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Your Ultimate Guide to Vegan Supplements
A comprehensive compilation of useful information about vegan supplements and nutrients that makes it easier for you to be a healthy vegan
Last Updated on May 11, 2021
The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Supplements
I have compiled a comprehensive resource of information on vegan nutrients for you—the ultimate guide to vegan supplements.
This guide will help you navigate the variety of vegan vitamins, minerals, and other health products. It will let you know which supplements are vegan and explain why they wouldn’t be vegan, as well as explain the health benefits of the nutrients, where they are sourced and the foods you can consume to keep your levels of that nutrient topped up.
Which Supplements are Essential on a Vegan Diet?
Vegans, more than other people, are at risk of being deficient in Vitamin B12, EPA, and Vitamin D3. Supplements are almost always required for these three nutrients. Other nutrients to consider are Iodine, Zinc, Iron and Calcium. To be sure whether you need to supplement, visit your Doctor and ask for a blood test to check your levels of these nutrients.
Do Vegans Need to Take Supplements?
There is no reliable plant-based source of Vitamin B12, so it can only be reliably obtained from supplements. While the body can convert Omega-3 from foods like walnuts and linseeds into EPA, and Vitamin D3 can be sourced from sunlight and mushrooms, this is not enough to meet our daily requirements and supplementation might still be required for optimum health. Many people, vegans included, find that they are deficient in certain nutrients, or need additional support for an active life and other reasons. Genuine deficiencies can be detected by having a blood test done. It’s important to note that taking supplements that you don’t need could actually be harmful. So it is best to check with your doctor before taking any supplements or making changes to your diet.
Do Vegans Need to Take a Protein Supplement?
What Else Do They Put in Supplements?
Even if the nutrient itself is vegan, supplements contain compounding agents to either help with the manufacturing process, as fillers to improve the presentation of the final product, or to control where the metabolism of the nutrients occurs in the digestive process.
- Calcium, microcrystalline cellulose, maltodextrin or lactose are used as fillers to bulk up the nutrient into a tablet or capsule form.
- Magnesium stearate or stearic acid, and silicon dioxide are often added to supplements as lubrication to ensure the supplement powders flow smoothly through the manufacturing process.
- Starch or modified cellulose gum is commonly added to help with the digestion of the compound after it is swallowed.
- Additional cellulose coatings may be applied to slow the nutrient release so that digestion is delayed until it is in the stomach.
- Tablets may be coated in carnauba wax or shellac to give them a glossy appearance.
- Capsules contain gelatin made from animal products unless otherwise specified.
Which Supplements are Vegan?
Nearly all nutritional supplements now have a synthetic or plant-based option. These are both vegan. However, it is important to check the source of the nutrient you are considering. Even though vegan alternatives exist, manufacturers choose the cheapest, more readily available ingredients. These are usually either created synthetically or derived from animal products. In my experience, companies that produce vegan products usually also strive to source plant-based, ethical, and frequently organic ingredients. Vegan companies tend to have a more holistic approach to life and business. However, this isn’t always the case.
Check the nutrient on the A-Z guide below to see the possible sources of the vegan and animal derived versions. Manufacturers have become more responsible about how they label their products. However, not everything is labeled correctly. Usually, if it doesn’t say the product is vegan somewhere on the packaging or labeling, then it’s better to assume it probably isn’t vegan.
The key below shows the standard form of the nutrient. That means that if nothing states that the product is vegan, this key answers the question of whether it is likely to be vegan or not. It is not a guarantee; it is merely an indication of what the vegan status of the most widely available form of the ingredient is.
Key to Vegan Status of Nutrients
The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Supplements A-Z
Scroll down for an extensive list of supplement ingredients with their descriptions. Or click on the corresponding letter of the alphabet below to go directly to the nutrient you are looking for.
Agar is a vegan gelling agent sourced from the Gracilaria algae, a bright red seaweed. It is very useful as a replacement (using the same quantities) for gelatin in vegan jellies, custards, and desserts. It doesn’t require refrigeration to set and sets in about an hour at room temperature. Agar can be boiled and can even be melted again if necessary. It is a good source of calcium, iron, iodine and trace minerals. It is very high in fiber and therefore aids in digestion and acts as a mild laxative as it carries toxic waste out of the body. Agar is also known to reduce inflammation.
Amino acids are the building blocks of Protein. There are 20 amino acids that create proteins. They split into 9 essential amino acids (Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine), 5 nonessential amino acids (Alanine, Asparagine, Aspartic Acid, Glutamic Acid and Serine), and 6 conditionally essential amino acids (Arginine, Cysteine, Glutamine, Glycine, Proline and Tyrosine). Taurine is an additional conditionally essential Amino Acid, but it isn’t used to build Protein.
Vitamin A is a fat soluble nutrient that is vital for good eyesight, a healthy reproductive function and a strong immune system. It is primarily sourced from dairy, liver, eggs and fish; however, our bodies can also convert the carotenoids in fruit and vegetables into Vitamin A. There are vegan Vitamin A supplements; however, it is best to get it directly from food.
Taking more Vitamin A than you need significantly increases the risk of cancer, bone fractures and birth defects; so do not take it unless you have a deficiency and have been advised to do so by a medical practitioner. Our daily requirement is easily met by eating a variety of fruit and vegetables like carrots, butternut, orange sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli, red bell peppers, cantaloupe (sweet melon) and pink grapefruit.
Beta Carotene is found in vegetables including red and yellow peppers, dark leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, cantaloupe, and apricots. When consumed in its natural state in food, there are numerous health benefits including acting as an antioxidant. However, it is only one of about 500 carotenoids. It is not advisable to take supplemental beta carotene as it has been proven to increase the risk of lung cancer and heart disease when taken as a supplement rather than by consuming foods high in carotenoids.
Vitamin B12 is vital for the nervous system, healthy red blood cells, creation of DNA, and the synthesis of myelin. Deficiency can lead to serious health consequences including megaloblastic anaemia, permanent nerve damage and dementia. Vitamin B12 is created by bacteria and can be found in animal products including fish, red meat, chicken, dairy and eggs. Vegetarian sources like Tempeh, Nori and Shiitake mushrooms contain compounds that are similar to vitamin B12 but it is thought they don’t have any vitamin activity; in fact, no plant food has been shown to improve vitamin B12 status in humans. It is essential for vegans to supplement with Vitamin B12 or eat foods that are fortified with Vitamin B12. Vegan Vitamin B12 supplements are available as either cyanocobalamin or methylcobalamin.
Calcium is important for healthy bones, it also aids in the function of muscle contraction, healthy heart function and blood clotting. Calcium can be found in dairy products and fish bones. Vegan food sources of calcium are green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and broccoli, legumes, dried figs, and sesame seeds. It is best to take calcium along with Vitamin D for better absorption and regulation.
There are four types of calcium that are usually found in supplements and usually a combination is used. They are all vegan. Calcium Carbonate is sourced from limestone and chalk. Calcium Citrate is the best type to take as it is easily digested and absorbed, it is created by combining citric acid and Calcium Hydroxide. Calcium Gluconate is manufactured by the neutralization of Calcium Carbonate. Calcium Lactate is not made from dairy. It is commercially prepared by neutralizing Lactic Acid (which is vegan) with Calcium Carbonate or Calcium Hydroxide.
Carrageenan is a vegan binding agent derived from red seaweed. It is used in vegan cheese and thickener or stabilizer in desserts. There are 3 types of carrageenan and Kappa-carrageenan is the best type for cooking. It has been found to accelerate cancer formation when ingested with a carcinogen, as well as causing stomach ulcerations and inflammation. It is approved by the U.S. F.D.A. as it is less harmful when consumed with protein and apparently harmless when ingested in small amounts as a food additive. It is possible to replace Carrageenan with Agar in your recipes.
CBD or Cannabidiol
Cyanocobalamin is synthetic vegan Vitamin B12. This is the version recommended by nutrition experts. It is created using an insignificant amount of cyanide compared to what occurs naturally in the diet, so it is harmless even when consuming 1,000µg a day, unless you have impaired kidney function, then it should be avoided and you should rather supplement with methylcobalamin.
Vitamin D helps with the regulation and absorption of calcium. Vitamin D is found in fish like salmon and tuna, egg yolk, beef liver and dairy products. Vegans can get Vitamin D naturally from sunlight and mushrooms, however, that will not be enough to meet your daily requirements and supplementation is advised. Vitamin D3 is recommended as it has been shown to be far more effective at raising and maintaining levels of Vitamin D in the body than Vitamin D2.
Vitamin D2 is sourced from plants so is vegan.
Vitamin D3 that is used in supplements is mostly from lanolin which is a byproduct of sheep’s wool and is not vegan. Vegan Vitamin D3 is sourced from algae and lichen.
DHA is essential for healthy brain development and function. It is primarily sourced from fish roe, shrimp and shellfish. Vegans can find Omega-3 oils in chia seeds, flax seeds/linseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and edamame, which contains ALA, which the body turns into EPA and DHA. However, our bodies are not efficient at this conversion and vegans should consider supplementing with EPA and DHA. Vegan supplements source DHA from algae.
E numbers are a form of short-hand to identify food additives. They could be as innocent as E300 which is vitamin C, or as harmful as E621 which is MSG. So all e numbers are not created equal. Some are derived from animal products like E441 which is gelatin, while others are vegan like E460 which is plant fiber known as cellulose.
EPA is essential for healthy brain function and mood stabilization. It is primarily sourced from fish roe, shrimp and shellfish. Vegans can find Omega-3 oils in chia seeds, flax seeds/linseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and edamame, which contains ALA, which the body turns into EPA and DHA. However, our bodies are not efficient at this conversion and vegans should consider supplementing with EPA. Vegan supplements source EPA from algae.
Ferrous Sulfate, Ferrous Gluconate and Ferrous Fumerate
Folate is a member of the vitamin B family and is sourced from dark green leafy vegetables. It plays an important role in DNA function, especially in the development of the fetus and preventing birth defects, as well as protecting against cancer and preserving the health of nerve tissues.
Folic Acid is a synthetic version of Folate and has been found to increase the risk of cancer.
Unless the product clearly states that the capsules are veggie caps or vegetarian capsules, then they are made from gelatin, which in turn is made from beef bones. This is because gelatin capsules are cheaper to make than vegetarian capsules. Vegetarian capsules are vegan and are made from cellulose, which is the undigestable fibre in plants.
Green powders and supplements increase energy, detoxify and alkalize the body, boost the immune system, and improve general health. They contain leafy vegetables like wheat grass, barley grass, kale, spinach and broccoli. They also sometimes contain Probiotics, Prebiotics, Moringa and Spirulina. This combination provides numerous trace elements, chlorophyll, folate, and B vitamins. Green supplements increase energy, detoxify, alkalize, boost the immune system and improve general health.
Histidine is an Amino Acid that is is used to treat conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, ulcers, and anemia caused by kidney disease. It can be found in meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy. Vegan sources of histidine are grains and legumes. Supplements are produced synthetically so are vegan.
Iodine is a mineral found in kelp, it aids the thyroid’s production of hormones to control the metabolism of food into energy. It is vital for the healthy development of the bones and brain of babies. Some Iodine supplements could be made from fish, so read the labelling.
Iron is a mineral essential for transporting carbon dioxide and oxygen in red blood cells to all areas of the body. Iron supplements are most often made from heme iron derived from animal products such as meat, chicken, eggs, and fish. Vegan sources of iron are dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains. Vegan iron supplements are made from ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferrous fumerate, or carbonyl iron, the latter is more gentle on sensitive stomachs. Ferrous fumerate is the most absorbable with the highest levels of elemental iron (33%). Iron supplements can cause constipation, and an excess of iron can lead to liver failure, so it is important to only supplement when needed. Consuming foods high in Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron.
Juniper berries are primarily used for bladder or stomach infections.
Vitamin K is a fat soluble vitamin and is essential for strong bones and teeth. It also slows bleeding by helping blood to clot. Vitamin K comprises a group of nutrients. Vitamin K1 is sourced primarily from green, leafy vegetables. Vitamin K2 can be sourced from fermenting animal products, namely meat, eggs and cheese; however, there are vegan versions of Vitamin K2 available
Magnesium is a mineral. Many people are deficient in magnesium. It is vital for the absorption of calcium and plays a role in bone density. Magnesium is used to treat high blood pressure, osteoporosis, clogged arteries and constipation. It is taken by athletes to increase energy and stamina. Magnesium applied to the skin is good for bacterial infections. Food sources include high fibre foods, including green leafy vegetables, broccoli, squash, almonds, legumes and whole grains.
Also known as Vitamin B3. Niacin has many benefits including easing arthritis and boosting brain function. It is produced in two forms: Nicotinic Acid which helps to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease; and Niacinamide or Nicotinamide which is thought to protect against skin cancer and psoriasis. Niacin can be sourced from meat, fish, legumes and nuts. Taking an excess of Niacin when you do not have a deficiency can have negative side effects like gout and liver damage.
Omega-3 contains ALA which the body can convert into EPA and DHA, which are essential for healthy brain development and mood stabilization. It is thought to reduce inflammation. Omega-3 supplements are primarily sourced from fish roe, shrimp and shellfish. Vegans can find Omega-3 oils in chia seeds, flax seeds/linseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and edamame. However, our bodies are not efficient at this conversion and vegans should consider supplementing with EPA and DHA. Vegan supplements source EPA and DHA from algae.
Omega-6 contains essential fatty acids like Linoleic Acid. It is thought to reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 Diabetes, but also to contribute to inflammation. It is typically unnecessary to take Omega-6 supplements as it is found in sunflower oil and other plant-based seeds and oils which are widely used in the Western diet.
Prebiotics are the foods that the healthy bacteria in your gut consume. These are foods high in fiber and resistant carbohydrate that the body cannot digest. A good food source is bananas. Prebiotic supplements are made by fermenting various fruit and vegetable sources, eg chicory root, inulin, FOS (Fructooligosaccharides), or tapioca.
Probiotics are bacteria that help the immune system and remove cancer-causing toxins from the gut. Probiotic supplements are mostly cultured from dairy products, but they can be found in all cultured foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, pickle, kombucha and tempeh. Vegan probiotic supplements are cultured from vegan sources. It is good to take probiotics when you are taking antibiotics, have an auto-immune disease, candida, or irritable bowel syndrome. Taking Probiotics together with Prebiotics makes them more effective.
Protein is an important building block for the development and maintenance of healthy muscle tissue, bone, cartilage, blood and skin. Our bodies also use it to build enzymes and hormones. Most protein shakes are made with whey protein, which is not vegan as it’s a dairy product. Vegan protein supplements are made using soya protein and/or pea protein.
Retinyl Acetate or Retinyl Palmitate
Riboflavin, also known as Vitamin B2, is a water soluble vitamin that helps to release the energy from foods and with the utilization of oxygen. Supplements are primarily sourced from animal products, including liver, kidneys, eggs, and dairy. Vegan Vitamin B2 supplements are sourced from mushrooms, avocados, almonds, soybeans, and green vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and asparagus.
Shellac is sometimes used to coat tablets to give them a shiny look. It is safe to consume, but it isn’t vegan. Shellac is the resin harvested from the cacoons of the lac insect after the young have hatched. It is an animal product created by an animal byproduct, and, since insects are also animals, requires the farming of animals.
Spirulina is blue-green algae, which produces energy from sunlight and is packed with nutrients, including Omega-3, iron, all the essential Amino Acids, and Vitamin B1, B2 and B3. Spirulina has many health benefits, including helping with the management of diabetes type 2, reducing the symptoms of allergies, and boosting metabolism. Spirulina is also thought to lower LDL, the bad cholesterol while raising HDL, the good cholesterol.
Stearic Acid, Magnesium Stearate or Calcium Stearate
Stearic Acid is a saturated fatty acid used in supplements to assist in the production process. It helps the powder move along the chutes. Historically it was derived from tallow (animal fat). The industry standard nowadays is to source Stearic Acid from vegetable sources like palm oil.
Taurine is a conditionally essential Amino Acid, but it isn’t used to build Protein. Taurine is prescribed to alleviate symptoms of heart disease and liver damage. Taurine plays many roles, including assisting with the body’s cellular health, digestion, regulating the central nervous system, and ensuring a healthy immune system. Our bodies can produce Taurine; however, it is safe to supplement with Taurine if required. It is primarily found in shellfish and the dark meat of turkeys. It is not found in plants. Supplemental Taurine is produced synthetically and is vegan.
Whey is a byproduct of cheese and butter production. It is a dairy product and is most often used as a protein supplement. It is not vegan.
Yucca supplements come from the root of a Yucca shrub. It is taken for high blood pressure, to lower cholesterol and give symptomatic relief from arthritis.
Zinc Gluconate and Zinc Citrate
Zinc is an essential trace mineral with numerous benefits. It strengthens the immune system, and is used to treat infections, reproductive disorders, macular degeneration, high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, Crohn’s disease and much more. Zinc is vitally important in the creation of DNA and healing of wounds. It is also used to help restore the sense of taste and smell. Zinc can be found in oysters, lobster, red meat, and poultry. Vegan sources are tofu, beans, nuts and whole grains; however, it is possible that the phytates in plants inhibit the absorption of Zinc. Vegan Zinc supplements are Zinc Gluconate and Zinc Citrate.