A recent study compared the breast milk of moms who ate meat, were vegetarian, or vegan. The study also analysed vitamin B12 supplementation and levels in the breast milk.
A concern for the vegetarian or vegan has always been to ensure that they are obtaining all the nutrients their body needs. For breastfeeding moms, this concern is exponentially heightened due to the need to also supply the baby with all the nutrients he or she needs.
Vitamin B12 is essential for brain and nerve development
For the vegetarian or vegan, vitamin B12 can only be obtained through eating fortified foods or taking supplements. Two previous studies in the United States have shown that this group of breastfeeding women has low levels of vitamin B12 in their milk. Vitamin B12 is important for brain and nerve development in the baby, so much so, that the German Nutrition Society actually recommends against a vegan diet for any person still growing, including pregnant and breastfeeding moms.
However, analytical discrepancies in previous studies led researchers in the United States to conduct a new study. Their objective was to compare the breast milk of moms who ate meat, were vegetarian, or vegan. Vitamin B12 supplementation and levels in the breast milk were recorded to see how it affected the breast milk. Their findings were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In total, results from 74 women were obtained, with approximately equal numbers of women consuming meat or following diets that were vegetarian or vegan. Vitamin B12 supplementation was taken by 78% of the women, in varying forms including multi-vitamins, pre-natal vitamins, B-complex vitamin, and individual vitamin B12.
No significant difference in levels of vitamin B12 in breast milk was found between women with differing diets. These results are in contrast to previous studies, and the researchers discuss that this may be because vegan women in previous studies were not taking vitamin B12 supplements.
Vegan women taking vitamin B12 supplements were at no disadvantage
Almost 20% of the women in the study had low levels of vitamin B12 in the breast-milk. Vegan women taking an individual vitamin B12 supplement were more likely to have a high concentration of vitamin B12 in breast milk. Interestingly, women taking a multi-vitamin were more likely to have a low concentration of vitamin B12 in the breast-milk.
The researchers conclude that the vegan women taking an individual vitamin B12 supplements are at no disadvantage compared to their non-vegetarian counterparts in producing breast-milk containing vitamin B12. They discuss however that further research is urgently needed to define acceptable levels for vitamin B12 in the breast milk, and how this is best obtained from the diet or supplements. Related to that, acceptable levels of measuring vitamin B12 in infants also need to be determined.
Written by Nicola Cribb, VetMB DVSc Dip.ACVS
Reference: Pawlak R, Vos P, Shahab-Ferdows S, Hampel D, Allen LH, Perrin MT. Vitamin B-12 content in breast milk of vegan, vegetarian, and nonvegetarian lactating women in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2018. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy104.