Veg Friendly Options for Common Supplements

Not all vitamins are safe for vegetarians to use. Learn which types often use animal products.


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Q: I know that supplements for omega-3s and glucosamine are derived from animals. Are there vegetarian versions?

A: Yes! Let’s look at a few: Omega-3s Fish oil is the most famous source for these essential fatty acids, but it’s definitely not the only game in town. Omega-3s are derived from one parent compound called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which actually comes from green plants. So a person or animal who eats green plants absorbs the plant’s ALA and turns it into omega-3s; for example, fish get their ALA from green algae. Why should you care about omega-3s? They can put the brakes on inflammation—including the joint pain of arthritis. (Scientists are divided as to whether they have other benefits, such as reduced risk of fatal heart attacks.) Particularly rich vegetarian sources are flax oil and flax seeds. Flax oil is sold both in liquid form and in capsules, including gelatin-free vegetable capsules, such as those made by Barlean’s. To get the benefit from the seeds, they need to be ground (a coffee grinder works well). There are also traces of omega-3s in green vegetables, beans, walnuts and soy. You can find vegetarian versions of the omega-3 compounds EPA and DHA that are made from algae and packed in vegetable-based capsules. One such brand is Water4Life. However, in my opinion, people don’t need to take omega-3s (most of us get enough of them). What seems to matter is the proportion of omega-3 to other fats in your diet, especially the omega-6s in most vegetable oils. Omega-3 and omega-6 fats compete with each other for entry into your cells. So rather than take additional omega-3s, it makes sense to get them from healthful foods and reduce your intake of other fats. Glucosamine Used to help treat osteoarthritis, glucosamine usually comes from the shells of crustaceans, but it can also be made from corn. VegLife makes vegetarian versions. Many people get a good effect from glucosamine alone, although it’s often combined with chondroitin (which comes from cow trachea or shark cartilage); however, I haven’t found a veg version of chondroitin. Supplements aren’t regulated the way medications are, so there is no “recommended dosage” of glucosamine, but most studies are based on 1200-–1500mg per day. 

Q: Are homeopathic and natural treatments for colds and flu vegetarian?

A: Oscillococcinum is a popular homeopathic flu remedy that may or may not be effective—and it’s made from wild duck heart and liver. I recommend other flu remedies that are better established and more considerate of our avian friends, such as: Black elderberry In a 2004 study, virologists from Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem traveled to Norway and gave elderberry extract (1 tablespoon four times a day for five days) to people with flu symptoms. It reduced their illness by an average of four days. Elderberry is sold as a liquid at any natural food store and online (Source Naturals is one brand; look for its Wellness Elderberry Liquid Extract). Cranberries and blueberries contain a compound that blocks bacteria from adhering to body tissues, which is apparently why cranberry juice helps prevent urinary infections. It may have a similar effect against flu viruses. The benefit comes from the berries or from their juices, rather than from extracts or supplements. The amount that appears effective is about one cup of cranberry juice daily (sweetened versions are fine). Zinc lozenges such as Cold-Eeze help prevent colds and shorten their duration. You can also find zinc in beans, nuts, whole grains, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. 

Related: Vegan and Vegetarian Supplement Guide

Q: Do I have to worry about vitamins being vegetarian?

A: Yes. All vitamins and minerals are available in plant-derived forms, but many brands contain vitamins that are animal-derived. Here are the ones to double-check: Vitamin A in most supplement bottles is animal-derived. The “vitamin A” in vegetarian multi-vitamins is beta-carotene—the pigment in carrots, yams and other orange vegetables—that your body converts into vitamin A. In fact, orange foods will provide all you need (green vegetables have plenty too). If you’re getting these foods, there’s no need to supplement with vitamin A. Vitamin B12 comes from bacteria and other single-celled organisms. The bacteria in a cow’s gut produce B12, which ends up in the cow’s tissues. Vegetarian multivitamins contain B12 made by algae. The recommended intake is less than 3mcg per day, and most multivitamins contain more than this. Vegans, who don’t consume dairy, need to get B12 from fortified foods, such as fortified soymilk, cereals or nutritional yeast, or take a B12 supplement. Vitamin D supplements can be animal-derived (cholecalciferol, sometimes called D3) or plant-derived (ergocalciferol, or D2). But you don’t need to supplement with vitamin D: About 15 minutes of sun causes your body to generate it on its own. A good vegetarian multivitamin, such as DEVA manufactures, is all you need—and takes the guesswork out of what’s veg-friendly and what isn’t.