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How to boost your vitamin B12 levels without eating animal products

As more people give up eating animal products, they’re asking how they can get enough vitamin B12.

QUESTION: A British health expert has dismissed concerns about vitamin B12 deficiency, saying a 1/2 teaspoon of Marmite a day provides all you need. Would you agree with that?

ANSWER: The short answer is no. The longer answer is that it depends where the Marmite comes from – Britain or New Zealand – although the verdict is the same. And don’t imagine that Vegemite is a better bet – it’s actually worse.

How should you interpret all that? Marmite is actually a good source of vitamin B12, and the British variety contains almost double the amount of the New Zealand-made version. But you would still need nearly two teaspoons of the British product to meet your daily B12 needs. Vegemite, the taste of which many people prefer to Marmite, has no B12.

Both spreads, which are made from yeast extract, are marketed as rich sources of vitamin B, notably thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. These three B vitamins each have an essential role in breaking down food in our body into energy molecules our cells can use for fuel.

Thiamin is found in many cereal foods, riboflavin in milk and milk products and niacin in a wide range of foods including meats, wholegrain cereals, eggs and milk.

But the B vitamins of particular interest are B9 (folate) and B12. Both spreads are rich sources of folate: Marmite has 150 micrograms (mcg) per teaspoon and Vegemite 170mcg, equating to about 40% of our daily required intake of 400mcg.

Folate is essential for the synthesis of molecules needed to build DNA and amino acids.

Without it, our cells cannot divide, so it is particularly important during fetal development.

Source: Concise New Zealand Food Composition Tables, 13th Edition, 2018

But back to B12: Marmite wins hands down, the local product containing a helpful 0.74mcg per teaspoon to Vegemite’s none. This has a simple explanation: B12 is a Marmite additive, whereas none goes into standard Vegemite.

Vitamin B12 is normally found only in animal products such as meat, eggs, fish and dairy. Hence, those who have a low intake of animal products can find themselves running short of it. And, as noted earlier, vitamin B12 deficiency becomes more common as we age, probably because of problems absorbing the vitamin from food.

Going short of the vitamin can have serious consequences. It is essential for the proper functioning and development of the brain and nerve cells, and a deficiency is dangerous because it causes progressive and irreversible damage. Prompt treatment is needed, because the longer the delay, the lower the chance of reversing the neurological complications.

So, is the 0.74mcg of vitamin B12 in a teaspoon of New Zealand Marmite enough to stave off deficiency? In fact, an adult would need three teaspoons to get the recommended daily amount of 2.4mcg.

British Marmite, however, is a richer source, containing 1.4mcg per teaspoon, or just over half of our daily requirements.

Although Marmite is a helpful addition to our B12 intake, the vitamin is also to be found in plenty of readily available foods. For example, a glass of standard milk, a boiled egg or a couple of 2cm cubes of edam cheese each contain about the same amount of vitamin B12 as a teaspoon of New Zealand Marmite.

And if there is much debate about the taste appeal of Marmite and Vegemite, there’s no argument when it comes to vitamin B12 content.

This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.