There are a number of nutrients that vegans might be worried about but biotin, or vitamin B7 as it is sometimes known (confusingly some people also call it vitamin H!), is relatively low on the list of concerns. Vegans and those cooking for plant-based eaters are usually far more concerned with vegan sources of protein, iron or perhaps vitamin B12.
Biotin, as we will now mainly refer to it, is something that some people may not even have heard of. So, what is it, what are the best sources of it for vegans and is it a vitamin about which vegans really do need to be aware?
What Is Biotin & How Much Do We Need?
Well, we’ve established that it is a vitamin and we have – sort of – established it is one of the many B vitamins. But what does vitamin B7 do and why is it important? In fact, is it even important?
The NHS state that, “biotin is needed in very small amounts to help the body break down fat”. Not the most glamorous of jobs, perhaps, but crucial none the less. They also go on to state that the body can produce biotin itself, with the bacteria found in the bowel being able to make it naturally. Given that we only need very small amounts of biotin, it is questionable as to whether we really need to obtain any from our diet at all.
Indeed, the UK government has not set a recommended minimum level of biotin consumption, with, instead, a safe upper limit being detailed. This means that the amount of biotin we get in our diets is not really an issue because only very small amounts are present in foods and surpassing the safe maximum is only possible for those taking biotin supplements.
Only those who take supplements or multivitamins need to be aware that the recommended maximum intake is very low. Once again we turn to the National Health Service, who state that, “Taking 0.9mg or less a day of biotin in supplements is unlikely to cause any harm”.
What Is the Purpose of Biotin?
We will look at why people might want to take supplements in more detail shortly but, relating to that, let us look more closely at what biotin does. As said, it is used to help break down fat but it also helps metabolise carbohydrates and in addition has an impact on how the body uses proteins. These functions link to cell development and growth and it plays various roles in how the body uses and transfers carbon dioxide.
Beyond these widely accepted uses there are a range of further possible benefits to consuming biotin and other functions that some have suggested it helps with. As we will see, the proof to back these claims up is lacking to say the least but there are those who argue biotin helps control blood sugar and diabetes, that it maintains healthy hair, nails and skin, and that it is necessary for the nervous system to function correctly.
When it comes to taking biotin supplements it is generally with a view to obtaining these unproven benefits. That said, biotin deficiency does exist and there are some people likely to be more susceptible. But are vegans among that demographic?
Vegan Sources of Biotin
Because humans need such a small amount of biotin, all mainstream health and nutrition sources advocate that almost everyone eating a healthy diet will not be deficient. That includes both omnivores and those that follow a plant-based diet.
There are some very rare genetic disorders that mean people may have a problem using and metabolising biotin but this is a very separate issue. The vast majority of people who do not have such a condition will get sufficient biotin from a combination of the bacteria in their gut and their diet. Indeed, a US government department’s “Biotin Fact Sheet for Health Professionals” states that “Biotin deficiency is rare, and severe biotin deficiency in healthy individuals eating a normal mixed diet has never been reported”.
The reason that some people may feel vegans could be more at risk is because several of the best sources of biotin are animal based. In particular, animal liver is very high in biotin. Aside from liver (including beef, chicken and pork), eggs are also high in biotin, as is salmon, pork and beef.
Biotin Found in Planted Based Foods
However, it can also be found in reasonable amounts in the following vegan foods:
- Sunflower Seeds
- Sweet Potato
Overall, there is no real reason for those following a plant-based diet to be concerned about their biotin, nor to take supplements, at least not for purely nutritional reasons. There are certainly no studies that indicate vegans might be deficient. This is simply because the body can largely produce this micronutrient in sufficient quantities to sustain good health, especially with a little help from a reasonably good diet.
Who Might Be at Risk of Deficiency?
That said, there is some information about the bioavailability of biotin, which is to say how the body can absorb and use it. This has been studied a little but is not yet fully understood. However, current research indicates that long-term alcohol use inhibits the utilisation of biotin. This is thought to affect alcoholics, making them susceptible to deficiency, as opposed to something for those who have “merely” drunk frequently for many years.
Another group who may benefit from biotin supplements are pregnant women and also those that are breastfeeding. The precise mechanism behind this is unknown, especially in the case of the latter, but some studies have shown that more than 30% of pregnant women have a minor deficiency. With regards to breastfeeding women, deficiency has remained resistant to increased dietary intake, so ultimately, it is unclear if taking supplements would be of benefit.
Are Biotin Supplements Even Worth It?
Indeed, when it comes to biotin supplements on the whole, there is little in the way of compelling evidence that they have much impact. This is especially the case when it comes to the claims made about biotin with regards hair, skin and nails.
Whilst deficiency of this vitamin can lead to brittle hair and nails and some skin conditions, there really is very little proof that it can help people who are not deficient. As we have explained, deficiency, especially of any real severity, is very rare. So, whilst biotin might be added to a range of cosmetics such as moisturisers, shampoos, conditioners and other grooming aids, as well as being added to oral formulations and supplements, right now there just isn’t any robust evidence that this will help most people.
As with almost all claims that a certain food or nutrient is beneficial in relation to one thing or another, there are some studies that indicate this could be the case. However, none are overly credible, with many funded by cosmetics companies, involving very small sample sizes, limited to certain demographics (chiefly children in the case of biotin) or being deeply flawed in terms of methodology. Or all of those things!
Conclusion: You Don’t Need to Worry!
If you hadn’t heard of biotin until recently then there is probably a very good and simple reason for that: it isn’t something you need to spend time worrying about. There are some nutrients that vegans might struggle to get enough of but biotin is very unlikely to be one of them.
Pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding may suffer from mild deficiency but this is unlikely to cause any harm and at the present time it is not clear that increased intake will improve this situation. If you are concerned, contact your doctor.
When it comes to consuming biotin supplements for more cosmetic reasons, such as the health of your skin, hair or nails, or to reduce wrinkles, there is no high, or even moderate quality evidence to suggest it will help people who are otherwise classified as healthy. The same is true for grooming products such as shampoo that have added biotin.