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Vegan Shakers: Interview with Steve Walsh Vegan Views 97 (Summer 2003)

Steve Walsh has been a Vegan Views subscriber since meeting Harry Mather at Vegan Camp around 1995. He is the Chair of the Vegan Society council, and has written many articles on vegan nutrition, including vitamin B12 requirements. Interview by John Curtis.
photo of Steve Walsh

Tell me how your interest in nutrition started.

Even before giving up meat I had a moderate interest in nutrition. I wanted to go vegan for ethical reasons, but made sure first that the diet would be healthy. I went to the British Library and spent a day looking up references on vegan diets and concluded that a vegan diet wouldn’t do me any harm at all, so I went vegan. Later, I did more research into vegan nutrition for children, since my daughter went vegan shortly after I did.

My interest in nutrition revived again after going to a few Vegan Camps and meeting many more vegans. Some vegans had odd notions about B12, such as "you can get it from comfrey, mushrooms, and organic vegetables." These are not reliable sources. I enjoy doing research, and from these misconceptions, I saw opportunities for vegans to have better health. Researching into nutrition became a major interest. Three years ago at the Vegan Society AGM, some council members spoke to me and suggested that I join the Vegan Society council. I try to ensure that Vegan Society information is bang up-to-date, accurate, effective and accessible. I've spent over 20 hours a week researching nutrition for the last three years.

I am now on the IVU (International Vegetarian Union) council as Science Coordinator, and try to promote good nutritional information among the member societies. Vegans are, of course, vegetarians and the percentage of vegetarians who are also vegan is increasing steadily. All the food at the last three IVU congresses has been vegan. I pushed for an agreed statement on vitamin B12 for the member societies to base their information on. This statement was endorsed by many organisations and vegetarian doctors and nutritionists. It has been translated into many different languages and helps remove the confusion that has existed on vitamin B12 (see www.vegansociety.com/html/info/b12sheet.htm).

Tell me about your conversion to veganism.

I saw a TV programme in 1987 showing a cow with BSE, shaking, stumbling and falling about. I didn't believe the assurances given on the programme that it wasn't a risk to human health, and I was disgusted that cows were fed the remains of other cows. I then gave up meat. I looked into farming more over the next few years. There is no real separation between farming for meat and farming for milk. Dairy cows are usually treated worse than beef cattle and chickens are treated atrociously, so I stopped using dairy and eggs. Finally, in 1993, I accepted that even fish caught after a life in the wild suffered greatly when caught, so I became a vegan. Incidentally, the health benefits of eating fish are greatly exaggerated – you can get omega-3 fats from plants such as flaxseed, rapeseed and hempseed and avoid the suffering of the fish and also the mercury poisoning which has been found to largely cancel out any health benefit from fish omega-3s.

How much B12 do we need?

To maximise health, we need to get at least 3 microgram (one millionth of a gram) if it’s spread across two or three meals a day. This intake minimises homocysteine levels in the blood, which is important since increased homocysteine is associated with increased risk of birth defects, depression, dementia and death.

Our physiology is such that we absorb B12 very efficiently if there are small amounts in the food we eat, but we don't absorb it so well if we take it in larger amounts. If you take B12 just once a day, you need 10 micrograms per day to minimise homocysteine levels. On the other hand, if you take a B12 supplement once a week, that supplement must contain about 2000 micrograms to minimise homocysteine levels since for this large dose, the absorption is just between 0.5% and 2%. If, however, you have a small dose of 1 microgram, the absorption is over 50%. B12 has no known toxic effects even if taken in high doses. B12 supplements should always be chewed to improve absorption.

What is the recommended daily intake of B12? I've heard that it's higher in the US than in the UK.

In the UK, the lower recommended nutrient intake (meaning there is significant risk if you get less than this) is 1 microgram daily, and the recommended intake (meaning that there is negligible risk of deficiency above this level) is 1.5 micrograms daily. But these recommendations are only to avoid clinical deficiency which can result in pernicious anaemia and nervous system degeneration. Higher intake is required for optimal health – at least 3 micrograms per day. In the US, the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) is 2.4 micrograms for most adults. It is higher than the UK figures because absorption declines with age, and the US recommendation aims to build up significant stores in the body as a reserve for old age. Minimising homocysteine levels was not taken into account when setting the US levels.

The B12 levels in fortified foods in Europe usually pitch at the labelling EU RDA for a single serving (e.g. 1 cup of soya milk), which is 1 microgram for B12. Non-vegan food manufacturers seem reluctant to fortify beyond the labelling RDA so usually fortify their plant milks to similar levels to those found in animal milks, missing the opportunity to give their products an additional health advantage. Vegetarians get some B12 from dairy and eggs, and on average more than vegans, but generally not enough to minimise blood homocysteine levels. All vegetarians should use B12-fortified foods or a B12 supplement.

When I phoned Plamil founder Arthur Ling around last Jan/Feb, I told him that Plamil vegan milks have higher levels of B12 than other brands (e.g. Provamel) and asked him if the fortification level had changed. He told me the level had always been the same since it was introduced in 1965 and the formulation had been in consultation with vegan medical doctors including Frey Ellis. He said he had no idea how this compared with other soya milk manufacturers because they were not vegan orientated and they would doubtless not have consulted vegan nutritionists and would have based their formulation on cows milk.

Frey Ellis, who was active in the Vegan Society in the 1960s, was a consultant haematologist and had a strong interest in getting the maximum benefit from a vegan diet. He recommended 5 micrograms/day. 300ml (a large glass) of Plamil soya milk gives 5 micrograms of B12, so this fits in with Frey Ellis' recommendation. For many years, this message of the need for a good intake of B12 continued, but then it faded for a while in the vegan community, probably because you only need about 1 microgram a day to avoid deficiency. But with just 1 microgram you could still have elevated homocysteine levels.

What else determines blood homocysteine levels?

Homocysteine levels also rise if folate intake is low. This is unlikely to occur in vegans since rich sources of folate are foods like greens, beans and oranges, but is relatively common in meat eaters. Low intake of B6 also raises homocysteine levels, but almost everyone gets enough B6 since it is widely spread in many different foods. Even though vegans tend to have good folate intake, their homocysteine levels tend to be higher than those of meat eaters because vegans tend to have lower B12 intakes. But if vegans increase their B12 intake, their homocysteine levels tend to drop below those for meat eaters.

Most vegans are not vegan for health reasons, and some are going to say that they aren't fanatical about their health, so won't be taking your advice. Some vegans will say "if we need B12-fortified food or supplements, our diet is unnatural".

I'd like to see people who've chosen a vegan diet thrive on it not just for their own health, but to show that veganism is a healthy option, which will influence more people to choose a vegan diet. It's not an issue of naturalness, but of the unnaturalness of our present-day cleanliness of food. In the past, plant-based food would be accompanied by dirt and much higher levels of insect contamination. Primates in the wild have healthy levels of B12, but in zoos, their B12 levels plummet because their food is very clean, so they don't incidentally take in much dirt or insects. Monkey World have to give their primates B12-fortified foods to compensate.

Is B12 in supplements or fortified foods actually vegan?

All commercial B12 is produced by fermentation reactions using bacteria which excrete B12 – just as other microorganisms excrete alcohol in fermentation reactions to produce wine and beer.

Malcolm Horne and Chris Sutoris have recently criticised the Vegan Society in Vegan Views. Since you're the Chair of the Vegan Society council, I'd be interested in your thoughts.

The Vegan Society strives within limited resources to be a broad church, and covers health, animal rights etc. A lot of work has recently gone into revitalising the local contacts, particularly by Patricia Tricker. There is an extensive listing of local contacts, local groups and vegan events in The Vegan. Vegan Views is highly regarded – many of us on the Vegan Society council are subscribers. We don't see Vegan Views as competitive, but as complementary to the Vegan Society. Vegan Views is listed in the Animal-Free Shopper, and we had a news item on it in the Summer 2003 magazine.

Perhaps you're waiting for grassroots groups to write in articles, rather than getting in touch with them and regularly reporting what they're doing in The Vegan magazine? For instance, the Vegan Organic Network are trying to establish an Education and Research centre for stockfree farming, producing standards for vegan organic food similar to the way that the Soil Association does for organic food, and are putting together a Growers' Manual to help farmers to take up stockfree farming.

If we find that a particular Vegan magazine is unbalanced, for instance if there is too much on nutrition, we try to balance it up by inviting someone to write an article on for instance animal issues. This was the case in the Summer 2003 Vegan magazine, so we contacted Maneka Gandhi, and she wrote an article on the cruelty of silk production. VON helped us with another recent article on veganic growing. VON have been making excellent progress towards commercial veganic agriculture, and I expect an update on this would be of interest to our members.

Have you ever been a burger and chips man?

When I was a teenager, I was very keen on fish and chips. I still occasionally eat chips. At home, it's easy to cook tasty food that's also healthy so I avoid chips, but it's more difficult when you're travelling. At Vegan Camp, if there's a chippy nearby I sometimes get chips but they shouldn’t be a major part of anyone’s diet. I'm not a health fanatic, but I am reasonably cautious about what I eat.

Foods available in the UK that are B12 fortified are:

Some vegan margarines, e.g. Pure Soya spread, Pure Sunflower spread, Suma Soya spread, Suma Sunflower spread. Note that organic margarines, including Pure Organic Sunflower spread are not fortified with B12.

Some breakfast cereals – check the label to find out.

Some Soya milks. All Plamil milks (soya and also White Sun) have good levels of fortification so are excellent sources. Some Provamel (Alpro) and supermarket own-label soya milks are fortified, but to a lower level than Plamil. Organic soya milks are not fortified with B12.

Some Yeast Extracts and yeast-extract-based stocks. Meridian yeast extract (both standard and low-salt varieties) have good levels of fortification so are excellent choices. Natex, Marmite, Vecon and some supermarket own-label yeast extracts are B12-fortified, but to a much lower level. Vegemite, Vitam-R and Engevita are not fortified with B12.

The above list is not complete – let us know if you find any others. In all cases, check the labels to make sure that they are B12-fortified since manufacturers could re-formulate. Check the Animal-Free Shopper to make sure that a particular fortified food is vegan, as there may be animal-derived ingredients such as vitamin D3 (only D2 is vegan). If you find that your breakfast cereal, soya milk, yeast extract or margarine is not fortified with B12, it's a good idea to switch to ones that are.

Related Vegan Views articles...
Cross-reference: Nutrition and Health
Cross-reference: Why I'm Vegan