to get vitamin B12, as long as you the food sources!

Remember, there are many fortified foods that contain vitamin B12, among other important nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D3.

Believe it or not, fortified foods have a higher bioavailability of vitamin B12 when compared to animal-based foods (1). In other words, the absorption of vitamin B12 in the body is greater when it is added through fortification.

Additionally, vitamin B12 can easily be supplemented.

Supplements have shown to be nearly 50% more bioavailable when compared to food sources (1). We will review options for supplementation later in this article.

Vitamin B12 and the Elderly

Unfortunately, vitamin B12 absorption in the body naturally decreases as we age (1). This is due to a reduction of gastric secretions over time.

Why Vitamin B12 Absorption Decreases with Age

Let’s talk about how Vitamin B12 is digested and absorbed. This will provide a better understanding of why the elderly are at a higher risk for deficiency.

Vitamin B12 is bound to protein in food. In order for the body to absorb vitamin B12, it must be released from the protein. This starts when saliva and food are combined in the mouth.

After food is swallowed it reaches the stomach. Here, hydrochloric acid and other gastric secretions help bind vitamin B12 to a protein called haptocorrin (1).

Next, vitamin B12, bound to haptocorrin, exits the stomach and enters the small intestine. Here, more digestive enzymes help release vitamin B12 from haptocorrin.

After this step, vitamin B12 binds to intrinsic factor. Intrinsic factor is a protein produced by cells in the stomach. It is necessary for the absorption of vitamin B12 in the small intestine (1).

As we age, the natural production of intrinsic factor and hydrochloric acid decrease. This is one of the primary reasons why the elderly population is at a higher risk for vitamin B12 deficiency.

Studies show, up to 43% of community dwelling older adults have a vitamin B12 deficiency (1).

However, there are more causes of low vitamin B12, aside from the reduction in gastric secretions. For example, some medications can interfere with the absorption of vitamin B12 (1).

Medications That Interfere with Absorption of Vitamin B12:

  • Metformin – controls high blood sugar levels
  • Omeprazole & Lansoprazole – proton pump inhibitor, reduces acidity in stomach
  • Ranitidine & Cimetidine – antacid and antihistamine, reduces acidity in stomach

Talk to your doctor and/or pharmacist with medication concerns.

Fortified Vitamin B12 Foods for Elderly

Approximately 10-30% of older adults are unable to absorb vitamin B-12 through food sources (DRIs).

Therefore, it is recommended that older adults get at least half of their vitamin B-12 through fortified foods or supplements (DRIs). Note: Fortified foods do not “naturally” contain vitamin B-12. Rather, food companies have added that nutrient to the food.

Vitamin B12 and Pernicious Anemia

Remember earlier in this article we discussed the roles of vitamin B12? Healthy red blood cell formation is one of them!

Pernicious anemia is when the body is unable to produce enough red blood cells due to lack of vitamin B12 (3).

Individuals who have pernicious anemia are unable to absorb adequate amounts of vitamin B12 from food sources because they lack intrinsic factor (3).

A complete blood count (CBC) and serum B12 will help diagnose pernicious anemia (3). Pernicious anemia is indicated by a low number of red blood cells that are abnormally large in size (3).

Serum vitamin B12 low and normal ranges are listed below (4):

  • Less than 150 pg per mL determines vitamin B12 deficiency
  • 150 to 399 pg per mL determines low to normal levels
  • Over 400 pg per mL determines normal levels with no deficiency

Speak with your physician and Registered Dietitian about dietary or supplemental treatments regarding your individual results.

How Much Vitamin B12 Do I Need?

Vitamin B12 is important. But, how much vitamin B12 do you need?

Recommended Dietary Allowances for Vitamin B12

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is the average daily amount of nutrient intake that is deemed sufficient to meet nutritional requirements for 97-98% of individuals (1).

AgeMaleFemalePregnancyLactation
Birth – 6 months0.4 mcg0.4 mcg  
7-12 months0.5 mcg0.5 mcg  
1-3 years0.9 mcg0.9 mcg  
4-8 years1.2 mcg1.2 mcg  
9-13 years1.8 mcg1.8 mcg  
14+ years2.4 mcg2.4 mcg2.6 mcg2.8 mcg

Table: RDA for Vitamin B12 based on age, gender and pregnancy status (1).

Vitamin B12 Supplements for Vegetarians

It’s important for high risk populations and those with low serum levels to supplement with vitamin B12.

Supplements come in many forms. The most common types are sublingual tablets, lozenges, intramuscular injections, nasal sprays and intravenous methods.

Intravenous forms of vitamin B12 are typically given in the case of severe deficiency or pernicious anemia (3).

It’s important to note there are no regulations for supplements. Always speak with your physician or Registered Dietitian for specific recommendations.

11 Best Vitamin B12 Foods for Vegetarians

11 Best Vitamin B12 Foods for Vegetarians

Without further ado, here are our 11 best vitamin B12 foods for vegetarians.

Vitamin B12 Foods for Vegetarians:

  • Fortified Breakfast Cereals
  • Nutritional Yeast
  • Dairy Milk
  • Fortified Plant-Based Milk
  • Tempeh
  • Natto
  • Shiitake Mushrooms
  • Yogurt
  • Non-Dairy Yogurt
  • Chorella
  • Eggs

1) Fortified Breakfast Cereals

Many cereals are fortified with a variety of vitamins and minerals. Take a look at the food label to know if your cereal is fortified with vitamin B12.

Fortified Breakfast Cereals

Any value over 20% on the food label is a good source of that specific nutrient.

Be aware that many cereals also contain excess added sugars. It’s a good idea to compare labels when grocery shopping to find the healthiest options.

For more food label reading tips, consult your Registered Dietitian.

2) Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional Yeast is an inactive yeast, also known as Saccharomyces Cerevisiae.

Vegan diets often include nutritional yeast. It has a cheesy flavor profile.

Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional yeast is an incredibly versatile ingredient. It is common to serve on salads and pasta dishes. And to make dairy-free cheeses.

Nutritional Yeast is a good source of many B vitamins, including vitamin B12. However, not all nutritional yeast is fortified, so be sure to check the food label.

In addition, nutritional yeast is a great source of protein. Both nutritious and delicious!

3) Dairy Milk

Dairy products are also high in vitamin B12.

The absorption has shown to be nearly three times greater in dairy when compared to meat, fish and poultry (1).

Dairy Milk

Dairy products, just like other animal-based foods, tend to be high in saturated fats and sometimes added sugar.

For those who do not consume dairy milk, fortified plant-based milk can be a good option.

4) Fortified Plant-Based Milk (Soy, Almond, Cashew, etc.).

A majority of non-dairy milks are fortified with vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D3.

There are so many delicious dairy-free options nowadays. Examples include soy, oat, almond, coconut, and more.

Fortified Plant Based Milks

Remember, fortified foods have better vitamin B12 bioavailability when compared to animal sources. Don’t be afraid to try one of the many delicious non-dairy brands on the market!

5) Tempeh

Tempeh is not a household name, but should be for its many health benefits.

Tempeh is a complete plant protein. It is made from fermented soy beans.

Tempeh

Most forms of tempeh will come flavorless, similar to tofu. Be sure marinate tempeh with your favorite seasonings and sauces before cooking!

6) Natto

Natto is not common in a standard American diet.

However, it’s highly popular in Japan. Natto is another form of fermented soybeans.

Natto

This food has a unique texture and taste. It is common to serve over white rice.

7) Shiitake Mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms are packed with nutrients!

However, shiitake mushrooms and their vitamin B12 content have shown to vary (6)

Shiitake Mushrooms

It is common to lightly pan fry shiitake mushrooms with a little olive oil and garlic.

If you’re someone who doesn’t love the texture of mushrooms, that’s ok! Try chopping them up really fine and adding them with other mixed vegetables.

8) Yogurt

As previously mentioned, dairy products are high in vitamin B12.

Yogurt, including Greek yogurt, is a good source of vitamin B12, among other nutrients.

Yogurt

Yogurt, just like milk, is naturally high in saturated fats. Be sure to read the nutrition facts label. You can choose a lower fat yogurt option if needed.

And if you don’t eat dairy, you can choose one of the many dairy-free yogurt options!

9) Non-Dairy Yogurt

Many non-dairy alternatives are fortified with vitamin B12.

Choosing a plant-based brands such as Daiya will provide up to 40% of the daily value for vitamin B12.

Non Dairy Yogurt

And of course, be sure to check the food label for nutritional content.

10) Chorella

Chorella is a species of algae, Chorella vulgaris, that naturally contains vitamin B12 (5).

It’s typically found as a powder that can be mixed with water or into a tasty smoothie.

Chorella

11) Egg

Eggs are suitable for ovo or lacto-ovo vegetarians.

Eggs are a good source of protein. Additionally, they have many vitamins and minerals. This includes vitamin B12.

Eggs

However, some individuals need to limit a large intake of eggs.

Conclusion: Vitamin B12 Foods for Vegetarians

Vitamin B12 is a vital nutrient for our bodies to function and thrive.

Those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet often hear about the many concerns for deficiency. As we now know, there are many other ways to consume vitamin B12 without meat products.

Hopefully this article helped you gain a deeper understanding of vitamin B12 foods for vegetarians, supplements, and methods for screening.

Go get yourself some nutritional yeast or tempeh and find a new recipe. Enjoy your delicious, vitamin B12 rich meals!

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(Feel free to use this infographic; please link back to this post and give credit to The Geriatric Dietitian!)

References:

  1. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/
  2. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/vitamin-b12-deficiency-can-be-sneaky-harmful-201301105780
  3. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/pernicious-anemia
  4. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2017/0915/p384.html
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5188422/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6163222/

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