When Chef Barry Horton and I teach our nutrition/cooking classes, the subject of vitamin B12 inevitably comes up. In transitioning to a vegan/plant-based diet, many are fearful of possible deficiencies, when the reality is that a plant-based regimen can easily provide satisfactory levels of most nutrients. Most. So where does B12 enter the picture?
The incorrect opinion held by many is that Vitamin B12 originates in animal foods: muscle and organ tissue. It makes sense on the surface – there is B12 in steak, so you need to eat steak for B12, right? The truth is that B12 comes from a bacteria, and is produced by that bacteria in the gut of animals and humans alike. To eat a food as unhealthy as flesh just for the purpose of receiving this single vitamin is not nutritionally sound. The negatives of eating meat clearly outweigh the benefit of getting B12. However, vitamin B12 should be of concern for everyone (meat-eaters are suffering from B12 deficiencies as well…).
One reason why cows, for instance, have B12 in their flesh is that they eat their plants unwashed. There is still soil on the grass they eat, and when they ingest it they get the goods to produce the B12 in their bodies. On the other hand, we wash our produced, and keep everything else in our lives pretty unnaturally sanitized (‘unnaturally sanitized’ sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t), so it is very possible we lack the ability to produce the vitamin. In addition, a proper amount of digestive enzymes and acids in the stomach are required to release food/protein bound B12 (the kind that comes in flesh) for absorption, so even meat-eaters may not be absorbing the B12 they are consuming because they lack a strong digestive tract to do so (stress impairs digestion, but that’s an upcoming subject).
So here’s the deal…For most of my clients, to be on the safe side, I recommend a sublingual B12 supplement whether they’re vegan or not. Sublingual (under the tongue) because it is a more direct route into the body, and doesn’t rely on a possibly impaired digestive tract. I also recommend, especially for those who consume primarily cooked foods, digestive enzymes and Hydrochloric acid to aid the body in digestion.
B12 (and D incidentally) is one of those micronutrients supplementation of which is only necessary because humans have moved so far away from what is natural. Deficiencies in gorillas are very rare because they’re eating in the wild (soil, feces, insects) and get the nutrients they need without any supplementation necessary. A little B12 pill under the tongue is a small price to pay for an otherwise stellar dietary choice: 100% whole plants.