An increasing number of people in the UK (and around the world) are switching to a plant-based diet for a whole range of reasons. Whether you believe animals should be treated with respect and dignity, you care passionately about climate change, you are mindful of your health or you simply don’t like the idea of eating dead animals, their eggs or their milk, moving to a vegan diet should not come at a cost to your own health.
There are many people who believe that a vegan diet cannot provide all that the body needs in terms of vitamins and nutrients; that by excluding meat, fish, dairy, eggs and other animal products vegans must be left lacking in one nutrient or another. We’ll consider that idea in this piece.
Vegan Nutrient Sources & Supplements
In addition, throughout our site we look in detail at a range of key nutrients that vegans may be concerned about and you can read about all of these by clicking one of the links below:
However, here we take a look at vegan vitamins and supplements in a more general sense. Do vegans need to take tablets to supplement their diet? As already asked, is a vegan diet particularly lacking in certain nutrients? And, looking at things from a different angle, are multivitamins themselves vegan, or do they contain animal products or other animal products in some hidden form?
Do Vegans Need Supplements?
As we will discuss later in this piece, there are many issues surrounding supplements and whether they are needed. There is, however, no simple answer, largely because all people eat different diets and have slightly different nutritional needs. We cannot say “vegans need X, Y but not Z” because the diet of one vegan can vary so much when compared to that of another.
Depends Largely on Your Diet
On the one hand, consider someone eating lots of vegan sweets, cans of sugary soft drinks, six bottles of vegan wine a week and two vegan ready meals a day. And, on the other, consider your stereotypical vegan (as some parts of the media would paint them) eating lentils, quinoa, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and fresh veg from their own organic allotment, and plenty of leafy greens and wholegrains. Clearly, their diets are hugely different and the case for supplementation in the former is obviously far greater than it is in the latter.
The question of whether you as an individual vegan should take a supplement depends on your own unique circumstances. Your diet, lifestyle, sex, age and genetics will all be factors and so it is not possible to give a simple answer to the question of whether or not supplements are required.
A Lack of Definitive Research
Moreover, there are no high quality, long-term studies that show the differences between the levels of nutrients in the bodies of vegans and non-vegans. Various studies have taken place but none have examined a big enough group for a long enough time to iron out all the variables, moreover, some of the best pieces of research are not specific to the UK.
In an ideal world, we could magically obtain the nutrient levels of hundreds of thousands of vegans and non-vegans of all ages, races and social classes and monitor these over an extended period. This simply isn’t possible at the moment for a range of reasons. It is almost as difficult to perform a similar study on diets, which would still leave lots of questions over metabolism, absorption and utilisation.
Without reliable and comprehensive data, not only can we not say what is right for you as an individual, we also cannot say what vegans as a homogeneous mass do or don’t need when it comes to nutritional supplements and multivitamins.
Nutrients Vegans Are Likely to Need
All that said, there are some nutrients that, in general, vegans are more likely to need than others. When it comes to vegan protein we think it is safe to say that most people will obtain enough protein through their diet. Of course, that may not be the case if you really don’t like legumes and other pulses; whilst vegan bodybuilders may also feel they need protein supplements.
But there are certainly some micronutrients that many vegans may struggle to consume in sufficient quantities. Here are our thoughts on the main vegan supplements we think are worth considering.
Zinc is essential for the body’s enzyme activity, to help make new cells and also to help wounds heal. It is found in a wide range of foods but the most abundant sources are largely non-vegan (meat and dairy). It is thought that around 30-35% of the zinc in our diets is absorbed by the body but, making things even harder for vegans, the zinc from many animal sources is easier to absorb than that from the main vegan zinc sources.
Phytates (also called phytic acid) are commonly found in seeds, nuts, legumes and cereals. Many of these are good sources of zinc, in theory; however, they also inhibit its absorption. This is one of the major factors that could leave vegans open to zinc deficiency. Moreover, certain types of fibre also inhibit the body’s uptake of zinc and this further reduces the usable zinc in many vegan diets.
A Study on Vegan Zinc Intake
A Finnish study (Food and Nutrient Intake and Nutritional Status of Vegans and Non-Vegetarians) published in 2016 is one of the best of a limited number of applicable, high quality investigations into how vegans compare on a range of nutrients to non-vegans.
It shows average dietary intake of zinc was 12mg for vegans and 16mg for non-vegans, with the former having a range of 4-23mg and the latter 8-35mg. So, vegans in the study were consuming 25% less zinc and, moreover, we know absorption of vegan zinc is hindered by fibre and phytates. As such, on top of what we already know about the various sources of zinc, it would seem this is certainly one supplement vegans should consider taking.
Another vegan supplement worth thinking about is B12. Vitamin B12 is one that many vegans are aware of because it does not naturally occur in many plant-based foods. It is found in meat, some fish, and dairy, with certain fermented foods (such as tempeh) also being sources. Some seaweeds and algae are also good vegan sources of B12, as are some yeasts, although these do not feature on the diet of too many people in the UK.
Vitamin B12 is crucial to make red blood cells, to release energy from food, to help the nervous system stay healthy and to enable the body to use folic acid. Because of its importance and absence from virtually all plant-based foods, vitamin B12 is added to some foodstuffs as a fortification. It is added to a range of breakfast cereals and this is a good source as long as you are careful to choose one of the many vegan-friendly cereals available.
However, the National Health Service warns that “… as vitamin B12 isn’t found naturally in foods such as fruit, vegetables and grains, vegans may not get enough of it.” Adults only need around 1.5μg per day, which is a tiny amount and the UK population as a whole consumes substantially more than that.
Lower Levels of B12 in Vegans Found in Study
The Finnish study referred to earlier looked at the levels of vitamin B12 within their cohort’s bodies and found vegans had almost 40% lower levels of B12. It seems such a picture is likely to be reflected in the UK vegan population too. It is possible for a vegan to consume enough vitamin B12, with fortified cereals, energy bars and some soy products, as well as yeast, seaweed and algae all good sources.
However, as we have said, this is certainly one supplement well worth considering. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is among a number of groups that suggest vegans may need it, with that view backed up by the NHS, as mentioned.
Iron has a strong association with meat, in particular beef steak, and this is partly why many vegans may think they need to take iron supplements. Iron is vital for our blood and the way it carries oxygen around the body and, by and large, men in the UK are getting enough iron.
Women More Likely to Need Iron Supplements
Women, who lose significant amounts of iron during menstruation (obviously, this isn’t relevant to pre-pubescent girls and post-menopausal women), need much more iron in their diets. Many are not achieving these levels of iron, vegan or not, and so women, especially those who have heavy periods, should certainly consider iron supplements.
That said, iron is readily available in a range of vegan-friendly foods. Eggs, beef, liver and other animal-based foods offer a lot of iron but so too do lentils, greens, beans, herbs and spices, fortified cereals and bread, as well as a range of other fruits and vegetables.
Tannins Decrease Body’s Ability to Absorb Iron
In the UK, much of iron intake comes through cereal and bread, the latter being fortified with the stuff by law. However, as a nation of tea drinkers, those in the UK should be aware that tannins, particularly those in all teas, decrease the body’s ability to absorb and use iron. In contrast, vitamin C helps iron utilisation and so including foods, such as peppers or citrus in an iron-rich meal is a great way to boost your iron levels.
With the latest surveys showing significant numbers of adult women are deficient when it comes to iron it is only reasonable to say that iron is one supplement vegan women should definitely consider. It should also be noted that increased iron intake is recommended for women at all times, not just during their period.
It is rare for a major and respected scientific body to advocate the use of any supplements but the NHS has come very close to doing that when it comes to vitamin D. Vitamin D is unusual in that our best source of it is 100% vegan (but isn’t food-based). The body uses sunlight to make vitamin D in the skin, which in turn is used to keep bones, muscles and teeth healthy, as well as to help control the use of calcium and phosphate.
A Lack of Sun
The UK isn’t exactly renowned for its glorious sunny days, especially in the colder months of the year. The current advice from the NHS is that:
Everyone (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D during the autumn and winter.
That’s everyone, vegan or not, simply because vitamin D is not widely available in many foods, vegan or otherwise. Those with darker skin or who remain largely covered up when venturing outside, or those who do not leave the house often should also consider vitamin D supplements all year.
As ever, it is vital that you assess your needs personally. Whilst the Food Standards Agency point out that, “guidance suggests that … taking 25μg or less per day of vitamin D as supplements is unlikely to cause adverse effects”, you should only take supplements if you think you need them.
Those who already consume a lot of fortified products, such as vegan milk, cereals and vegan spreads, may not need to take extra. Moreover, those who are pale skinned and/or spend a lot of time outside may be able to get enough vitamin D through the sun even in autumn and winter.
Iodine is a trace element that some vegans feel they may need to take a multivitamin or supplement for. This is partly because by far the best sources are animals, specifically fish from the sea and also shellfish, such as scallops and prawns. We need iodine to maintain a healthy thyroid and also to help the body produce energy.
UK intake, according to the government’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey is generally good. However, with most people obtaining their iodine from animal sources, including milk, it is certainly something in which vegans are more likely to be lacking.
Found in Seaweed
Supplements aren’t automatically needed though. Iodine is found in plants and, in fact, one of the richest sources are certain sea vegetables and seaweeds, although these are rarely eaten in the UK. Moreover, so rich in iodine are some of these foods that they may actually cause one to exceed the recommended upper limit.
More usual sources of vegan iodine includes some vegetables and cereals. Levels of iodine in plants vary greatly according to the soil in which they were grown. As we discuss later, soil is less nutrient-rich than in the past but by and large grains and other vegan iodine sources grown and consumed in the UK do offer some iodine. However, on the whole levels of iodine in most plant-based foods are low, despite contrary claims we have seen on some websites.
Low Intake of Iodine Found in Vegans
The Food Standards Agency comments that “low average intakes of around 80μg per day have been found in vegans”. Unless you eat seaweed, or a very large quantity of the right nuts and cereals, we suspect that many vegans, even those eating an otherwise varied and healthy diet, may not be consuming enough iodine. As such, an iodine supplement is one worth investigating in our opinion.
Selenium is also a trace element, meaning we need very little in our diets. Even so, some vegans (and indeed some non-vegans) are almost certainly not getting enough for optimum health. It helps keep the immune system healthy and many of the best sources are animal-based. Meat, fish and eggs all serve up a good dose but nuts are also an excellent vegan source of selenium.
When it comes to vegan selenium one nut in particular is the standout nutritional star: the Brazil nut; 100g of these bad boys packs between 85μg and 690μg of selenium, with Public Health England (PHE) settling on a figure of 254μg as an average. The second best nut PHE look at is the cashew (34μg), whilst sunflower seeds boast 49μg per 100g.
Study Finds Vegans Had Lower Selenium Levels
Given we need around 75μg per day, just 30g, or around a typical one ounce (28.4g) serving of Brazil nuts will offer all the selenium we need. That said, the vegans in the Finnish study consumed around half the selenium of the non-vegans (though still, on average, met the UK recommended levels) and had around 50% lower levels of the nutrient in their systems.
Selenium can be found in other plant-based foods besides Brazil nuts, with some other nuts and seeds also decent sources as already alluded to. In addition you can find selenium in mushrooms, raisins, some types of bread, some spices and also certain grains.
All that said, if you are a vegan who doesn’t consume nuts and seeds, a selenium supplement may be something you want to take. Alternatively selenium is included in many good vegan multivitamins, although a small handful of Brazil nuts remains the most natural way to get your hit!
Calcium is a nutrient that people probably know more about than some of the others that we have flagged as worth considering. The most abundant mineral in the body, calcium is vital for healthy teeth and bones (where 99% of our calcium is stored). It also helps regulate muscles, including the heart, helps blood to clot and is needed for nerve functionality and enzyme activity.
Most people also probably know that dairy milk is a major source of calcium and that a lack of this mineral can lead to rickets and osteoporosis. What they may not know is that vitamin D is vital for the use of calcium, or that phytates and oxalates (the latter is abundant in spinach and certain other vegan sources of calcium) can inhibit a person’s calcium absorption.
Most People Get Sufficient Calcium with a Few Exceptions
Overall, calcium intake in the UK is good and that is also the case for many vegans. That’s because calcium is found in a wide range of fruit, veg, nuts and seeds. It is also, in the form of calcium carbonate added to most breads as a fortifying agent, as well as being used in the same way in many non-dairy milks.
Most vegans are probably getting sufficient calcium in their diets, a belief that our favourite Finnish study largely supports and also one that is backed up by the logic of calcium’s presence in so many different vegan foods. However, some people, especially those not consuming any (or only very low amounts) of fortified products may want to consider including a calcium supplement in their diet.
Let us now assume that, for whatever reason, you have decided you do want to take a multivitamin to support your diet. Are multivitamins and other tablets you might take to supplement your nutrient intake actually vegan and if not, what might make them non-vegan?
The simple though slightly unsatisfying answer is that not all multivitamins and individual supplements are vegan and, in fact, many on the market contain a wide range of different animal-derived ingredients.
If you’ve read our are vegan breakfast cereals piece, or our article on vitamin D you’ll probably be aware that vitamin D is sometimes made from animal sources. Vitamin D3 is found in a range of things but commercially is often made from lanolin.
For those not wholly familiar with sheep, lanolin is the grease that sheep naturally produce in their wool and, being an animal product, such D3 isn’t vegan. For more information on why wool isn’t vegan, check out our cunningly titled feature, Is Wool Vegan?. Some multivitamins and vitamin D tablets use such vitamin D and, therefore, are not suitable for vegans.
Other animal products are even more obvious and as such can easily be avoided. Cod liver oil is, unsurprisingly even allowing for the craziness of some food labelling, taken from a cod’s liver. Similarly, other fish oils are taken from other (would you believe it?) fish. It is worth noting that whilst these products are usually very clearly labelled that might not always be the case.
Gelatine is another animal product that can sometimes find its way into nutritional supplements. Most people and certainly most vegetarians and vegans are well aware that this is derived from animals. Unfortunately, the British Medical Journal noted that “almost all oral vitamin D or calcium supplements prescribed in the UK contain animal product. Gelatine is present in most tablet, granular, effervescent and syrup supplements.”
This report was made in 2009 and since then things have improved somewhat but gelatine is still used in many tablets as it is cheaper than non-animal based methods of encapsulation and also deemed to be more reliable. Moreover, as is so often the case with substances vegans might want to avoid, gelatine may be present but not listed as an ingredient.
Animal Based Additives
There is a long list of animal-based additives that can and do get used in multivitamins and other nutritional supplements. Here are the most common, along with the ones already mentioned:
|Stearic Acid / Magnesium Stearate|
Confusingly, many of these (for example stearic acid, carotene and lethicin) can come from both animal and plant sources. Sometimes the label may say, for example, that the lethicin is from soy (not eggs or other possible animal sources), whilst sometimes it will not.
Equally products may include stearic acid as an ingredient but then elsewhere state they are suitable for vegans. In such instances it should be safe to assume that the stearic acid used in that instance has come from a plant source but things get more confusing when tablets are labelled as suitable for vegetarians. They may well be vegan but on the other hand they may not, waters mudded further when they contain ingredients with dual potential provenance.
How Can I Make Sure My Supplements Are Vegan?
As ever, this really comes down to three things: either buy vegan-certified or vegan-labelled supplements, ask the manufacturer or retailer, or trust your extensive knowledge of chemistry and intuitive understanding of complex, insufficient and sometimes misleading labelling! We’d probably go with one of the first two options, although looking out for vitamin D3, gelatine, fish oils and other reasonably obvious non-vegan ingredients should give you a good idea.
That said, more and more manufacturers are realising that vegans want to be sure they aren’t consuming animal products. Consequently, there are now more vegan-friendly supplements & multivitamins available than ever before that are clearly and explicitly marked as suitable for vegans.
Do Vegans Need Vitamin Tablets & Other Dietary Supplements?
The issue of multivitamins and other nutrient tablets, powders or formulas is something of a thorny one for a range of reasons. Whilst many scientific studies show the benefits of various key micronutrients, as we have discussed in other articles regarding such nutrients, the way the body metabolises these is highly complex.
Whilst some studies show that supplements are very beneficial, many others seem to show that the body is less able to use micronutrients when they are consumed in tablet (or similar) form. Whilst few would argue that supplements can ever be better than obtaining vitamins and minerals from food that doesn’t mean supplements don’t have a role to play.
However, the bioavailability of nutrients from dietary supplements has to be considered and on the whole it is believed to be worse than when nutrients are obtained from a balanced diet. According to a report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “The concept of vitamin and mineral bioavailability for dietary supplements lacks standard scientific and regulatory definitions”.
Multivitamins and multiminerals (MVMs) may state they have a certain amount of iron, selenium or other micronutrient but that does not mean that by taking such a tablet your body is getting that amount of it in a usable form. The concepts of absorption and utilisation are looked at by scientists considering how much of a given nutrient humans need but the matter is so complex that no simple number that works for all people can be given.
Of course, bioavailability isn’t an issue confined to supplements. As we have discussed in various articles about vegan nutrition, eating some foods together (for example those rich in iron and vitamin C) can boost absorption, whilst others (iron and tannic foods, especially tea) can limit it. Moreover, whilst some foods may be incredibly high in a given nutrient, that is of little use to the body if other compounds within them work against that nutrient and limit its bioavailability. For example, many cereals are high in zinc but they also contain phytates, which hinder zinc absorption.
A Varied, Balanced Diet is Key
In short, making sure we obtain sufficient nutrients for a healthy body, whether through natural foods or supplements, is highly complex. Invariably people want a mythical “silver bullet” but sadly, the only advice that is 100% backed by science is considerably less exciting and much more long-term. There is no magical tablet, no all-conquering “superfood”, just the standard advice: eat a varied, balanced diet, with lots of fruit, veg and wholegrains, a mix of nuts, seeds and legumes and limit the intake of sugar, processed foods and fats.
On top of that, some knowledge of what foods go well together to maximise absorption and what go less well and limit utilisation is also helpful. However, that is of lesser importance and not worth becoming overly concerned about unless you have a particular issue with a given vitamin or mineral.
Reasons for Taking Multivitamins
Ah, the good old days. When youngsters could afford houses, a pint of beer was £1.50, you could leave your front door unlocked and everything was rosy. Well, maybe that’s just the rose-tinted glasses. Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be and nor, it seems, are fruit and vegetables.
Food Isn’t as Nutritious as it Was
As if this whole issue wasn’t already complex enough, we now have another factor to consider and that is looking at quite how nutritious even supposedly healthy foods really are. The nutrients within foods are very much dependent on the nutrients in the soil in which they are grown.
This is true in a specific way, in that iodine-rich soil, often near the sea, will yield food rich in iodine and it is also true in a more general way. The overall quality of soil of much farmed land is poor, or certainly not as good as it was and this means that the crops grown on it are generally lower in a range of nutrients.
In 2017, then environment secretary Michael Gove argued that some parts of the country could see “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility” within a generation. He stated:
If you have heavy machines churning the soil and impacting it, if you drench it in chemicals that improve yields but in the long term undercut the future fertility of that soil, you can increase yields year on year but ultimately you really are cutting the ground away from beneath your own feet…
Various practices, both within farming and in wider society have led to less fertile soil and less nutritious food. Such practices are common around the world, with a United Nations-backed study claiming that worldwide intensive agriculture meant more than 30% of the world’s land is badly degraded and 24bn tonnes of fertile soil was being lost every year.
A Study on Soil & its Effect on Nutrients
A team of researchers at the University of Texas, led by Donald Davis, carried out work to assess what impact soil degradation had on the nutrients of US-grown foods. Their findings were published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004 and compared data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 1950 and 1999.
Looking at more than 40 different vegetables and fruits they found significant declines in the levels of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B2 and vitamin C. Davis also suggested that they would expect to see reductions in many other nutrients too, such as magnesium, zinc and vitamins B6 and E, but they were not recorded in 1950.
A UK study looked at nutrients between 1930 and 1980 (since when we feel it is safe to assume things have got worse still). Published in the British Food Journal, it looked at 20 different vegetables and its findings are particularly relevant to some of the nutrients we have considered suitable for vegan supplementation. They found that the average calcium content had reduced by 19%, with iron down 22 percent and potassium levels 14% lower. Soil quality alone is not to blame for these drops though.
Profits Over Nutrition
Modern food production is magical mix of science and alchemy, with food scientists and agricultural experts able to shape plants in ways never before dreamed of. Are they aiming to create the most nutritious food ever to create the healthiest, best fed generation ever?
Or are they aiming to create crops with a higher yield that can withstand pests, drought and climate change, not to mention being harvested by a machine at great speed, and still look amazing – if not perfect – after being stored for weeks before being shipped halfway around the world and delivered to a developed-world marketplace? Oh, and then on top of that they have to taste amazing, though amazing more often than not means as sweet as possible.
Whilst some foods have been deliberately engineered or bred to become more nutritious, most are bred to maximise profit. That means fruit and veg must grow quickly and reliably, resist adverse conditions and be durable. Moreover, it must look good and the number one nutrient requirement is high sugar content.
The late food writer and journalist, AA Gill, said from a nutritional point of view, when it came to an apple you should peel it, eat the peel and throw the rest away. He was a great writer and this was exaggeration for effect but at the core(!) of the message there is truth. Modern apples are, in common with many modern varietals of fruits and vegetables, so much sweeter than heritage ones.
Beyond sugar there is very little flavour and equally there is little in the way of nutrients. With even healthy foods no longer packing the same punch as they used to, those eating a plant-based diet have an even harder task when it comes to obtaining all their nutrients solely from food. As such, many increasingly feel that a multivitamin or other vegan supplement is a wise move just to give their overall diet a little boost.
All that said, we should point out that the nutrient levels mentioned in this and other articles on our site for various foods are the modern levels based on the latest information available. Of course modern food still contains lots of goodness and a healthy, varied diet can still deliver everything we need. We just seek to point out that it is now a little harder than it may have been 50 or so years ago.
So, Should Vegans Take Multivitamins?
In conclusion, we go back to our original answer: there isn’t a simple yes or no. For all that is wrong with eating animal-based foods, they do deliver some key nutrients. A vegan diet over-performs in lots of areas, perhaps most crucially when it comes to fibre, but equally there are some nutrients that it is harder for vegans to get.
We have highlighted what we believe those are, and we have drawn your attention to some simple ways to get the best bang for your buck when it comes to certain foods and nutrients. In addition, we have touched on the issue of bioavailability and utilisation, something that is not fully understood, especially when it comes to supplements.
If in Doubt, Ask Your Doctor
If you are concerned that your nutritional needs are not being met then a trip to see a doctor or nutritionist may be wise. In conjunction with them, you can assess your diet and lifestyle to see what, if any, supplements may be needed.
Lastly, of course, make sure that any multivitamins or tablets you do decide to take are vegan friendly and don’t contain any hidden animal-nasties. The best way to do that is to buy an approved vegan supplement.