Indispensable for the body and little present in plant foods, this vitamin is ingested in tablets by people dispensing with animal products.
Recently covered in the American documentary The Game Changers on Netflix, the question of vegetable food is still debated in France, in particular because of the risks of deficiencies that it would cause. Because vitamin B12, an essential nutrient for living, is mainly found in proteins of animal origin: meats, fish, milk and eggs. What about vegetarians and vegans? Is taking dietary supplements the only solution?
What is vitamin B12?
B12 belongs to the family of B vitamins which are not stored by the body in sufficient quantity, unlike the other so-called “fat-soluble” (A, D, E, K). Now it is vital to us since it contributes to the normal functioning of the brain and the formation of blood. Since humans are unable to make them alone, it is by eating the flesh of herbivores that they find them. Raised in the open air, the latter find soil in the soil which they will transform in their stomachs into vitamin B12. But the diet of farm animals is no longer the same today: they must systematically be supplemented.
The National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety (ANSES) recommends daily ingestion of vitamin B12, via animal products or artificially via tablets or capsules, in order to avoid any deficiencies.
Can vegans do without natural B12?
In most cases, the daily consumption of eggs and dairy products helps to meet the needs of vegetarians. Concerning vegans (whose diet excludes all products of animal origin), there are several solutions to avoid deficiency. The first is to ingest vitamin B12 tablets. The second solution is to consume foods enriched with B12 such as vegetable milks, soy desserts or even breakfast cereals.
“Without B12 in our organism, we will have defects in the replication of our cells. This can cause anemia, risks of cardiovascular disorders or even general damage to the nervous system. We could even wonder about the link between Alzheimer’s disease and deficiencies in this vitamin ”, warns the psychosomatic nutritionist Nina Cohen-Koubi. In addition, the diet of people at increased risk of deficiency (children, pregnant women, elderly) is to be monitored very closely by a health specialist, especially if they follow a vegan diet.
Are these tablets risky? “In the era of data science, we are calm. The excess intake of vitamin B12 is eliminated by the urine, without any revealed toxicity ”, explains the doctor for the Vegetarian Association of France, Sébastien Demange. The founder of the L214 association, Brigitte Gothière, also seems optimistic on the question: “We are starting to have at least twenty years of hindsight on this supplement, and we have not seen any side effects on people.”
Who makes these food supplements?
Vegetarians and vegans represent only 2% of the French population, according to Xerfi, a private research institute. Trade in these products may seem unprofitable. For the co-founder of the L214 association, Brigitte Gothière, “In France, the B12 industry is a discreet business. In reality, only 1% of the supplements are intended for vegans against 99% for farm animals ”. In the text “Animals-packaging” published in 2008, anti-species activist David Olivier believes that the vitamin B12 added to the ration of farm animals is similar to that of tablets for vegetarians. It would be produced industrially, using genetically modified bacteria.
Some independent laboratories, concerned with health and the environment, produce vegan certified products, supplements authorized during pregnancy and breastfeeding, or gluten-free, lactose-free and soy-free.
In France, the food supplement market grew by 1.3% in 2018 to reach almost 2 billion euros, according to the latest figures from the National Union of Food Supplements (Synadiet). “A market that remains fairly stable in 2019, in line with 2018”, explains Claire Guignier, the union’s communications manager.
For the director of the L214 association, Brigitte Gothière, however, the main problem lies elsewhere: “I have the impression that it is not with B12 supplements, which represent a small market, that we are most likely to be in danger today. We could no longer ask ourselves the question of this incentive to overconsume animal products. ” Some healthcare professionals are shyly starting to talk about it. This is the case of the general practitioner Sébastien Demange: “Eating too much meat could cause cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. To tell people to decrease their consumption of meat products is just public health. ” A message that is gradually being heard: national meat consumption has fallen by 12% in ten years, as shown a 2018 Crédoc study.