Vitamin B is a compilation of eight different vitamins, known as vitamin B complex, found naturally in high-protein foods. Leafy greens are another natural food source containing lots of B vitamins. Many processed foods and grains, such as cereals and breads, have synthetic versions of this vitamin added into them. It is common for some foods to have more of one type than the others; for example, some foods contain more B12 and B6 and less of the others. Most people who eat a balanced diet get enough of each of these vitamins from their food, but they are also available in supplements.
Foods with the most natural vitamin B are typically those that are high in protein. Both wild-caught and farm-raised salmon, trout, catfish, tuna, halibut, cod and many other fish varieties contain large amounts of B-complex vitamins. Lamb is another good source of vitamin B and protein as are beef, poultry, shellfish, eggs, and dairy products. Foods that are high in protein are the only ones containing significant amounts of natural B12.
Vegetable and Plant Sources
Certain fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes are good sources of vitamin B; however, they do not contain significant amounts of B12 that is found in meat and dairy foods. Avocado, pomegranate, dates, watermelon, and some berries are especially high in B-complex vitamins. Leafy greens and vegetables such as amaranth, bok choy, Swiss chard, kale, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, squashes and parsnips also contain significant amounts. Most legumes have a lot of B vitamins; however, soy beans, black-eye peas and edamame contain the highest amounts of B9, also known as folate.
Synthetic and Supplemental Sources
The eight vitamins that make up the vitamin B complex are often added to processed or packaged foods and grain sources. These include the following:
- B1 — thiamine
- B2 — riboflavin
- B3 — niacin
- B5 — pantothenic acid
- B6 — pyridoxine and pyridoxamine
- B7 — biotin
- B9 — folate or folic acid
- B12 — cobalamin
Reading the labels on the package can help identify added synthetic supplemental sources, particularly on cereal, flour, rice and other grain products. For example, the label may read, "enriched flour" or 'enriched with thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin." This indicates that synthetic B vitamins have been added, rather than occurring as a natural source. Nutritional yeast is a deactivated form of yeast high in protein and vitamins that can be added as a natural supplement to foods and beverages. Caution should be taken not to confuse "nutritional yeast" with "brewer's yeast."
Natural vs. Synthetic Sources
Generally speaking, it's better to get natural vitamin B from a varied diet rather than synthetic versions from processed foods or supplements. This is because all 8 of these vitamins are essential for health, and taking too much of some of them, notably B3, B6, B9, and B12, can cause health problems. Also, these substances are easily affected by processing, particularly being cooked for a long time or being taken with alcohol, so many nutritionists recommend getting them from foods that are as fresh as possible, and avoiding extended drinking.
Despite this, certain people may need to take supplements to avoid deficiency. Those over 50 are sometimes unable to properly absorb enough vitamin B12 to meet their daily needs, and women who are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant often take folic acid, which can help prevent certain birth defects in babies. Likewise, vegans may be at a particular risk for vitamin B12 deficiency, since they do not eat many of the foods that contain it, so they may need to take supplements.