To supplement or not - it’s a contentious issue that pops-up every so often and usually triggers a heated debate amongst both new and veteran vegans. So, it’s time to settle the score.
A varied, wholesome vegan diet provides almost all essential nutrients in sufficient quantities. I hear you shouting ‘Noooo! It provides absolutely everything we need!‘ and you may be right but only if you regularly eat certain fortified foods. The sad truth is that modern food production systems and lifestyles make it more difficult for everyone – vegans or not – to get all they need from diet alone. That doesn’t mean a vegan diet is unnatural or unhealthy, in fact the opposite is true. It simply means that the way we grow, produce and consume food has changed substantially and with an ever-growing human population, the demands on the systems that produce our food are so high that certain nutrients become harder to obtain.
I get a lot of questions about supplements and understand why people are confused. Over the years, I’ve worked on many vegan research projects and as science and population studies reveal ever-more data, the guidelines and recommendations change and evolve. Hence, what we were told 10 years ago may no longer be up-to-date and that’s why different opinions arise, depending on where and when we got our information. It’s my job to keep up-to-date so hopefully I can bring some clarity to the supplement discussion!
So what’s needed?
The trio of nutrients to keep a close eye on is vitamin B12, vitamin D and iodine. You may not need to supplement with all these, all year long, but it depends on several factors. Read on!
Vitamin B12 naturally comes from bacteria in the soil and both people and animals would traditionally have got it from eating unwashed plants. However, we not only wash vegetables before we eat them (and for good reasons) but food production is now so sanitised that most vegetables are washed in chlorine, or other sterilising solutions, so there’s not a trace of B12 left.
People are not generally aware that most farmed animals are given B12 supplements and this is how the vitamin eventually ends up in their flesh. So, the argument that meat is a natural source of B12 doesn’t really stack up as meat-eaters essentially consume B12 supplements recycled by the animals that were given them!
It is absolutely necessary that we have a reliable source of vitamin B12. We need it to make red blood cells, for a healthy heart and circulation, and it’s essential for the nervous system. It takes years to develop a B12 deficiency so on one hand, you don’t need to worry about not having taken B12 for a while, yet on the other hand, you do need to pay attention as when symptoms develop, it’s usually serious.
To ensure adequate intake you should have at least 5µg (micrograms) daily from supplements or fortified foods. The B12 used in both foods and supplements is produced commercially by growing bacterial cultures in large vats - and it’s always suitable for vegans.
There are two forms of B12 in supplements - cyanocobalamin (cheap) and methylcobalamin (expensive). Cyanocobalamin is the stable ‘inactive’ form of B12 and is used in supplements and to fortify foods and drinks. Once ingested, it’s activated by your body so it can be used. Methylcobalamin is the ‘active’ form of vitamin B12 as it does not require any metabolic reactions to be activated. It costs more and is not so stable.
So which one to choose? Unless you’re a heavy smoker, have kidney failure or any other serious condition affecting your metabolism, cyanocobalamin – the cheap form of B12 – is perfectly fine. Intakes up to 2,000 µg a day are safe and you can take either a lower dose daily or a higher dose a couple of times a week.
We need vitamin D for healthy bones, teeth and muscles and it also performs other essential functions in our metabolism. It is produced in the skin when exposed to sunlight and this is the main source of vitamin D for most people. However, if you always use sun-block, cover most of your skin or live in a country, like the UK, where we don’t get enough sunlight over the winter, you need a supplement, whether you’re vegan or not.
The UK Government now recommends that we all take a supplement from October to April and, if you protect your skin ferociously over the sunnier spring and summer months, you should take a supplement all year long. Otherwise, just 20 minutes of sunlight on the face and arms is all that is required by the body to manufacture sufficient vitamin D.
Fortified breakfast cereals, bread, plant milks and vegan margarines can be useful sources if exposure to sunlight is not practicable but may not be enough. When it comes to supplements, there are two types and your body can use both but it's advisable to check the source - vitamin D2 is always vegan but vitamin D3 can be of animal origin. Many vegan foods are fortified with vitamin D2 and labelled so but if not specified, especially on cereal products, vitamin D tends to be of animal origin. If you choose to supplement your diet, there’s a range of quality and affordable vegan supplements with vitamin D2. There also those made from algae or mushrooms that contain D3 and these are recommended if you need a higher dose. When deciding on your dosage, 10 µg per day is enough and you shouldn’t go above 25 µg.
Iodine has been a hot topic lately, especially with plenty of tabloid ‘experts’ warning that vegans are missing out. This mineral is necessary for thyroid function and helps to regulate how energy is produced and used in the body.
The amount of iodine in plants depends upon the iodine content of the soil in/on which they are grown. The closer to the sea, the more iodine and therefore vegans can get enough from plant foods but there's no guarantee. Seaweed, which of course grows in seawater, is always a good source and includes nori, laver, dulse and the kelp family (kombu, arame, wakame). But be warned - kelp absorbs far more than other seaweeds and you can get too much iodine from it. So, whilst seaweed consumption is encouraged, kelp should be used only sparingly.
It’s best to use a kelp supplement so you know exactly how much iodine you’re taking – it’s cheap, reliable and you don’t have to worry about taking too much. The recommended daily intake is 140 µg and intakes up to 500 µg are considered safe. In many countries, iodised salt is commonly used to ensure iodine intake but it’s not the norm in the UK.
The dairy industry has been boasting about the iodine content of cow’s milk. What they don’t tell you is that it’s not a natural component of milk but comes from iodinated cattle feed, supplements, iodophor medication, iodine-containing sterilisers of milking equipment, teat dips and udder washes. Cow’s milk is neither a natural nor the best source of iodine, so we can happily leave it out of our diet.
Multivitamins. Yes? No?
It may be tempting to take a multivitamin/mineral just to be on the ‘safe side’ and it’s absolutely fine to do that but check the content and quantities of nutrients. Not all multi-type supplements have iodine, not all are vegan and some contain very high doses of certain nutrients. Remember - always check the label!
And don’t forget that a healthy vegan diet provides very nearly everything you need with just a little help from some affordable supplements or fortified foods - you don’t need any expensive super supplements or powders. Veganism is for everyone, even if you’re on an extremely low budget!
For more on nutrients and vegan lifestyle, see our A-Z of Nutrients.