Most Vitamin D Is Not Vegan-Friendly
Did you know that most Vitamin D3 supplements are not vegan? That’s right. If you look on the label, you’ll see the word “lanolin” in the “supplement facts” section. “Lanolin” might sound innocuous enough, but it’s actually a wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of woolly mammals. Lanolin is basically extracted from sheep’s wool and is from which most vitamin D3 supplements are derived. Read on to discover the vegan’s guide to vitamin D.
There are lots of vegans out there, including you, perhaps, that are taking daily vitamin D supplements without realizing that they’re derived from animals. This is quite a dilemma for vegans because adequate vitamin D3 is absolutely critical for good health in many important regards. Most widely known for its role in bone health, vitamin D actually supports a vast array of bodily functions, such as immune system and mood health, and is thought to be involved in the prevention of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis and other conditions.
Can’t We Get Enough Vitamin D from the Sun?
There are five types of vitamin D – D1, D2, D3, D4, and D5, all of which are fat soluble. The two forms commonly available from food and supplements are D2 and D3. Vitamin D3, or cholecalciferol, is the natural form of vitamin D that our skin makes when it comes into contact with sunlight under the right conditions. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure “under the right circumstances” several times a week on your arms and legs is all your body needs to be able to make most of the vitamin D it needs. (Because the body makes vitamin D, it isn’t truly a vitamin, it’s actually more like a hormone.) Vitamin D3 is also available from animal-based food sources, such as fatty fish, beef liver, and egg yolks, but these foods are not options for vegans.
But just what are the “right circumstances” for the body to be able to produce adequate vitamin D3? Well, as they say, it’s complicated. Cloud cover, age, skin pigmentation, use of sunscreen, time of day, geographic location and even pollution levels all play a role in the amount of UVB rays that ultimately reach your body.
Let’s take geography, for instance. In the continental United States, people who live north of the 37th parallel (see map) are able to make significant amounts of vitamin D3 only from June through September due to the angle of the sun’s rays during fall, winter, and spring. What about people living in Alaska? These folks can’t even make enough vitamin D3 during the summer because of the angle of the sun’s rays in that far northern region. So unless you live south of the 37th parallel, you’re going to need to supplement, at least for much of the year.
Doesn’t Plant-Based Vitamin D2 Do the Job?
Supplemental vitamin D2, or ergocalciferol, made from irradiated yeast, is completely acceptable for vegans. Vitamin D2 is readily available from fortified commercially-produced plant-based foods such as tofu, breakfast cereal, orange juice, and nut milks such as soy, almond, rice, hemp and cashew milks. (If you squeeze your own orange juice or make nut milks at home, please note that these homemade beverages will not contain vitamin D2.)
Mushrooms are an interesting case. Like the human body, mushrooms can make their own vitamin D (D2, not the D3 as people make) when exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun or a sun lamp, but typically the mushrooms we purchase have been grown in the dark. Mycologist Paul Stamets suggests drying fresh mushrooms in the sun and then storing them. Testing by Stamets has shown that the vitamin D2 lasts for at least a year, although he found some decrease from the initial levels. (Reminder: if you live north of the 37th parallel, you’ll need to expose your mushrooms ideally between June and September for significant vitamin D2 production.)
So what’s the problem? Can’t vegans just get vitamin D2 from whole plant-based foods and vitamin D2 supplements?
The answer is no. While it was once believed that vitamin D2 was equivalent to vitamin D3 in the body, unfortunately, that has turned out not to be the case. Based on research, experts now recommend vitamin D3 as the sole form to be used in supplementation. Vitamin D3 has been shown through repeated studies to be much more effective at raising vitamin D levels in the body.
Vegan Vitamin D3 Supplements
The good news is that vegan vitamin D3 derived from algae is available from a number of reputable supplement companies, such as Doctor’s Best and Country Life. A google search for “vegan vitamin D3” will bring up these and other retail options. The bad news is that these supplements tend to cost quite a bit more than standard lanolin-derived products. For instance, at Vitacost.com, you’ll see that the suggested retail price for 30 softgels of 5000 IU of vegan vitamin D3 is $20.59. In comparison, 60 softgels – twice as many – of the same level of lanolin-derived vitamin D3 has a suggested price of $11.99. Per softgel, the suggested price for vegan D3 is 69 cents, versus a mere 20 cents for lanolin-derived D3. That’s a four-fold increase in price.
So what’s a vegan to do? Is it worth spending the extra money for plant-based vitamin D3 supplements much of the year? Only you can make that decision, based on your pocketbook and your conscience. But whatever you decide, make sure that you’re getting enough vitamin D3. Your wellbeing depends on it.
How Much Vitamin D3 to Take
While the recommended daily allowance of vitamin D3 is 600 IU per day for adults, according to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, there’s currently no agreement on optimal levels. However, deficiency is generally defined as blood levels below 20 nanograms per milliliter. It’s a good idea to have your vitamin D3 levels checked by a trusted healthcare provider before starting supplementation and to have those levels monitored periodically. Although rare, excessive vitamin D supplementation can be toxic.