Eye on Nutrition: Vitamin B12

Food Packages Nutrition Education

WIC food packages and nutrition education are the chief means by which WIC affects the dietary quality and habits of participants. Did you know that these two benefits are among the top reasons for continued participation in WIC (in addition to the work of WIC personnel!), and that consistent 4-year participation in WIC was associated with better diet quality?

Eye on Nutrition brings focus to the foods and nutrients in the WIC food packages to shine a light on their importance to WIC participants. Given that foods naturally rich in vitamin B12 are those for which food safety can be a particular concern, this Eye On Nutrition features a section on this topic (though it's always important!).

Be sure to check out vitamin B12-rich recipes members of the WIC community have shared with us to help your participants beef up their intake of this important nutrient.

What is Vitamin B12?
Why is Vitamin B12 Important?
What WIC-Eligible Foods Provide Vitamin B12?
Is Vitamin B12 on the Nutrition Facts Label?
Food Safety for Children, Moms, and Moms-to-be
Education Resources


What is Vitamin B12?

Vitamin B12 (also called cobalamin) is an essential water-soluble vitamin found naturally in animal products and added to some foods.

Two steps are required for the body to absorb vitamin B12 from food:

  1. Hydrochloric acid and enzymes in the stomach separate vitamin B12 from the protein to which vitamin B12 is attached in food.
  2. Vitamin B12 then combines with a protein the stomach makes called intrinsic factor so the body can absorb it. 

Those with pernicious anemia, a condition in which they cannot make intrinsic factor, have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from all foods and dietary supplements.

A lack of vitamin B12 might result in vitamin B12 deficiency anemia, a low red blood cell count from not having enough vitamin B12 from the diet or from an inability to absorb it from food. Strict vegans or vegetarians are at greater risk than lacto-ovo vegetarians and non-vegetarians of developing vitamin B12 deficiency because natural food sources of vitamin B12 are limited to animal foods.

How much vitamin B12 someone needs depends on their age, and requirements increases as we get older. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need the most.

Why is Vitamin B12 Important?

Among its functions, vitamin B12 is needed for:

  • Red blood cell formation
  • Neurological function
  • DNA synthesis
  • The function and development of brain and nerve cells

While all nutrients are needed for the developing baby and infants, vitamin B12 is among the key nutrients. Vitamin B12 passes through the placenta and breast milk, so it’s especially important for pregnant and lactating women, respectively, to ensure they have enough for their own needs as well as their baby’s needs.

Infants need vitamin B12 for supporting brain development and producing healthy red blood cells. Infants who do not get adequate vitamin B12 can become deficient. If left untreated, vitamin B12 deficiency in infants can lead to permanent brain damage.

Human milk has sufficient vitamin B12 to meet infant needs unless the mother’s vitamin B12 status is inadequate. However, if a breastfeeding mother is deficient in vitamin B12, her infant may also become deficient. Infants fed infant formula will receive enough vitamin B12.

Exclusively breastfed infants of women who consume no animal products may have very limited reserves of vitamin B12 and can develop vitamin B12 deficiency within months of birth.

A child who is on a strict vegan or vegetarian diet should be closely monitored by their pediatrician for adequate levels of vitamin B12.

Women following a vegetarian or vegan dietary pattern should consult with a healthcare provider to determine whether supplementation of vitamin B12 and/or other nutrients such as iron, choline, zinc, iodine, or EPA/DHA is necessary and if so, the appropriate levels to meet their unique needs.

What WIC-Eligible Foods Provide Vitamin B12?

A number of WIC-eligible foods contain vitamin B12, though not all foods may be available in every State, US Territory, or Indian Tribal Organization due to the flexibility they have in selecting foods for their WIC food packages. Among the WIC-eligible foods that provide vitamin B12 are:

  • Canned fish
  • Eggs
  • Milk and milk products, including milk substitution options:
    • Soy beverage
    • Yogurt
  • Breakfast cereals fortified with vitamin B12

Breakfast cereals fortified with vitamin B can be a good vitamin B12 source for WIC participants who follow strict vegan or vegetarian diets. "Fortified" with vitamin B12 means the nutrient is added because it is not naturally found in the food item.

Foods beyond those in the WIC food packages that have vitamin B12 include beef liver, clams, meat, poultry, other types of fish (like trout and haddock), and other fortified foods.

Is Vitamin B12 on the Nutrition Facts Label?

It’s voluntary for manufacturers to list vitamin B12 on the Nutrition Facts label. If it is on the label, it’ll be listed using micrograms (mcg) and % Daily Value (%DV). 

The %DV (how much a nutrient in a single serving of an individual packaged food or dietary supplement contributes to your daily diet) can be helpful to make comparisons between products (as long as serving sizes are the same) and informed choices.

Read more about the Daily Value:

Daily Value and % Daily Value

The Lows and Highs of Percent Daily Value on the new Nutrition Facts Label

Food Safety for Children, Moms, and Moms-to-be

Since raw food of animal origin (raw meat, poultry, eggs and shellfish) - among the foods with the most vitamin B12 - are the foods most associated with foodborne illness, it’s worth emphasizing food safety practices (though given the WIC population is among the most vulnerable, this is always important!).

Dishes like egg salad, hamburger, poultry and seafood items should always be cleaned, separated, cooked, and chilled properly, to avoid contamination or spread of food borne illness.

Check out all our sources on food safety!

Education Resources

The Nutrition Facts label fact sheets for vitamins and minerals provide action steps for consuming a diet rich in vitamins and minerals (including vitamin B12), and charts that identify food sources of each vitamin and mineral.

MyPlate offers dairy and protein foods nutrition education resources, including galleries for each of these food groups, as well as interactive resources for participants to:

  • Get a personalized MyPlate Plan (Plan MiPlato) that takes pregnancy and breastfeeding status into account.
  • Take the MyPlate Quiz to see how their eating habits stack up against recommendations and get tailored resources and a personal quiz results code to sync with the Start Simple with MyPlate app.
  • Set simple goals based on their personal needs with the Start Simple with MyPlate app. Sync results from the MyPlate Quiz for a personalized experience.  Join challenges, see progress, and earn badges to celebrate successes.
  • Shop (and save money!) with the Shop Simple with MyPlate web app to quickly find savings in the local area and discover new ways to prepare low-cost foods. Just enter the zip code to find cost-saving opportunities in the local area, including physical and online SNAP retailers and Farmer’s Markets. This app can be access via a smartphone and desktop/laptop.
  • Test their Food Group IQ with fun quizzes.
  • Hear healthy eating solutions from families via videos, and download Food Planning During the Coronavirus Pandemic (in English and Spanish).