Update: If you need to supplement, check this out.
It’s no secret I have a special interest in vitamin B12.
It all began when I gave veganism a try when I finished my army service in Israel. I “survived” on this diet for about two years. It made me weak, fatigued, and I lost most of the muscle I had built during my weight gain transformation.
Fast forward many years.
I now devour dead animals like my life depends on it. For many people, that’s actually true. B12 deficiency is extremely prevalent these days, and although most deficiencies are the result of malabsorption issues, a significant subset is still the result of a low B12 intake, especially vegetarians and vegans:
Higher rates of deficiency were reported among vegans compared with vegetarians and among individuals who had adhered to a vegetarian diet since birth compared with those who had adopted such a diet later in life. The main finding of this review is that vegetarians develop B12 depletion or deficiency regardless of demographic characteristics, place of residency, age, or type of vegetarian diet.
Dr. Roxanne Sokol from Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Enterprise says:
When I test vegans for B12, they’re usually on the low side—if not deficient.
So, without further ado, here’s your magic list of vitamin B12 foods. These are the richest sources of B12, and I used about 80% of them to replenish my stores once I said goodbye to the vegan lifestyle.
(If you’re a vegan/vegetarian – don’t worry. There’s advice for you too.)
High Vitamin B12 Foods List
- Clams. Provide 99µg per 100g. One small clam contains 9.5µg (about 155% of vitamin B12 RDA!). This is the richest source of B12.
- Red-meat liver. Ah, liver, nature’s most potent multi-vitamin. The liver of most red meat animals is a rich vitamin B12 food, most noticeably the liver of lamb, providing 86µg per 100g when cooked. Other notable B12 rich livers come from veal, beef, and moose, providing similar amounts.
- Red-meat kidneys. Lamb kidneys are some of the richest foods in B12, sporting 79µg per 100g when braised. The next best are veal and beef kidneys, providing about a half of that when braised.
- Poultry liver. Turkey, duck and goose, when cooked over a pan, all contain around 60µg per 100g. Chicken liver, at least the type commonly sold, contains only about a third of that, which is still plenty.
- Caviar. Whitefish eggs provide 56µg of B12 per 100g, the richest food in B12 in that group. Black and red caviars, in contrast, provide 20µg per 100g, which is comparable to chicken liver.
- Octopus. Cooked octopus contains 36µg per 100g. I dare you to visit South Korea and eat it raw, and by raw, I mean — just killed, tentacles still vividly moving in your plate. Good luck.
- Oysters. Some would say oysters are the most luxurious vitamin B12 foods. Depending on the species (pacific, eastern, etc) and how you cook them, expect to get between 25-35µg of B12 per 100g.
- Mussels. Blue cooked mussels, the most common type, contain 24µg of vitamin B12 per 100g.
- Fish. Mackerel and herring are the richest fish in vitamin B12, providing 19µg per 100g. In comparison, salmon provides about 3µg.
- Crabs. The Alaskan King crab has 11.5µg of vitamin B12 per 100g. That means that an average leg (135g) will provide you with 15.5µg, 260% of the recommended daily intake! The Dungeness and Queen crab species contain similar amounts, with Blue providing only about 7µg. Lobsters, for curiosity’s sake, contain around 4µg per 100g.
Any Other Foods High In B12?
You have to remember one thing:
The recommended daily intake of vitamin B12 is very low, about 2-3µg per day. That means that you can do well even without all those vitamin B12 rich foods above. If you consume animal products on a regular basis – steaks, eggs, stews, even cheese — with the occasional internal organ (liver, heart, kidney, etc), you should be having normal B12 levels.
Most B12 deficiency cases have nothing to do with low B12 consumption, but everything to do with B12 absorption, or rather — malabsorption.
When Vitamin B12 Rich Foods Won’t Help
B12 malabsorption issues are most often the result of two causes:
Food-bound cobalamin malabsorption.
Basically, a diminished ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food.
Food-cobalamin malabsorption is marked by the inability to release cobalamin from food, which therefore cannot be taken up by intrinsic factor for absorption … Release of cobalamin from food requires acid and pepsin, and most food-cobalamin malabsorptive states can be traced to gastric defects. (Malabsorption of food cobalamin, 1995)
This is usually the result of atrophic gastritis, a chronic inflammation of the lining of the stomach that eventually results in the loss of its glands and decreased gastric acid production. Intrinsic factor is often still secreted, so patients can fully utilize the free crystalline form found in all kinds of supplements (of any type of B12), including fortified foods.
Elderly people are especially at high risk for food-bound B12 malabsorption, because the ability to absorb vitamin B12 decreases with age:
In older persons, food-bound cobalamin malabsorption becomes the predominant cause of deficiency, at least in part due to gastric atrophy.
With pernicious anemia, intrinsic factor isn’t produced at all, so vitamin B12 can’t be absorbed through the stomach at all. This disruption of intrinsic factor secretion provides a more complete malabsorption and less slowly-progressive B12 depletion than food-bound malabsorption.
With no intrinsic factor produced, foods rich in B12 won’t help. Oral supplements won’t help. Vitamin B12 injections are practically a lifesaver and must be administered before permanent nerve and brain damage occurs.
Vitamin B12 Foods: Frequently Asked Questions
Aren’t there any vegan foods high in vitamin B12?
Have you heard of Dr. McDougall? Vegans have. He recommends a mega high-carb vegan diet based on “starches, vegetables and fruits”, and makes B12 seem like a small, negligible issue:
To avoid the extremely rare chance of becoming a national headline, add a reliable B12 supplement.
Even Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of the infamous China Study, says:
If you do not eat any animal products for three years or more, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should consider taking a small B12 supplement on occasion.
The chance isn’t “extremely rare”, and if you’re a vegan you should supplement with B12 regularly — not “on occasion”. It is very serious. Studies consistently show that vegans have much lower B12 levels (and thus higher homocysteine levels, increasing their risk of heart disease) than omnivores or vegetarians, with estimates that up to 80% of long-term vegans are B12 deficient.
Vitamin B12 is a special vitamin, the only one that contains a trace element, cobalt, which is found in the soil or grass. That’s why B12 is called cobalamin. We can only get B12 from animals, because cobalamin is produced in the gut of animals. Plants don’t need vitamin B12 so they don’t store it.
Unfortunately, vegan gurus spread a ton of myths. They’ll tell you plant sources like seaweed, fermented soy or algae contain B12. They’ll tell you our body can’t digest meat. They’ll even say you’ll get enough B12 if you don’t wash your fruits and vegetables (because they’re contaminated by animal shit!).
Don’t listen to any of that.
Yes, some plant foods (especially algae like spirulina) contain vitamin B12, but those are inactive B12 analogues called cobamides that may actually interfere with B12 activity and increase the need for real, active vitamin B12.
So, what’s a good vegan to do?
If you have no absorption issues, then methylcobalamin tablets may work well. Although I would like to suggest considering another route…
Bivalveganism. Or more specifically – oyster veganism.
Oysters may be animals, but even the strictest ethicist should feel comfortable eating them by the boatload … Biologically, oysters are not in the plant kingdom, but when it comes to ethical eating, they are almost indistinguishable from plants.
I honestly believe bivalveganism could solve a lot of the problems vegans face. Clams, mussels and oysters (the most eco-sustainable) are loaded with nutrition that often lacks from the vegan diet, especially vitamin B12. They also contains retinol, the true, bioavailable form of vitamin A.
From an ethical vegan standpoint, bivalves are similar to plants. They don’t have a central nervous system as we know it, therefore they are not considered sentient, “able to perceive or feel things”.
And did I say they’re great B12 vitamin foods?
Even just a couple of oysters per week could provide you with vitamin B12 benefits and do wonders to your vegan diet.
Any vegetarian foods with vitamin B12?
Like vegans (but less so), vegetarians show lower levels of B12 and significantly higher homocysteine levels, increasing their risk of blood clotting and heart disease. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you’re a vegetarian, then feast on eggs, dairy, and especially fish and shellfish (if allowed) like your life depends on it. All these are great vitamin B12 foods for vegetarians and should be consumed regularly.
If you don’t eat fish or shellfish on a regular basis, I recommend supplementing with methylcobalamin tablets.
Can eating too much B12 cause toxicity?
No, you can’t overdose on B12.
That’s it, folks. Leave more questions in the comments below.
This article is part of a larger guide: Vitamin B12.