Woman tasting vegan smoothie from blender

Vegan Supplements: A Buyer’s Guide

Vegan diets are getting significant attention these days, and for good reason. Veganism is good for your body and the environment (provided you do it right). But maintaining a vegan diet isn't just about choosing a veggie burger at your local restaurant: supplements can be vegan, too—as well as contain hidden animal byproducts like gelatin and beeswax.

So what are vegan supplements? Are they better than the traditional kind? This guide should help you determine what to look for to determine whether vegan supplements are right for you.

What does "vegan" mean?

The term "vegan" can be used to describe both the people who adhere to this dietary philosophy and as a categorization for foods, drinks and other products that don't have any animal-based ingredients.

Veganism can be described as the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products—especially in one's diet. Most of the time, there's a philosophy associated with veganism (those who choose to adhere to veganism usually decide to do so for ethical or environmental reasons). As you might expect, veganism affects what you eat—even when it comes to supplements—and, in turn, how that impacts your overall health and nutritional status.

What makes a supplement vegan?

Woman taking a vegan supplement

A vegan supplement is one made without any animal byproducts at all. Obviously, this means passing on the fish oil supplements and going for a non-animal-derived DHA supplement instead—but, it goes beyond this, too.

When you're looking for a vegan supplement it's important to consider not just the active ingredients, but all the extra stuff as well. For instance: if you're thinking about taking a supplement that comes in softgel form, there's a chance that softgel itself is made with gelatin, which is an animal byproduct.

Good news: there are vegetarian delivery forms—you just have to look for one made with cellulose, a structural component of plants. These are often called "veggie caps." Oh, and if you wanted to get technical, look for "hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose," or just HPMC capsules. There are even "veggie softgels," which are made with modified tapioca starch, glycerin and purified water.

Vegan vs. vegetarian: What's the difference?

If you consider yourself vegan or vegetarian, the difference is clear—to you. But to those of us who don't abstain from eating meat or who don't hold a moral or philosophical opinion on the use of animal byproducts in everything from clothes to industrial chemicals and even medicine, the difference can be harder to parse.

Simply put, veganism objects to the use of animal byproducts, not just meat. So while it is pretty obvious that leather is out of the question for a vegan, milk, wool and beeswax are, too—because they're made by (and then taken from) a living thing. 

How do you make vegan supplements?

When it comes to putting the actual supplements together, there's very little difference in the manufacturing process between vegan supplements and all the other kinds. The real key lies in how and where the nutrients and other ingredients in your supplement come from.

Examples of vegan vitamin and nutrient sources 

Woman considering her vegan supplement
  • Vitamin B12 is a very common vitamin supplement. Unfortunately, many B12 supplements procure the vitamin itself from animal products. But you can get vegan B12 from bacteria culture. First, suppliers isolate and grow B12-producing strains, then harvest the vitamin from them.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are most often sourced from fish, shellfish or krill—tiny crustaceans that live in frigid ocean waters. But you can source vegan omega-3s from algae and algae oil. These tiny plants can synthesize omega-3 fatty acid, specifically DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid).
  • Vitamin D3 is another nutrient that's often derived from animal sources—despite the fact that our skin can make it simply by stepping out into the sun. This is because plants can't make vitamin D3 (they produce a similar but not-as-useful vitamin called D2)…but algae can. 

Are vegan vitamins better?

Vegans often need to supplement their diet

At the chemical level and from a purely personal health standpoint, a vegan supplement should be just as good as a vegetarian or non-vegan one, as long as it delivers the same dosage and quality of underlying nutrient—whether or not it is better is, in most cases, a matter of opinion.

There are significant benefits to veganism and vegetarianism. For starters, every healthy diet you've ever heard of starts with the same sentence: eat lots of fruits and vegetables and cut out saturated fats, excess salt and red meat. A healthy, well-designed vegan and/or vegetarian diet does exactly this—so it's better for you.

And from a healthy-planet standpoint, plant-based diets have the potential to have a  significantly smaller carbon footprint and be more environmentally sustainable than our carnivorous norms.

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Which are the best vegan supplements?

Man with vegan supplement and water

Again, the best vegan supplements are the ones that provide the nutrients your body needs. That sounds obvious, but in some cases vegans are stuck choosing sub-par alternatives. Take DHA and EPA fatty acids for example. Most "vegan omega-3" supplements are actually alpha-linoleic acid (or ALA for short) from borage seed oil and other plant sources.

Your body converts ALA to EPA and DHA fatty acids—but the process is inefficient. The omega-3 synthesizing algae described in an earlier section is one of the few truly vegan sources of EPA and DHA. This type of supplement does work: algae oil supplements promote plasma levels of DHA.

A word on dosage: it's key. If your "vegan" vitamin D3 supplement doesn't deliver an optimal dose (like this one), it's not as good for you (health-wise) as an animal-based supplement that does deliver an adequate amount of said nutrient.

Ok, so what do vegan supplements lack?

As stated above, a "vegan supplement" should be the same as a non-vegan supplement, as long as it is delivering the same chemical nutrient in a comparable dosage.

Common vegan deficiencies

Making a vegan smoothie in a blender

What's more important is what a vegan diet is lacking: meat and animal byproducts. In most cases, there's nothing wrong with this. But it's worth noting that the reason we as a species are omnivorous in the first place is that the animals our ancestors ate (and the meat they were made out of) was a great source of nutrition: everything from macronutrients like protein to trace minerals like iodine and everything in between.

But we're not exactly roaming the steppes anymore, are we? In fact, most of us are lucky to get all our steps in on any given day. So as long as you take vegan supplements to make up for the few nutrient weak spots in your vegan diet, you should have no problem.

Pro tip: Find out if you're getting enough nutrients from your vegan diet! This easy blood test can tell you whether you're getting all the nutrients your body needs…and which ones you could stand to get a little more of!

Vegan supplement must-haves

  • Omega-3

    that is sourced from algae is a good idea for vegans. The why is kind of obvious: if you don't eat fish or shellfish you probably aren't getting enough (or any) omega-3s.
  • Vitamin D3

    is essential to everything from bone health to immune function. But you can't get it from plants, which is bad news for vegans. Try a vegan algal sourced vitamin D3 supplement instead.
  • Vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin)

    is the metabolically active form of vitamin B12, which is abundant in animal food sources. If you avoid animal-based foods, however, you're more likely to lack vitamin B12. Fortunately, there are plenty of plant-derived vitamin B12 lozenges to take up the slack.

Why vegans need iodized salt

Iodine is a trace mineral. Most of us get it from fortified table salt or from seafood like fish and shellfish (as well as eggs). A select few of us get it from eating seaweed like kelp and wakame.

But most of us do not eat seaweed, not everyone likes seafood, and many of us avoid excess salt for health reasons. This can cause a lack of iodine in the diet…even for otherwise-healthy meat eaters.

In the early 20th century, this lack of access to (or interest in) seafood caused a widespread iodine deficiency in the US population. Since iodine is essential to thyroid health and function, we as a nation started adding iodine to table salt in the 1920's.

Here's the rub: if you're vegan and don't eat seaweed and avoid salt for all the right reasons, you might actually not be getting enough iodine, according to the National Institute of Health.

The solution? Iodine supplements made from algae, making them perfect for vegans and non-vegans alike!

Does vegan collagen exist?

Collagen is a very popular supplement these days, and with good reason: collagen promotes skin health and joint health. It's in your cartilage, your bones and even inside of your eye. But alas, nearly all of this wonderous protein comes from animal sources. So is there a vegan collagen?

The short answer is "yes". As it turns out you can genetically modify both bacteria and yeast to create collagen.

Vegan diets (and supplements) are healthy

We hope this helps you make up your mind on vegan supplements. If you are vegan, good luck—there's plenty of nutritional support out there. If you're thinking of switching to a vegan diet and are concerned about getting a well-balanced nutritional intake, don't be: as you can see, it's easy to find a vegan supplement to help make up any gaps a plant-based diet leaves behind.

About the Author: John Gawley graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in English before beginning his career as a technical writer, copy writer and content manager. John has extensive experience in the health and wellness field, and he is the Senior Copywriter at Life Extension.