Vitamin D for vegan-raised infants

May 5, 2010

D-man

No, this isn't Photoshopped: it's an actual Marvel Comics character (that someone in the health field needs to license for a D campaign!)

For this week’s parenting topic, we’re taking a look at vitamin D and your baby – while at a pre-natal class recently we’d heard that supplementation was advised right from birth, which triggered some alarms, since many vitamin D supplements aren’t vegan friendly. With that, we turned to the Council of Vegan Parents and the internet (have you tried that thing? It’s awesome!) for answers!

First, an overall disclaimer – not to weasel out of anything that appears below, but you really shouldn’t get your health and nutrition information from Some Guy On The Internet. Everything that looks like science in this article came via guidance from the National Institutes of Health in the USA and Health Canada, and I encourage you to follow those two links for the current state of vitamin D recommendations. As with all of our parenting columns, I reached out to the Council of Vegan Parents, but for this one I used their input as background on what a decent subset of the vegan parenting population was doing.

Secondly, even if you don’t have kids, this article might be pretty important, since most of it has to do with availability and requirements in everyone, but we’re paying more attention to infants, is all.

Why does any of this matter?

It turns out that vitamin D has been linked with a lot more than rickets, which was the primary concern when it was added to cow’s milk in the USA in the 1930′s. Research is suggesting links between vitamin D deficiency and issues including cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, hypertension, depression, and possibly even autism.

What’s more, there’s been growing concern that current “acceptable” levels of vitamin D in the body are actually significantly lower than some new suggested levels that are going around.

This isn’t just a vegan problem, by the way – while there are some non-vegan foods with vitamin D in them (either naturally or through fortification,) the percentage of the North American population that’s deficient (by current or proposed guidelines) is much higher than the percentage of the population that’s vegan.

Is sunlight enough?

Worldwide, sunlight is the primary source of vitamin D: your skin synthesizes it after absorbing ultraviolet B radiation from the sun. With that said, there are a number of factors that need to be considered before we all start praying to the sun god for all our (and our baby’s) needs:

First and foremost would be the conflict between the “absorb sunlight” and “don’t expose your baby to sunlight” recommendations. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping babies out of direct sunlight for the first six months. I’ve seen many other (non-medical) sources saying that five or ten minutes a day isn’t a problem, and might be enough to synthesize enough vitamin D, but I haven’t done enough research on the topic to do more than repeat the AAP recommendation.

Even with sunlight, depending on where you live it might not be enough through the entire year. The NIH says that, in the USA, you need to live below 34 degrees North latitude (which stretches from Los Angeles, California through Columbia, South Carolina) to be able to use sunlight as a sole source year round. In other regions, a window from November through February (or larger) is a “dead zone” for sufficient sunlight.

Skin pigmentation is also a factor: paler skin absorbs UV radiation faster than darker skin does, which means that darker skinned people (both adults and infants) need to spend more time in the sun for the same dosage – up to 10 to 20 times as much, according to the Health Canada information.

Cloud cover, smog, shade and other factors can also reduce the radiation levels significantly, and the use of sunscreen above SPF 8 will reduce your ability of vitamin D absorption to pretty near zero (OK,it’s a 97.5% drop, which I’ll call “close enough.”)

Generally, advice seems to be that the hours between 10AM and 3PM are the best times to be soaking it in, as it’s when the sunlight is strongest.

Will breastfeeding supply vitamin D?

Vitamin D does exist in breast milk for mothers with adequate levels themselves, but it’s not considered enough to meet the daily recommended levels. On a semi-related note, your baby may have some vitamin D on backup from what it got through the placenta while in the womb, but this usually is only enough for a few months at most.

What supplements are available?

As we mentioned in our article about vegan infant formula, there doesn’t seem to be any formula out there with vitamin D2 instead of D3. Briefly, there are two forms of D: D2 (ergocalciferol) and D3 (cholecalciferol.) D3 is derived from lanolin (wool) and sometimes fish or egg, so it’s not considered vegan. D2 is made from yeast. I remember the “good” one because I like Star Wars (R2-D2) and “I am vegan, ergo I make up silly mnemonic devices.”

As for supplements, there are many liquid drop supplements of vitamin D that would be easier to administer than a pill or a powder, but the majority are based on D3. As Julie from the Council noted, be careful to read the labels, since most D3 is lanolin-derived, which is wool, so the bottle could say vegetarian but not be vegan.

We live in a disclaimer-filled world, but one more probably won’t fill the internet: check with your health professional to determine suitability of any or all of these – other than “you can buy it,” “it’s liquid,” and “it’s D2″ we’ve done no vetting of these products whatsoever but hope they help speed up your search.

  • Meredith pointed out this D2 spray.
  • Monica mentioned Dalivit, which looks like it has to be ordered from the UK but doesn’t seem too expensive – here’s one source.
  • Jodie left a comment about Drisdol Drops [PDF], which it looks like you can get from any pharmacy.
  • Wow, I wish there were more items here! Please let us know what you’ve found in the comments and I’ll update the list!

Once your child has teeth, there are some vegan chewables out there that might be appropriate, including Freeda Vitalets and the VegLife Vegan Kids Multiple [affiliate links].

Depending on what country you live in, you might have access to fortified soy milk (or other plant-based beverages,) but it’s important to note that these aren’t viable nutritional substitutes for breast milk or formula.

Remember – it’s testable

This goes for infants and adults – vitamin D levels in the blood can be measured by your health care people, so if you’re concerned about current levels or your intake plan, it’s pretty straightforward to get a status check (subject to costs for some of you, of course.)

As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t just a vegan problem – the supplement options are just a little more limited, and if there’s nothing available where you are for whatever reason, I think the “do your best” clause we mentioned in the infant formula article would apply. This is also one of those areas where it’d be good to share what you’ve learned with non-vegan parents as well!

What about you? Have you found any products not mentioned here that could bridge the gap? Please share them (along with any other thoughts you might have) in the comments!

Thanks to Amy, Kari, Julie, Meredith, Kim, Monica, Doh, Erin, Elaine, Kelly, Rebecca, Kristie, Sylvia, and Dalyn for their help with this one!

Update May 6/2010: Lisa Tweeted Angela with a reminder about the Toronto Vegetarian Podcast’s interview with Brenda Davis about vitamin D – I haven’t had a listen yet, but they’re good people.

Update Aug 28/2010: The Health Canada link has changed.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Jodie May 5, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Drisdol Drops (http://products.sanofi-aventis.us/drisdol_otc/drisdol_otc.pdf) is a D2 supplement that’s intended for infants. I’m a vegan adult who had abysmally low levels of vitamin D, and I was able to use Drisdol in high dose form to get my levels up to normal. It’s expensive (the generic is something like $68/bottle), but it’s enough to get an infant through an awfully long time. It is vegan, but you may have to ask your pharmacist to order it (it’s non-prescription, unless you’re using it in high-dose form).

trina May 5, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Thank you for the mnemonic device. I can never remember that one.

Jason May 5, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Thanks Jodie, I’ve updated the post with the info!

Sarah Maydom May 6, 2010 at 1:06 am

For any supplements at all, I recommend iherb.com (USA), it’s really cheap and gets here super fast. We were buying the NowFoods vitamin D v-caps but now get the Country Life vitamin D tablets, a bit cheaper. Currently I am relying on my 7 month old daughter getting her vit D from breastmilk (my levels tested OK) but once I start weaning we will expose her to some sunlight every day and in winter add some ground tablet to her food. We will also add ground B12 to her food, and on that note I would like to mention that it really worries me that some vegan parents are not supplementing their children’s diet with B12. I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on this?

Jason May 6, 2010 at 7:01 am

Thanks Sarah – I’m trying to space out the nutrition stuff, but it’s something we’ll want to investigate at some point in the near future. My early research suggests that unlike D, B12 is available through breast milk, and it seems like it’s sufficient (at least, at this point I haven’t seen anything saying it’s not) but the available levels are more related to the mother’s current intake than it is what’s stored in her body.

Kelly May 24, 2010 at 9:50 am

I meant to tell you guys… I talked to one of the sales reps of D drops at the baby time show (ddrops.ca) and although he said they only make a D3 version right now, he told me that they were soon coming out with a D2 version. I told him that I was very eager for the D2 version to come out & made it clear I had no interest in his product until it was not made with animal products, so hopefully, a few of us expressing that message to the sales reps will get them to start creating a vegan version. We’ll see!

Marika June 7, 2010 at 3:01 pm

I’m currently using a chewable (natural peppermint flavour) version of D2, made under the KAL label by Nutraceutical (you can see it here: http://kalvitamin.com/search/view_product.cfm?product_index=7141054 ). I paid about $8 (north of Toronto) for a bottle of 100 (1000 IU) tablets. I’ll be checking out the liquid stuff though – thanks for the info.

Marika June 7, 2010 at 3:05 pm

If you want to use the link above to the chewable D2 tablets, copy it minus the closing bracket at the end (that right ‘)’ bracket is not part of the link and it’s messing it up!)…or Jason, feel free to edit my comment above and put a space between that last ’4′ and the closing ‘)’ beside it, thanks! Then it should work :)

Jason June 7, 2010 at 8:12 pm

The space has been added by our Master spacemaker! Thanks for the heads up on KAL, I’ll have to look into those!

Carmen August 28, 2010 at 7:28 am

wow. I have only just stumbled across your site and already you have completely lost me with this:-

Will breastfeeding supply vitamin D?
Vitamin D does exist in breast milk for mothers with adequate levels themselves, but it’s not considered enough to meet the daily recommended levels. On a semi-related note, your baby may have some vitamin D on backup from what it got through the placenta while in the womb, but this usually is only enough for a few months at most.

No sources cited? At all? And only one brief paragraph on breastfeeding when talking about needs of a new born infant?!

Jason August 28, 2010 at 11:11 am

Hi Carmen, thanks for proofreading! I mention sources at the top of the article: “Everything that looks like science in this article came via guidance from the National Institutes of Health in the USA and Health Canada, and I encourage you to follow those two links for the current state of vitamin D recommendations.”

Since this article was posted, the Health Canada link has changed (I’ve updated it,) and they now appear to recommend supplementation for all breastfed infants. Keep in mind that their advice is geared towards a Canadian audience where sunlight is less intense. The current recommendation, as pulled from the Health Canada page, is that “It is recommended that the vitamin D supplement be started at birth and continue until the baby’s diet includes at least 10 µg (400 IU) per day of vitamin D from other dietary sources or until the breastfed infant reaches one year of age.” Furthermore, “Studies suggest that vitamin D stores are depleted within eight weeks of birth in breastfed infants who do not receive a vitamin D supplement and who are born to mothers with adequate vitamin D stores” and I hope this sufficiently backs up the section you’re referring to (which, again, had sources mentioned earlier, but they were not directly footnoted at the point of mention in my post, and I apologize for the confusion!)

I’d love to have more information on breastfeeding listed here, but the simple fact is that I was unable to find much in the form of solid research. Most of the vitamin D research I’ve seen still focuses on preventing rickets, and while the medical community is developing more knowledge on other benefits of D, the recommendations, particularly for infants, tend to be based on expert opinion and not evidence-based studies. There are ethical considerations that make it difficult to have a control-based study of infant nutrition, but it’s frustrating just the same!

And for the record, we’re huge fans of breastfeeding here, having exclusively breastfed our son for the past 12 weeks. I’d love to write more, but I’m trying hard not to flood the internets with links to half-baked articles that just happen to support my personal theories – there’s enough of that going around. Breastfeeding is recommended by most if not all health organizations as the best way to raise an infant if at all possible, but I don’t know what else I could say about it in an article about D other than “if you’re breastfeeding, supplementation is recommended.” If you have suggestions, I’m more than happy to receive them!

Nick December 27, 2011 at 2:46 pm

So, according to Jack Norris’s website he references this VitaShine company: http://www.vitashine-d3.com/vitashine.html

Apparently they are making D3 vegan through Lichen. It’s supposedly got a seal of approval from Vegan Society and council. Sounds like it might be worth a shot, and the price seems right. However, to me it seems too good to be true.

On another note, I always look forward to the sun!

Nat January 1, 2013 at 11:45 pm

Thank you for writing this article. Although this information is late considering the time you wrote this article, I wanted to comment that Ddrops Company has come out with a vegan Ddrops liquid vitamin D product; Vegan Ddrops 1000 IU. You can find it online at well.ca (http://well.ca/products/vegan-ddrops-liquid-vitamin-d_34631.html) .

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