What to look for when choosing a vitamin B12 supplement

If you’ve ever set foot inside a pharmacy, or anywhere else that sells vitamins, you know that there are usually 500 variations for each supplement. Vitamin B12 is no exception; there are so many formulations, doses, and marketing traps… It can be very hard to decide what you need.

In general, vitamin B12 supplement formulations are essentially interchangeable. Most people requiring a vitamin B12 supplement would be fine getting a standard-release generic brand supplement. If you’re not sure what you need, don’t hesitate to consult a pharmacist or your doctor.

How do you know if you even need a vitamin B12 supplement?

I talk about this subject in more detail elsewhere (to see that post, click here). But, if you want the short version:

If you are deficient in vitamin B12, supplementing would be recommended. However, if you aren’t deficient there would be not really be any potential benefit to gain from taking it.

Unless you are actually deficient in vitamin B12, there is no point in taking a vitamin B12 supplement.

Does it matter if it’s natural vitamin B12 or not?

There is a common misconception that “all natural” vitamin supplements are somehow superior to alternatives. However, your body doesn’t care (or even know the difference) between if your vitamins are synthetic or derived from natural sources. At the end of the day, the molecule is the molecule.

For the most part, using the term “all-natural” to describe vitamins is simply another marketing buzzword. Because of this, “all-natural” labeled vitamins are often more expensive than alternatives.

My opinion: don’t waste your money on “natural” vitamin B12 supplements; just get any brand that’s on sale.

What dose of vitamin B12 should I take?

When determining what dose of vitamin B12 to take, it first depends on why you need to take the supplement itself. Those who need to take it because their B12 intake is too low (e.g. strict vegans) would usually need a much smaller daily dose than people whose bodies have trouble absorbing it from food sources.

For those who only need to supplement because they don’t get enough from their diets (primarily those who follow strict plant-based diets), here are the recommended daily amounts:

Person’s AgeVitamin B12 Recommended Dietary Allowance
1-3 years old0.9 mcg
4-8 years old 1.2 mcg
9-13 years old1.8 mcg
14 years and older2.4 mcg

The amounts listed above are quite low compared to most vitamin B12 supplements, so these people can either get the lowest dose B12 supplement or could just get a plain multivitamin as well.

In those who require vitamin B12 because their bodies can’t absorb it as well, the doses tend to be quite a bit higher. Usually, people are told to just take the 1000 mcg supplements for ease of use (and because too much is unlikely to be problematic). In very serious cases of deficiency, people can even receive vitamin B12 by injection.

Is it dangerous to take too much vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 is considered to be a water-soluble vitamin. What this means is that whenever our body gets more vitamin B12 than it needs, it will simply get rid of the excess. In the case of water soluble vitamins, they get eliminated via the urine.

Because it’s eliminated easily, it’s not expected that taking a bit too much vitamin B12 would be problematic. However, if you don’t need to actually take it in the first place, this means that by taking it you are just paying for expensive pee.

Are slow-release vitamin B12 supplements better than the regular ones?

Slow-release (or timed release) vitamin B12 supplements may sound like they should be superior to other formulations. However, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that these (often more expensive) timed-release supplements are any better than regular-release formulations.

Lots of the marketing materials that I’ve seen surrounding timed-release supplements use the argument that “timed release will help improve tolerability by allowing your body to only absorb a little at a time“. It’s important to note than vitamin B12 is extremely well tolerated and that there is no published evidence that I could find which actually supports this argument.

The Bottom Line

Most people requiring a vitamin B12 supplement are fine just taking the regular-release 1000 mcg tablets. There is no reason to spend more to get timed-release, nor to splurge on “all-natural” formulations.

Don’t fall for marketing jargon and meaningless buzzwords. When in doubt, check-in with your friendly neighborhood community pharmacist for assistance!

Dan Landry

Daniel (Dan) Landry, founder of Rxplanation.com, is an infectious diseases pharmacist at the Dr-Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton, NB, Canada.

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