B12 vs. B Complex: Which One is a Better Choice for Vegans?

by Lauren Armstrong — Registered Dietician, BSc Dietetics
August 31, 2020

As a vegan, it can be pretty standard for people to be concerned that you are not meeting your nutrient needs.

Vitamin B is a common one that tends to get brought up in conversation, and the kicker is that you don’t have to worry about just one. There are eight different variations that all have a different purpose.

Since there are so many different B vitamins, it can be confusing when searching for a supplement. Do you need to supplement with only one type of B vitamin, none of them, or all of them? No worries, we have it all broken down for you.

Should vegans take B12 or B complex?

It can get confusing to figure out whether you need a B12 supplement or a B complex because they both contain B vitamins, right? That is true, but B complex contains many where B12 is just that - B12.

As a vegan, you need a B12 supplement since it’s nearly impossible to get it in via vegan foods. The other B vitamins can be easily added to the diet with plant-based foods. This is all dependent on you and your food preferences.

Check out the list of vegan foods that contain the various B vitamins below. If you notice you lack a lot of those options, you probably want to opt for the B complex supplement.

The purpose of B vitamins

When it comes to B-vitamins, there are a total of eight. They include:

They all serve a purpose and help various enzymes perform their jobs.

According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, it can range from releasing energy from carbohydrates and fat to breaking down amino acids in a protein. B vitamins also are known for transporting oxygen and energy-containing nutrients around your body.

The difference between B12 & B complex

A B12 supplement is one of the eight B vitamins we previously discussed, where B complex contains all (or most) of the B vitamins.

Although both B12 and B Complex contain B vitamins, these supplements are not interchangeable.

Seasoned vegan Registered Dietitian, Anja Grommons, states, “Vitamin B12 supplements contain an isolated vitamin B subtype, cobalamin or B12. Vitamin B complexes typically contain a cluster of b-vitamins, including thiamine (b1), riboflavin (b2), niacin (b3), pantothenic acid (b5), pyridoxine (b6), biotin (b7), folate (b9), and cobalamin (b12). Although each B vitamin has a specific job to do, collectively B-vitamins convert the food we consume into energy, among other important bodily tasks.”

A healthy vegan diet can cover all your B vitamin bases most of the time except B12. It all can vary from person to person, though, depending on what your vegan diet looks explicitly like and what foods you choose to eat.

Grommons personally states, “As a vegan dietitian myself, I eat a varied and balanced diet, take a vitamin B12 supplement regularly, and frequently seek out fortified foods like soy milk and nutritional yeast for vitamin B12 extra credit.”

But, how do I know if I have a vitamin B deficiency?

It can be challenging to track whether you’re getting enough B vitamins or not, but your body will be sure to let you know if it’s not getting enough.

Listed are the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) and common deficiencies/symptoms you’ll notice with a lack of that specific B vitamin.

Vitamin B deficiency #1 – Thiamin

One of the most common signs of a thiamin deficiency is a condition called beriberi. It is characterized by peripheral neuropathy (brain nerve damage) and waste.

Another deficiency is called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is often more familiar with individuals dealing with chronic alcoholism.

This condition is split into two parts, Wernicke’s disease, and Korsakoff syndrome.

The first stage is Wernicke’s disease, which is brain nerve damage. About 20% of individuals dealing with Wernicke’s disease will die if it is not treated.

If the condition worsens, Korsakoff syndrome causes psychosis where there is confusion between what is real and imagined. If it gets that far it’s almost too late in the game to be treated with thiamin, as it doesn’t recover about ¼ of patients.

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
Birth to 6 months 0.2 mg 0.2 mg
7 to 12 months 0.3 mg 0.3 mg
1 to 3 years 0.5 mg 0.5 mg
4 to 8 years 0.6 mg 0.6 mg
9 to 13 years 0.9 mg 0.9 mg
14 to 18 years 1.2 mg 1.0 mg 1.4 mg 1.4 mg
19 to 50 years 1.2 mg 1.1 mg 1.4 mg 1.4 mg
51+ years 1.2 mg 1.1 mg

Vitamin B deficiency #2 – Riboflavin

It is rare to become deficient in riboflavin, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Some diseases and hormone imbalances can create a deficiency along with inadequate intake.

Symptoms that will typically occur include skin disorders, cracked lips, hair loss, angular stomatitis (lesions or cuts at the corner of your mouth), and itchy/red eyes.

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
Birth to 6 months 0.3 mg 0.3 mg
7 to 12 months 0.4 mg 0.4 mg
1 to 3 years 0.5 mg 0.5 mg
4 to 8 years 0.6 mg 0.6 mg
9 to 13 years 0.9 mg 0.9 mg
14 to 18 years 1.3 mg 1.0 mg 1.4 mg 1.6 mg
19 to 50 years 1.3 mg 1.1 mg 1.4 mg 1.6 mg
51+ years 1.3 mg 1.1 mg

Vitamin B deficiency #3 – Niacin

A condition called pellagra occurs when your body isn’t getting the niacin it needs.

Pellagra is a disease that creates a brown and discolored rash when the skin is exposed to the sunlight. It can also cause a rough and sunburned appearance.

Your digestive tract can get upset when dealing with this disease, causing you to experience constipation, diarrhea, or vomiting.

NE = niacin equivalents (1 NE can be 1 mg niacin or 60 mg of amino acid tryptophan which the body can convert to niacin)

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
Birth to 6 months 2 mg 2 mg
7 to 12 months 4 mg NE 4 mg NE
1 to 3 years 6 mg NE 6 mg NE
4 to 8 years 8 mg NE 8 mg NE
9 to 13 years 12 mg NE 12 mg NE
14 to 18 years 16 mg NE 14 mg NE 18 mg NE 17 mg NE
19+ years 16 mg NE 14 mg NE 18 mg NE 17 mg NE

Vitamin B deficiency #4 – Pantothenic acid

It can be tough to pinpoint if you’re deficient in pantothenic acid or another nutrient. That makes it tough to know what symptoms belong to what deficiency.

Way back in the day of World War II, prisoners of war were severely malnourished (which is the standard way to become deficient in pantothenic acid) and showed symptoms of numbness and burning in hands and feet, headache, fatigue, restlessness, and gastrointestinal issues.

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
Birth to 6 months 1.7 mg 1.7 mg
7 to 12 months 1.8 mg 1.8 mg
1 to 3 years 2 mg 2 mg
4 to 8 years 3 mg 3 mg
9 to 13 years 4 mg 4 mg
14 to 18 years 5 mg 5 mg 6 mg 7 mg
19+ years 5 mg 5 mg 6 mg 7 mg

Vitamin B deficiency #5 – Pyridoxine

Often, if you’re deficient in B12 and folic acid, you probably don’t have enough pyridoxine. Signs of a deficiency consist of anemia, scaly and cracked lips, swollen tongue, confusion, and a weak immune system.

Age Male Female Pregnant Lactation
Birth to 6 months 0.1 mg 0.1 mg
7 to 12 months 0.3 mg 0.3 mg
1 to 3 years 0.5 mg 0.5 mg
4 to 8 years 0.6 mg 0.6 mg
9 to 13 years 1.0 mg 1.0 mg
14 to 18 years 1.3 mg 1.2 mg 1.9 mg 2.0 mg
19 to 50 years 1.3 mg 1.3 mg 1.9 mg 2.0 mg
51+ years 1.7 mg 1.5 mg

Vitamin B deficiency #6 – Biotin

Biotin is another B vitamin that is rare to be deficient in.

If you are starting to become deficient, you may notice signs. Deficiency symptoms include thinning hair or hair loss, scaly red rash around nose, eyes, and mouth, aciduria (high amounts of acid in your urine), and neurological issues (depression, lethargy, hallucinations).

There is not a RDAs set for biotin, so this chart indicates Adequate Intakes (AIs)

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
Birth to 6 months 5 mcg 5 mcg
7 to 12 months 6 mcg 6 mcg
1 to 3 years 8 mcg 8 mcg
4 to 8 years 12 mcg 12 mcg
9 to 13 years 20 mcg 20 mcg
14 to 18 years 25 mcg 25 mcg 30 mcg 35 mcg
19+ years 30 mcg 30 mcg 30 mcg 35 mcg

Vitamin B deficiency #7 – Folate/Folic Acid

Deficiency with folate is often associated with poor diet, alcoholism, and malabsorption issues.

The most common folate deficiency symptom is megaloblastic anemia, which is large and nucleated (meaning it has a nucleus) red blood cells. Healthy, mature red blood cells do not contain a core.

Symptoms of this condition are weakness, fatigue, concentration problems, headache, and shortness of breath.

DFE = Dietary Folate Equivalents

Only 50% of folate is bioavailable when naturally present in food, where 85% is bioavailable when taken with food. Because of that, DFE is defined as:

Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
Birth to 6 months 65 mcg DFE 65 mcg DFE
7 to 12 months 80 mcg DFE 80 mcg DFE
1 to 3 years 150 mcg DFE 150 mcg DFE
4 to 8 years 200 mcg DFE 200 mcg DFE
9 to 13 years 300 mcg DFE 300 mcg DFE
14 to 18 years 400 mcg DFE 400 mcg DFE 600 mcg DFE 500 mcg DFE
19+ years 400 mcg DFE 400 mcg DFE 600 mcg DFE 500 mcg DFE

Vitamin B deficiency #8 – Cobalamin

Not enough B12 equals deficiency is Cobalamin. Symptoms such as anemia, fatigue, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite, and weight loss. You may also notice some neurological issues, including maintaining your balance, confusion, depression, and poor memory.


Age Male Female Pregnancy Lactation
0 to 6 months 0.4 mcg 0.4 mcg
7 to 12 months 0.5 mcg 0.5 mcg
1 to 3 years 0.9 mcg 0.9 mcg
4 to 8 years 1.2 mcg 1.2 mcg
9 to 13 years 1.8 mcg 1.8 mcg
14+ years 2.4 mcg 2.4 mcg 2.6 mcg 2.8 mcg

It’s important to note that it is possible to take too much vitamin B if you’re opting for a supplement without consulting your doctor.

It is difficult to overdose because B vitamins are water-soluble and excreted out of your urine daily, but shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Some symptoms of vitamin B overdose include:

Here is a list of vegan food sources rich in B12 & B complex

With certain B-vitamins, it can be quite challenging to meet your nutrient needs, but others make the task quite simple.

Grommons mentions, “With the exception of vitamin B12, most B vitamins are found in nuts, seeds, green vegetables, legumes, and citrus fruits. Following a balanced diet can meet many of the vitamin B requirements. Vitamin B12 can be more difficult to find when following a plant-based diet, and a supplement is encouraged.”

Below is a list of vegan food sources rich in B12 and B Complex.

Rice, noodles, breakfast cereal, and black beans

These are various foods that can help get thiamin in your body.

Thiamin is necessary for the growth, development, and function of cells and helps create energy from nutrients.

Nutritional yeast, quinoa, avocado, almonds, and wild rice

These foods are chock full of the vitamin, riboflavin.

Your tissues will be maintained, your food components will be broken down, and other nutrients will be absorbed when you get in your riboflavin.

Nuts, legumes, and grains.

Need niacin in your diet? These are the foods you should incorporate.

You’ll be getting lots of energy with this vitamin, as it helps to break down carbohydrates, fats, and protein so our body can use them as energy sources.

Sunflower seeds, mushrooms, breakfast cereals, potatoes, and avocados

All of these foods are sources of pantothenic acid.

You need this vitamin to help with the breakdown of fatty acids, an energy source.

Beans, bananas, potatoes, nuts, and breakfast cereals

If you love these foods, you’ll be getting plenty of pyridoxine.

This form of B6 is an essential factor in creating insulin (the hormone that lets your body use glucose for energy), fighting infections, and creating non-essential amino acids.

Tempeh, peanuts (and other nuts), sweet potatoes, and nutritional yeast

Choosing these options will provide your daily dose of biotin.

You may have heard of this because it’s commonly marketed for hair, skin, and nail benefits.

Oranges, avocados, spinach, and beans.

Orange you glad I didn’t say banana? Stock up on these foods to also stock up on folate/folic acid.

The B-vitamin is most important during pregnancy, and it’s necessary to avoid neural tube defects that create deformities in the spine and brain.

Some fortified grains and cereal

Cobalamin (B12) is the hardest B vitamin a vegan can in, so most opt to fill the gap with a supplement.

Most B12 is found in animal products, including dairy, poultry, and eggs.

So, who wins as the better choice for vegans in the battle of B12 vs. B complex?

With eight different B vitamins comes eight different responsibilities and purposes that they bring to your health.

Vitamin B12 is a commonly known vitamin that can be challenging for a vegan to get in their diet, but the others should be less complicated. This depends on the types of foods present in your diet and how much of them you are eating.

With that being said, a B12 supplement is 100% necessary, whereas a B complex supplement may not be.

As always, the best advice is to consult with your doctor. If you’re noticing any possible deficiency symptoms, let them know, and you can collaborate to come up with a supplement plan.