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Can vitamin D3 supplements be vegan?

In recent years, vitamin D has become one of the most discussed nutrients in the health community. It is also one of the most complicated and controversial of the nutrients, especially when it comes to supplementation and plant-based diets.

There are two supplemental forms of vitamin D: vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Vitamin D2, also known as ergocalciferol, has historically been thought of as the vegan form of vitamin D. On the other hand, vitamin D3, also known as cholecalciferol, has historically been considered a non-vegan form of vitamin D.

Vitamin D2 supplements have traditionally been made from mushrooms. Exposure of ergosterol in these fungi to UVB light rays (ultraviolet B spectrum rays of the sun) leads to the production of vitamin D2. Conversely, vitamin D3 supplements have been made from lanolin found in sheep’s wool. Exposure of 7-dehydrocholesterol in lanolin to UVB rays leads to the formation of vitamin D3, similar to how vitamin D3 is produced in our skin.

Research is mixed on which supplement is more reliably effective at raising our vitamin D levels. Much of this research has indicated that the D3 form of vitamin D is more effective at raising blood levels of vitamin D than D2, however some indicates the two can be equivalent. Many vegans have expressed concern to us about this, since they have found their vitamin D2 supplements are not giving them the results they are seeking. Consequently, some have considered using a D3 supplement to raise their vitamin D to desired levels.

Where does this leave someone who wants to stay true to their vegan lifestyle and ethics? Fortunately in recent years, several supplement companies have formulated supplements with vitamin D3 sourced from lichen. What is lichen? It is an organism composed of some type of fungus and algae, or cyanobacteria in some cases, living together symbiotically. Lichen is often found growing on tree branches and rocks and can have a pale green to gray or mushroom color, as well as others. Does this mean that we should eat lichen to get our vitamin D? No, many species of lichen are not edible, so it would be best to stick with a supplement. But the good news is that a vegan vitamin D3 supplement does now exist and various supplement companies are offering it as an alternative to lanolin-sourced D3!

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