The ultimate guide for vegans and vegetarians

The Ultimate Vitamin D Guide for Vegans and Vegetarians

Are you on a plant-based diet?

If you are, you are probably aware that you need to be careful about your vitamin B12 status.

But what about vitamin D? Are there any good vegetarian sources available, or should you be worried too?

In this article, we’ll take a look at 4 different plant-based diets and the best sources of vitamin D available for each one of them.

More...

First, however, I need to make sure we are on the same page about the terminology.

In a Hurry?


​You can find a nice summary of this article at the bottom of this page.

What’s the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian?

The Vegan Society gives us a clear definition of veganism:

​“One thing all vegans have in common is a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs and honey -- as well as products like leather and any tested on animals.” (1)

As you can see, being a vegan is a lifestyle that impacts much more than your eating habits and food choices. However, in this article, I’ll focus just on a vegan’s diet.

“Vegetarian”, on the other hand, tends to be a broader adjective used to describe several different diets.

To give you an example, a restaurant may label a dish as “vegetarian” even though it contains milk or eggs. However, if a dish is labeled as “vegan,” this means it doesn’t contain any ingredients from animal origin.

In fact, as I was researching for this article, I was surprised to find out that someone might eat fish and still be considered by some as a pescatarian vegetarian (2) although, truth be told, most of us (myself included) would disagree with that assessment.

For this reason, and for the sake of simplicity, in this article, you’ll see a breakdown of the vitamin D food sources available for the 4 most common plant-based diet.

The following table will make the terminology used throughout this article clearer:

​Vegan or Vegetarian?

Plant-based diet

Eggs

Milk and Diary

​Vegan

Ovo vegetarian

Lacto vegetarian

Ovo Lacto Vegetarian

Vegan: A strict vegetarian who doesn’t eat any food product from an animal origin. (3)

Ovo Vegetarian: Someone who eats everything strict vegetarians eats, plus eggs. (But not milk nor dairy products).

Lacto Vegetarian: Someone who eats everything strict vegetarians eats, plus milk and dairy products. (But not eggs)

Ovo Lacto Vegetarian: Someone who eats everything strict vegetarians eat, plus eggs, milk and dairy products.

Section 1:
veganism and Vitamin D

The best source of vitamin D for any human

Regardless of your food choices, the best source of vitamin D for any human is the Sun.

Under ideal conditions, just 15 minutes of sun exposure might be all you need to produce a significant amount of vitamin D in your skin.

Under ideal circumstances of skin exposure to the Sun, you may be able to produce up to 50,000 IU of vitamin D

​However, this is in ideal circumstances.

What does this mean?

For your skin to produce vitamin D it needs to be irradiated with ultraviolet B radiation (UVB). However, even though the Sun is always producing UVB rays, most of the time, these rays end up being absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere.

This means that, if you want to use the Sun as your only source of vitamin D, even in the winter months, you need to live near the equator, where you can get UVB rich sunrays throughout the year.

Also, if you are pregnant, you cannot get in the Sun and hope for the best without also taking other measures to make sure your body is getting all the vitamin D that it needs. Being that careless, could heighten your risk for several complications of pregnancy and even harm your developing baby. (4​, 5)

For this reason, many people choose to ​open a bottle and pop a gelatin capsule of a ​highly rated vitamin D supplement.

But if you are vegan, things may not be this linear.

Why?

Because you care where things come from, including the vitamin D in your supplements.

Where is the vitamin D in your supplements coming from?

The vitamin D in most supplements is derived from either lanolin or fish oil.

Fish oil derived supplements are out of question for a vegan because of the obvious animal origin, but what about lanolin?

Lanolin is the grease found on a sheep’s wool. Given this connection to an animal, supplements derived from lanolin can’t be labeled as vegan.

Fortunately for those following a vegan lifestyle, though, vegan vitamin D supplements do exist.

  • ​Where does their vitamin D come from?
  • ​And, are they as effective as the ones derived from animal products?

These are significant questions because there are important differences between vegan supplements depending on where their vitamin D came from.

The different kinds of vegan vitamin D supplements

As you search for a vitamin D supplement compatible with the vegan lifestyle, you may be hard-pressed to find one that’s not derived from either fish oil or lanolin.

But vegan-compatible vitamin D supplements do exist.

These come in two forms:

  • ​Cholecalciferol, also known as vitamin D3, obtained from lichen.
  • ​Ergocalciferol, also known as vitamin D2, obtained from cultured yeast.

How do they compare?

Cholecalciferol from vegan sources

Vitamin D3 is the molecule that’s formed on your skin when you exposed it to UVB radiation.

This chemical, also known as cholecalciferol, is also the same substance that’s being extracted from fish oil and lanolin.

In the case of a vegan capsule, though, the vitamin D3 inside it is derived from lichen.

What is lichen?

Lichen is a living being resulting from the symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. It’s not an animal as much as unicellular organisms aren’t animals. In this case, a technical definition may be hard to grasp, but a picture will be very elucidative.

Lichen growing on a wooden fence

Here's linchen growing on a wooden fence.

And here's a close up of another kind of linchen:

this is the lichen where your vegan vitamin D3 comes from

​What about vitamin D2?

In nature, vitamin D2 is naturally found in mushrooms (6) and yeasts that have been exposed to UVB radiation.

All vitamin D2 supplements available over the counter I could find seem to be derived from cultured yeast. If you know about a vitamin D2 supplement derived from mushrooms let me know in the comments, please.

However, if you desire to consume Vitamin D2, the ergocalciferol, that has been derived from mushrooms you may not need supplements. Just look for the mushrooms themselves. Just make sure these have been irradiated with UVB light as most mushrooms are grown away from the Sun or other UVB light sources.

What is the difference between Vitamin D2 and Vitamin D3?

Vitamin D2 is a molecule that, after entering our body, can be transformed into vitamin D3.

Vitamin D2 is as good as vitamin D3 in terms of potential. However, vitamin D3 full potential is readily available. In contrast, to make use of vitamin D2 the body must work a little to transform it into vitamin D3. (7)

For example, imagine you want to eat a cake. Vitamin D3 is like a cake ready to be eaten. Vitamin D2 is more like a packet with a prepared mixture. This packet has the potential to be an excellent cake. However, first, you need to join water, stir thoroughly, put the mixture in the microwave and wait a few minutes.

This means there's nothing wrong with vitamin D2. However, why take something whose potential will end up being partially wasted by our body when we can just take vitamin D3?

Unfortunately, some cereals and other products that claim to be fortified with vitamin D, are fortified with vitamin D2.

This means you are consuming a less bioavailable form of the vitamin. (8)

Even though some older clinical studies used ergocalciferol (D2) instead of cholecalciferol (D3), nowadays the great majority of studies evaluating the benefits of vitamin D use cholecalciferol (D3).

What is the best vegan source of vitamin D?

A study comparing ergocalciferol (D2) with cholecalciferol (D3) noted a difference of 300% — vitamin D3 being three times more potent than vitamin D2. (9)

If you can, when buying a supplement, buy one that says "cholecalciferol" or "vitamin D3" and never one that says "ergocalciferol" or "vitamin D2." The only exception would be if it were impossible for you to find a vitamin D3 bottle from a vegan source.

In that case, it would be preferable for you to use the D2 form rather than not using any at all for lack of a vegan alternative of vitamin D3.

Fortunately, online retailers, like Amazon, make it easier to access such supplements, like the vitamin D3 derived from lichen mentioned above. That’s the best source of cholecalciferol for a vegan.

​The Vegan foods ​highest in vitamin D, as defined by the USDA

To further assist you in choosing and identifying vegan foods rich in vitamin D, here’s a simple list prepared according to the data published in the database provided by the US Department of Agriculture, or USDA. (10)

Just remember that most of the vitamin D present in mushrooms is in the form of ergocalciferol (D2). This type of vitamin D still needs to be converted into our body, so it is not as readily available as vitamin D3.

Therefore, if we consider the weight of 100 grams, the vegan foods richest in vitamin D are, in order:

vegan sources of vitamin D*

  • 1
    Mushrooms, brown, Italian, or crimini, exposed to ultraviolet light, raw: 1,276 IU.
  • 2
    ​Mushrooms, portabella, exposed to ultraviolet light, raw: 1,135 IU.
  • 3
    ​Mushrooms, maitake, raw: 1,123 IU.
  • 4
    Mushrooms, portabella, exposed to ultraviolet light, grilled: 524 IU.
  • 5
    ​Mushrooms, ​chanterelle, raw: 212 IU.
  • 6
    ​Mushrooms, morel, raw: 206 IU.
  • 7
    ​Mushrooms, shiitake, dried: 154 IU.
  • 8
    ​Seaweed, Canadian Cultivated EMI-TSUNOMATA, dry: 126 IU.
  • 9
    ​Soymilk (All flavors), enhanced: 47 IU.

*Note that these values are per 100 grams of each food item.

Section 2:
​Sources of Vitamin D For Less Strict Vegetarians

​If you aren’t a strict vegetarian, eggs and dairy can provide you with an additional source of vitamin D.

On top of that, you’ll probably be okay with the idea of taking a capsule whose vitamin D was sourced from lanolin.

However, even as a not-so-strict vegetarian, you’ll still need to be careful about labels.

Why?

First of all, as explained in the section on vitamin D and veganism, cholecalciferol can still be sourced from fish oil, which would be out of limits to you.

The different sources of cholecalciferol

The different sources of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) in supplements

Besides, capsules are often made of gelatin.

As you are probably aware of, gelatin is made from collagen, which is sourced from animal bones and cartilage.

There are alternatives, though, such as Hypromellose (INN), an abbreviated name for hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC).

These materials have properties similar to gelatin but are not from animal origin and, for this reason, are often used in vegan and vegetarian supplements.

vitamin d foods for vegetarians

The best food sources of vitamin D for a vegetarian will depend on whether you allow eggs, dairy or both, in your diet.

According to the USDA, UVB-radiated mushrooms and ​seaweeds will still get the first 8 positions of our table – the vitamin D content in eggs and dairy products is that much lower.

However, bear in mind it’s all cholecalciferol (D3) and not vitamin D2 or even vitamin D4 like in mushrooms.

​To make things simpler, in the following list, the repeated items from the previous ​table have been greyed out.

​sources of vitamin D for Ovo Lacto Vegetarians*

  • 1
    Mushrooms, brown, Italian, or crimini, exposed to ultraviolet light, raw: 1,276 IU.
  • 2
    ​Mushrooms, portabella, exposed to ultraviolet light, raw: 1,135 IU.
  • 3
    ​Mushrooms, maitake, raw: 1,123 IU.
  • 4
    Mushrooms, portabella, exposed to ultraviolet light, grilled: 524 IU.
  • 5
    ​Milk, dry, nonfat, instant, with added vitamin A and vitamin D: 440 IU.
  • 6
    ​Margarine, regular, 80% fat, composite, stick, with salt, with added vitamin D: 429 IU.
  • 7
    ​Milk, dry, whole, with added vitamin D: 420 IU.
  • 8
    ​Egg, yolk, dried: 417 IU.
  • 9
    ​Egg, whole, dried: 331 IU.
  • 10
    ​Cheese, pasteurized process, American, fortified with vitamin D: 301 IU.
  • 11
    ​Egg Mix, USDA Commodity: 296 IU.
  • 12
    ​Egg, yolk, raw, frozen, pasteurized: 238 IU.
  • 13
    ​Egg, yolk, raw, fresh: 218 IU.
  • 14
    ​Mushrooms, ​chanterelle, raw: 212 IU.
  • 15
    ​Mushrooms, morel, raw: 206 IU.
  • 16
    ​Mushrooms, shiitake, dried: 154 IU.
  • 17
    ​Seaweed, Canadian Cultivated EMI-TSUNOMATA, dry: 126 IU.
  • 18
    ​Egg, yolk, raw, frozen, salted, pasteurized: 126 IU.
  • 19
    ​Egg, yolk, raw, frozen, sugared, pasteurized: 123 IU.
  • 20
    ​Cheese, fresh, queso fresco: 110 IU.
  • 21
    ​Egg, whole, raw, frozen, pasteurized: 105 IU.
  • 22
    ​Cheese food, pasteurized process, American, without added vitamin D: 102 IU.
  • 23
    ​Egg, whole, cooked, fried: 88 IU.
  • 24
    ​Egg, whole, cooked, hard-boiled: 87 IU.
  • 25
    ​Egg, whole, raw, fresh: 82 IU.
  • 26
    ​Egg, whole, cooked, poached: 82 IU.
  • 27
    ​Cheese, dry white, queso seco: 73 IU.
  • 28
    ​Egg, whole, cooked, scrambled: 72 IU.
  • 29
    ​Eggs, scrambled, frozen mixture: 72 IU.
  • 30
    ​Egg, whole, cooked, omelet: 69 IU.
  • 31
    ​Egg, duck, whole, fresh, raw: 69 IU.
  • 32
    ​Egg, goose, whole, fresh, raw: 66 IU.
  • 33
    ​Milk, canned, evaporated, nonfat, with added vitamin A and vitamin D: 79 IU.
  • 34
    Cream, fluid, heavy whipping: 63 IU.
  • 35
    ​Milk, buttermilk, fluid, whole: 52 IU.
  • 36
    ​Soymilk (All flavors), enhanced: 47 IU.

*Note that these values are per 100 grams of each food item.

​​In case you are wondering, the reason why the dried products have a higher content of vitamin D its due to the fact that these values are by weight.

In 100 grams of raw egg yolk, for example, you have a percentage of water increasing its weight but not the nutritional content.

Dried products, in contrast, are much more concentrated and denser.

You may also notice how 100 grams of egg yolk compare with 100 grams of whole egg. Can you guess which part of the egg has the highest vitamin D content? It’s the yolk for sure.

What about dairy products?

If you are taking high doses of vitamin D, dairy products are out of question. However, if you are supplementing with a daily dose of 10,000 IU, or less, you can have milk, cheese, and other dairy products if you chose too.

What strikes me the most about the vitamin D content of milk is that all the instances of milk in this table are fortified. That left me wondering: “What about unfortified milk?”

According to the USDA, milk that has not been fortified contains just 1 IU of vitamin D per 100 grams. (11)

That means you’d need to drink a whole quart (roughly 1 liter) of unfortified milk to get just 10 IU of vitamin D!

As a side note, as you may have noticed, vegetables and fruits are nowhere to be found of these lists, why?

vitamin d: fruits and vegetables

How much vitamin D is in a banana?

None, actually.

Just like it happens with vitamin B12, cholecalciferol isn’t found in any fruits or vegetables.

As healthy as fruits and vegetables ​may be, they contain neither cholecalciferol (D3) nor ergocalciferol (D2).

Therefore, if you are a vegan and are looking for a source of vitamin D that’s compatible with your lifestyle you need to turn to either mushrooms or yeasts that have been irradiated with UVB light.

If you are less strict about your diet, you may find in fortified milk and egg yolk other good sources of vitamin D.

Regarding supplements, depending on how strict your diet is, you may choose to supplement with a vegan vitamin D derived from lichen, as this will contain the most available form of this substance when compared with the yeast-derived vitamin D2, or with a vitamin D3 supplement derived from lanolin – the grease found in sheep’s wool.

Either way, make sure you are getting enough vitamin D each day, especially if you are pregnant or lactating.

​Summary​

  • ​Regardless of your diet, as a human, the Sun is the most natural and beneficial source of vitamin D for you. However, because the ideal conditions for sun exposure are often not met, getting your vitamin D from food sources or supplementation can be necessary.
  • ​If you are vegan, your strict vegetarian diet doesn’t mean you are out of options. You can still get your vitamin D from irradiated mushrooms and yeasts.
  • ​These, however, will contain mostly vitamin D2 and D4 which are not as readily available as vitamin D3.
  • As a vegan, if you choose to supplement, make sure you choose a vitamin D sourced from lichen and not from lanolin.
  • Also, make sure the capsules aren’t made of gelatin.
  • Even though these tailored supplements may be hard to find, Amazon provides a vegan supplement from one of their own private brands.
  • If your dietary choices allow you to consume either dairy or eggs, remember that any milk that has not been fortified with vitamin D will contain a single IU per 100 grams. In the case of eggs, keep in mind that most of the vitamin D is found in the yellow yolk.
  • Fruits and vegetables don’t contain any vitamin D.
Tiago Henriques

With more than 10 years of experience as a Public Speaker, Tiago Henriques has done hundreds of public talks. He was born in 1987, in Portugal, and is the Author of 3 books — and counting — and the creator and editor of the Portuguese Science Project, "Ciência Desenhada," where complicated science is explained in a simple way, using whiteboard animation techniques.Tiago developed his own practical and down-to-earth teaching method inspired by his experiences with the Portuguese Deaf Community and their use of highly visual, descriptive and easy-to-understand language.

>