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and the Vegan Diet B12 By Tony Wardle


There have probably been as many inflamed debates over vitamin B12 as there have over the existence of a life hereafter. ‘You can’t get enough unless you chomp up animals’ goes the argument. ‘Yes you can and I’m the proof of it’, goes the response. Not very scientific, of course, but why let science spoil a good argument? I don’t want to be a party pooper but science is the only arbiter we have and so let’s be guided by that. Firstly, what is vitamin B12 and why do we


need it? Genes, that’s why – along with other B vitamins, B12 helps to build DNA, our genetic blueprint. It’s also pretty active in other ways, such as producing red blood cells, releasing energy from the food we eat and in synthesising a substance called methionine. This little beauty helps avert heart disease by stopping the build-up of homocysteine. In other words – you’re dead without B12. It is produced by microrganisms


widespread in the environment, including in water, soil and on grasses and plants, whilst in the sea it’s algae that acts as host. This is why it’s present in meat, fish, eggs and dairy – because animals consume it with their diet and, like us, they need it. Plants, on the other hand, don’t need it and therefore don’t store it even though they may have a bit on their surface from microbial contamination. End of argument, you might think – meat


eaters naturally obtain B12, veggies don’t so their diet must be unnatural. Ah ha – not that simple! Many people in developing countries eat no


animal products and yet don’t develop B12 deficiency, neither do vegan great apes (except sometimes when in captivity). Part of the answer might be in the water they drink. Some elderly Brahmin monks spent months on retreat eating only a vegan diet and when tested, their B12 levels were entirely adequate. It was in the well water they drank. Similarly, in the wild, fruits and roots have not been subjected to paranoic scrubbing and chlorine washing by supermarket’s to avert possible litigation. It is naturally present on them but not in them. Well, we don’t live in the wild so on the face


of it, meat eaters needn’t worry and vegans should be concerned. Not really! Vitamin B12 deficiency is very rare in vegans with vegan babies being the principal victims. But it does occur frequently in the meat-eating elderly. The missing factor is ‘absorption’.


In animal products, B12 is bound to a


protein and the protein has to be removed before the B12 can be absorbed. But even then it can only happen if molecules of ‘intrinsic factor’ are present in the stomach. It seems that the older people get, the more difficult it is to fulfil both these requirements. In fact, the US National Academy of Sciences recommends that ALL adults over 50 should obtain most of their B12 from supplements or foods fortified with B12 because of the high level of deficiency amongst meat eaters in this age group. There is a strong scientific argument that this advice should also be adopted by younger people, too. Supplements are pretty self-explanatory, but


fortified foods? These are usually foods free from animal products and which are common in a vegan diet – veggie burgers and sausage mixes, yeast extracts and vegetable stocks, margarines, breakfast cereals and soya milk amongst many others (look for B12 on the ingredients list). The recommended daily amount of B12 can be obtained from Meridian yeast extract on one slice of toast or one glass of B12 fortified soya milk. Hardly arduous, but important and if you don’t regularly eat fortified foods – do take a daily supplement. But still the carnivorous fingers wag away,


warning vegans of impending doom, particularly those organisations with a vested interest in promoting animal products. The huge, on-going EPIC study examined


65,000 people and found that vegans had the highest intakes of fibre, vitamin B1, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium and iron. They had the lowest intakes of retinol (vitamin A), vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and zinc. And it is these ‘lowest’ figures they love to latch on to. But lowest does not mean too low, in fact, this group was not found to be deficient at all. In a predominantly meat- eating country it naturally follows that ‘average’ levels will reflect this. Perhaps the most important fact of all that


should dispel any doubts is that vegans live on average six years longer than meat eaters and suffer considerably less from all the degenerative diseases. Review of the VVF’s fully-referenced B12 and the Vegan Dietfact sheet, by Dr Justine Butler. One of a series available for just £1 each (inc p&p) available on 0117 944 1000. More at www.vegetarian.org.uk/factsheets.


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