Vitamin B12 in Foods
This article will give a concise overview of vitamin B12 in foods and will answer the following key questions:
Vitamin B12 Content in Foods
Our bodies depend on a regular intake of vitamin B12 from our diet in order to remain healthy. But which foods contain decent amounts of cobalamin?
Unlike many other vitamins, B12 is rarely found in large quantities in our food. This article provides an overview of which foods are recommended to ensure our bodies receive the required daily dose of 3 micrograms.
So Which Foods Naturally Contain Vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 is produced by certain microorganisms and is found almost exclusively in animal based products: fish, meat, dairy and eggs.
Plants foods, on the other hand, which are a vital source for most other vitamins, contain almost no vitamin B12 – fruits, vegetables, nut and seeds alike.
Some plant based products like beer and sauerkraut, as well as some algae like chlorella, contain small amounts of vitamin B12. Covering the body’s B12 requirement through these sources alone is, however, only really possible in people with very good health and excellent absorption capabilities. In all other cases, a vitamin B12 supplement is a more secure, comfortable and often also economical way of ensuring a vitamin B12 supply.
Absorption of Vitamin B12 From Foods
Most cases of vitamin B12 deficiency exist not because of an insufficient B12 supply in the diet, but rather through malabsorption or an increased need caused by stress and environmental pollution. The health and absorption capabilities of the stomach and intestine is often very impaired amongst many people in industrialized countries, meaning that absorption of vitamin B12 from the diet is more difficult. Current studies suggest that a vitamin B12 deficiency is possible for up to 39% of the population.1
It is thus not possible to derive how good the body’s B12 supply is by simply just measuring the content in foods – even regular meat-eaters can easily suffer from a vitamin B12 deficiency. Some B12 can also be lost through frying and contact with flames, meaning that the vitamin B12 content can drop significantly during the preparation of many meals.4 For vegetarians and vegans, the risk of an insufficient rate of vitamin B12 is considerably higher still, as hardly any of the foods in these diets contain an adequate B12 supply.2
The reason for the difficulties in absorption of vitamin B12 lie in the absorption mechanism of the vitamin. B12 requires a special, endogenous molecule for its absorption – the intrinsic factor. However, this method only allows for around 2 µg of vitamin B12 per meal to be absorbed. Therefore it is advisable that you consume B12 several times over the course of the day, when attempting to cover the body’s daily requirement entirely through food consumption.3
Only in doses considerably higher than those found naturally in foods can the body begin to absorb further quantities of B12 through its second medium; passive diffusion. This is where vitamin B12 supplements come into play; their considerably higher corresponding dosages can be absorbed passively through the intestine without requiring the intrinsic factor protein.
When is B12 in Foods Insufficient?
If in very good health, an omnivore diet and in some cases a vegetarian diet can cover the body’s B12 requirement. However, this is not the case for:
- Stress (=higher B12 requirement)
- Problems with the stomach and the intestine
- Regular intake of various medicines
- Alcohol and cigarette consumption
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
- The elderly
- Usage difficulties
- Diseases and infections
- General poor health
In these cases, an additional requirement of the following dosage would be necessary:
|Low supplementary need|
For healthy people, covers around half of the daily requirement
|Full supplementary need|
Covers the entire daily requirement for healthy people
Increased supplementary need
Covers the daily requirement even in people with absorption problems
More information on this can be found in our article on vitamin B12 dosages.
Types of Vitamin B12 in Foods
Vitamin B12 exists in a number of different forms. In foods, the following vitamin B12 forms exist:2
- Methylcobalamin (above all in cheese)
- Hydroxocobalamin (all foods)
- Adenosylcobalamin (meat, dairy products)
The synthetic form of B12, cyanocobalamin, which is used in the cheapest vitamin B12 supplements, doesn’t occur naturally in foods. Today, mainly methylcobalamin and hydroxocobalamin are used in supplements worldwide. Adenosylcoblamin supplements are banned in the EU, but remain a popular choice in the USA.
Further information regarding the different forms of B12 can be found in our article on vitamin B12 forms.
Recap on Vitamin B12 and Foods
In the following section of this article, we will discuss foods which contain vitamin B12 naturally in detail.
Vitamin B12 Content in Animal Products
Vitamin B12 is produced by microorganisms in both animals and humans, predominantly in the large intestine. Unfortunately this point is past the small intestine where absorption takes place, so most of this B12 goes unused and is excreted, so most animals and humans alike rely on an external source of cobalamin. Ruminants are an exception to this as they are able to produce the vitamin in their rumens.
Carnivores obtain vitamin B12 from their prey, while non-ruminant herbivores ingest it via food that has been contaminated with soil and faeces. The daily required dose does not necessarily need to be consumed every day, as animals and humans are able to store the vitamin in the liver. This store depletes slowly, meaning that a temporary shortage can have little effect for a number of years. Nevertheless a regular intake of vitamin B12 is still advised because as soon as the store is empty symptoms will start to occur.
The highest sources of vitamin B12 are found in animal foods, particularly in offal and is most concentrated in the intestine where it is produced and in the liver where it is stored. concentration of vitamin B12 then decreases in this order; muscle/flesh, milk and eggs. Some cheeses, for example camembert, can produce significant amounts of B12 despite being a manufactured product.
The Best Vitamin B12 Source: Cheese and Milk or Meat?
Some studies indicate that vitamin B12 found in cheese and fish is absorbed better than that found in meat and eggs.1,5 There are a few different reasons for this: firstly, vitamin B12 is heat sensitive, meaning large quantities of the vitamin are lost through cooking. Secondly, it binds to proteins in foods, so the easier these foods are to digest the better the absorption rate. Thirdly, through intrinsic factor (a special molecule necessary for the absorption of vitamin B12) it is only possible to absorb a maximum of 1.5 – 2.0 μg of vitamin B12 per meal, meaning the high concentrations found in meat essentially go to waste when consumed in one sitting.
Plant Foods That Contain Vitamin B12
For those who do not eat meat, but do consume animal products like milk, cheese and egg some foods are still available that do contain sufficient vitamin B12 content. Camembert, emmental, chicken eggs and gouda contain the highest amounts of B12 in this category. Milk and yoghurt, however, only contain very small quantities. The absorption of vitamin B12 from dairy products appears to be easier than from eggs.6
Vitamin B12 in Plant and Vegan Foods
Plants do not produce vitamin B12, but it is sometimes found in very small quantities in plant foods. There is a very simple explanation for this: in natural and organic farming, microorganisms can be found living in the humus and many of these produce vitamin B12. Some plants are able to absorb this from the soil and store it for a while. Despite this, plants are not a reliable vitamin B12 source, as its presence in the soil is unreliable and its content will always be minimal. B12 can also be ingested through the consumption of soil left on the surface of plant foods, for example fresh carrots. This is, however, uncommon because it is recommended we wash our food before eating. Humus found in industrial farming is usually destroyed by chemicals and over-farming, meaning most microorganisms do not survive.
For more information on vitamin B12 in vegan and vegetarian diets, see our article on vegetarian and vegan.
The Only Herbal B12 Source: Algae
Some algae contain vitamin B12, however, there is always false information in circulation here. During the initial discovery of this B12 source, outdated measurement techniques were used to determine the B12 content; finding in fact only matter very similar to vitamin B12 (Vitamin-B12-Analoga). This so-called ‘pseudo vitamin B12’ is not only ineffective, but also furthers the risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency considerably. The content and bioavailability of various algae was for a long time very hotly debated.7,8 Today, the alga chlorella is considered the only reliable herbal source of B12.9
The supply is around 80 µg of vitamin B12 per 100 g of chlorella, making it even more potent than all animal sources. This sounds like an incredibly high amount, but it is worth bearing in mind that algae is typically eaten in very small doses. Around 1.5 µg at best can be expected from one portion.
However, several portions of this a day can be enough to provide at least a portion of the body’s B12 requirement in healthy people who have several sources of B12 in their diet. Despite this, chlorella is certainly not a replacement for B12 supplements when it comes to cases of a B12 deficiency, increased requirement or absorption difficulties.
Additional information on this topic can be found in our article on vitamin B12 in algae.
Vitamin B12 Food Tables
Foods high in vitamin B12
content in μg / 100g
|% of recommended daily allowance for adults (based on the DGE RDA of 3 μg per day)|
Food with medium vitamin B12 content
content in µg / 100g
% of recommended daily allowance for adults
Egg yolk (chicken)
Cream cheese (min 10% Fat)
Egg white (chicken)
Foods with no vitamin B12 content
content in µg / 100g
% of recommended daily allowance for adults
Plant oil and fat
Pulses and legumes
Nuts und Seeds
Cereals / Wheat
1Judy McBride (2). B12 Deficiency May Be More Widespread Than Thought. Agricultural Research Service. United States Department of Agriculture. http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2000/000802.htm (Stand 05/2015)
2Pawlak, Roman, et al. How prevalent is vitamin B12 deficiency among vegetarians?. Nutrition reviews, 2013, 71. Jg., Nr. 2, S. 110-117.
3Abels, J., Vegter, J. J. M., Woldring, M. G., Jans, J. H. and Nieweg, H. O. (1959), The Physiologic Mechanism of Vitamin B12 Absorption. Acta Medica Scandinavica, 165: 105–113.
4Malgorzata Czerwonka, Arkadiusz Szterk, Bozena Waszkiewicz-Robak, Vitamin B12 content in raw and cooked beef, Meat Science, Volume 96, Issue 3, March 2014, Pages 1371-1375, ISSN 0309-1740,
5Vogiatzoglou A, Smith AD, Nurk E, et al. Dietary sources of vitamin B-12 and their association with plasma vitamin B-12 concentrations in the general population: the Hordaland Homocysteine Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89:1078–87.
6Tucker KL, Rich S, Rosenberg I, et al . Plasma vitamin B-12 concentrations relate to intake source in the Framingham Offspring study. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;71:514–22
7Watanabe F. Vitamin B12 sources and bioavailability. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2007 Nov;232(10):1266-74. Review. PubMed PMID: 17959839.
8Dagnelie PC, van Staveren WA, van den Berg H. Vitamin B-12 from algae appears not to be bioavailable. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991 Mar;53(3):695-7. Erratum in: Am J Clin Nutr 1991 Apr;53(4):988. PubMed PMID: 2000824.
9J. H. Chen, S. J. Jiang: Determination of cobalamin in nutritive supplements and Chlorella foods by capillary electrophoresis-inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. J Agric Food Chem, 2008, 56(4), 1210-5
10Prof. Dr. Helmut Heseker, Dipl. oec. troph. Beate Heseker; Die Nährwerttabelle, 2. Aufl., 2012, Neuer Umschau Buchverlag