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Does it Invalidate Veganism?
I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian who has
been thinking about "going vegan." The thought of consuming
the products of animal suffering is becoming more and
more unacceptable to me, and I've already limited much
of my dairy and egg intake (I'm buying soymilk instead
of cow's milk, that sort of thing). The ethical question
I have revolves around Vitamin B12, which primarily
comes from animal sources, as there really aren't any
reliable plant sources of B12. If this is true, then
are we actually "meant by Nature" to consume at least
animal products, if not animals? I'm probably nit-picking
over something really stupid, but this really has me
stumped; it seems that, on the one hand, our bodies
may be meant to obtain B12 through animal sources, and
on the other hand, the ethical part of me feels that
it is wrong to consume animal by products, especially
if suffering is involved. Any insights?
All the nutrients a human being needs
for optimum health can be obtained from plant foods,
with the exception of vitamin B12. The fact that vitamin
B12 must be supplemented in a vegan diet does not mean
that the diet itself is inadequate.
All vitamin B12 comes from bacteria
and is found in the soil as well as in the intestines
of animals. At one time vitamin B12 was readily available
in our soil and water supplies, and the minute amount
that humans require was easy to get. Today our land
and waterways are polluted, making it is essential that
our produce is thoroughly cleaned before we eat it and
our water is purified before we drink it, thus eliminating
any available B12.
The B12 that is produced in the intestines
of animals gets incorporated into their tissue; hence
it is found in meat and other animal products such as
cow's milk and eggs. Humans also produce vitamin B12
from bacteria found in the large intestine (colon).
However, vitamin B12 is absorbed in the small intestine
much higher up, rendering the B12 from the colon unusable.
It was once believed that sea vegetables
and certain cultured or fermented foods, such as tempeh
and miso, were good sources of vitamin B12. However,
these foods contain what are called B12 analogs. These
are B12-like compounds that have no vitamin activity
and could actually compete with real vitamin B12 for
absorption. Therefore, relying on these foods for B12
might actually increase a vegan's risk for deficiency.
Humans store large amounts of vitamin
B12, and new vegans who have eaten B12-rich diets in
the past may have enough in storage to last them several
years. Most B12 deficiency is due to absorption problems
that are not related to diet. Nevertheless, it is reasonable
to expect that B12 levels in many vegans will decrease
over time as stores are used up. Also, B12 is absorbed
less efficiently as we age, raising the risk for deficiency,
particularly when diets are already low in B12.
Although overt vitamin B12 deficiency
is not very common among the vegan population, vegans
do tend to have lower B12 levels. Indications of B12
deficiency may be subtle to severe, ranging from neurological
problems to memory impairment, and these symptoms may
be irreversible. Low B12 levels can also raise the risk
for other health problems, and blood tests may not always
be able to detect B12 anemia since certain conditions
may mask early signs. Among health professionals, there
is very little disagreement that vegans need to supplement
their diets with vitamin B12.
The easiest way to add B12 to the diet
is with vitamin supplements. Vegans can also use fortified
foods. Many breakfast cereals, meat analogs, and milk
alternatives that have been enriched with vitamin B12
are excellent sources (check the labels), as are certain
brands of nutritional yeast, such as Red Star Vegetarian
Support Formula. The vitamin B12 that is used to fortify
these foods is obtained from bacterial cultures, not
animal products, and is vegan.
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