Which Foods Are Rich in Vitamin B?
Here are the healthy B vitamins to add to your diet — and why you should be eating them.
We know vitamins are in the food we eat. And we know vitamins are good for us. But the who, what, how and why — the details, really — for most omnivores are a bit blurry. So this guide is here to clear those up, especially for our favorite vitamin family, vitamin Bs.
Vitamins are organic compounds that the body needs to function. There are two broad vitamin categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins — like vitamin Bs — are expelled from the body via urine when there’s an excess of the compound. Fat-soluble vitamins — vitamin Ks, for example — are stored in the liver and fat tissue when there’s an excess of the compound. Both are good for you. Our supply of vitamins typically comes from our diet, and a well-rounded diet usually supplies the body with most of the needed amount of these essential organic compounds. But sometimes, it’s also beneficial to give the vitamin intake a supplemental boost.
Vitamin Bs are one of the most common families of vitamins. They come with eight variations: B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9 and B12. Each serves a different biological function, while still remaining structurally similar from a chemical standpoint. Some hold more cultural star power, though, and others are still growing in celebrity.
The benefits of vitamin B3, for instance, are so widely recognized it’s now used to fortify rice and flour on an international scale. Vitamin B9, a critical player in new cell growth, sees a sharp rise in popularity during pregnancies. And vitamin B1, which helps metabolize carbs, is often deployed to help with digestive issues.
With a healthy, diverse diet — and some solid supplemental help — you can achieve a healthy level of all eight vitamin Bs. So below you’ll find a list of vitamin B food sources and why they matter for your health and longevity.
Note: The National Institute of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) provides helpful and research-based consumer and health professional overviews of many common supplements. All quotes below are from the ODS.
Also Called: Thiamin
Found In: Whole grains and fortified bread, cereal, pasta, and rice; Meat (especially pork) and fish; Legumes (such as black beans and soybeans), seeds, and nuts.
Why You Need It: Thiamin metabolizes carbohydrates, playing a vital role in energy creation and the growth, development and function of cells. Your small intestine takes the phosphorylated forms of thiamin in your diet and matches that with intestinal phosphatases to hydrolyze them to free thiamin. Thus the vitamin is absorbed. Thiamin is a key cellular player, but it’s a bit fickle. Thiamin has a short half-life and we only store small amounts in our liver. And, heating foods with thiamin reduces the presence of thiamin, plus thiamin dissolves in water. So, it’s key to consume a frequently replenishing supply. Fear not, though. Thiamin shows up in a wide variety of foods and most Americans consume the recommended amount.
Also Called: Riboflavin
Found In: Eggs, organ meats (such as kidneys and liver), lean meats, and milk; Green vegetables (such as asparagus, broccoli, and spinach); Fortified cereals, bread, and grain products.
Why You Need It: Riboflavin is a component of two coenzymes, FMN (flavin mononucleotide) and FAD (flavin adenine dinucleotide). Those two coenzymes “play major roles in energy production; cellular function, growth, and development; and metabolism of fats, drugs, and steroids.” FAD also helps out with converting tryptophan to niacin (see B3 below) and FMN helps convert vitamin B6. It’s a team effort here. Your large intestine also produces free riboflavin and, notably, the body produces more riboflavin from eating veggies than meats.
Also Called: Niacin, nicotinic acid, nicotinamide, or nicotinamide riboside
Found In: Animal foods, such as poultry, beef, pork, and fish; Some types of nuts, legumes, and grains; Enriched and fortified foods, such as many breads and cereals.
Why You Need It: Your body tissues convert niacin to the vital coenzyme NAD+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide). And NAD+? Well, “more than 400 enzymes require NAD to catalyze reactions in the body, which is more than for any other vitamin-derived coenzyme.” So, yes, important. NAD+ helps transfer energy in carbs, fats and proteins to cellular energy (ATP). But that’s not all, NAD+ is also “required for enzymes involved in critical cellular functions, such as the maintenance of genome integrity, control of gene expression, and cellular communication.” Make sure you get your B3. Your entire body is dependent on it.
Also Called: Pantothenic Acid
Found In: Beef, poultry, seafood, and organ meats; Eggs and milk; Vegetables such as mushrooms (especially shiitakes), avocados, potatoes, and broccoli; Whole grains, such as whole wheat, brown rice, and oats; Peanuts, sunflower seeds, and chickpeas.
Why You Need It: Pantothenic acid, like other vitamin Bs, is in the energy business, but it’s especially helpful in making and breaking down fats. It’s the synthesis of coenzyme A (CoA) and acyl carrier protein. CoA is “essential for fatty acid synthesis and degradation, transfer of acetyl and acyl groups, and a multitude of other anabolic and catabolic processes” while acyl carrier protein helps with fatty acid synthesis. And, fun fact, red blood cells are the carriers of pantothenic acid to the entire body.
Also Called: Pyridoxine
Found In: Poultry, fish, and organ meats; Potatoes and other starchy vegetables; Fruit (other than citrus).
Why You Need It: Vitamin B6 is a super versatile vitamin — it helps with 100 enzyme reactions, especially protein metabolism. It also plays a vital role in cognitive development, “through the biosynthesis of neurotransmitters and in maintaining normal levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood.” This runs true especially during infancy and also pregnancy. It also helps with immune function and the formation of hemoglobin. And, for a good party fact, B6 is absorbed in the jejunum — in the small intestine between the duodenum and ileum.
Also Called: Biotin
Found In: Meat, fish, eggs, and organ meats (such as liver); Seeds and nuts; Vegetables like potatoes, spinach, and broccoli.
Why You Need It: Biotin helps synthesize fatty acids, glucose and amino acids. It also “plays key roles in histone modifications, gene regulation (by modifying the activity of transcription factors), and cell signaling.” Biotin is traditionally bound to protein and that gets broken down in the gastrointestinal system to be absorbed in the small intestine. It’s stored in the liver.
Also Called: Folate and folic acid
Found In: Beef liver; Vegetables (asparagus, brussels sprouts, and dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and mustard greens); Fruits and fruit juices (such as oranges and orange juice); Nuts, beans, and peas (such as peanuts, black-eyed peas, and kidney beans).
Why You Need It: Folate is needed to make DNA, genetic material and to help cells to divide. It’s a critical part of pregnancy and human development, often recommended in supplement form during pregnancy. Folic acid is “the fully oxidized monoglutamate form of the vitamin,” found in fortified foods and dietary supplements. The body absorbs more folic acid from supplements than folate found naturally in foods, and you need less folic acid to reach recommended amounts.
Also Called: Cobalamins
Found In: Beef liver and clams; Fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and other dairy products; Some fortified breakfast cereals and nutritional yeasts.
Why You Need It: Vitamin B12 is required for “proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis.” It’s at the center of the body’s nerve and blood cell health. B12 is also key in preventing megaloblastic anemia. Like biotin, dietary B12 is bound to protein, then released by hydrochloric acid and gastric protease in the stomach.