There are many health benefits to vegetarian and vegan diets. However, vegans in particular are prone to specific vitamin deficiencies, which is why supplements are strongly encouraged during and preferably before pregnancy. Unfortunately it can be a challenge finding vegan prenatal vitamins. This guide will help you spot animal ingredients, and suggest non-animal alternatives you should look for.
Vegan diets are known to protect against cardiometabolic risk factors, heart diseases, and some cancers . On the other hand, vegans are likely to have low intakes of vitamin B12, vitamin D, zinc, iodine, and a few other nutrients . Since vitamin deficiencies are linked to pregnancy complications, it makes sense for vegans to take prenatal vitamins, especially targeting those specific nutrients that they may be at particular risk of missing, such as Omega 3.
There are between six to eight million vegan adults in the United States. Despite this sizable market, it can be challenging to find vegan prenatal supplements.
Vegetarianism vs. veganism
There is so much dietary choice available to human-kind in the modern age that diet is really a spectrum, but two key dietary preferences are veganism and vegetarianism. There is often confusion about the difference between the two. Put simply, vegetarians don't consume animals, and vegans go a step further and don't consume food that's derived from animals, even if it does not involve killing the animal. Dairy is one example of a food that most vegetarians will consume but vegans wold not.
More information on this topic is available from PETA, but as a general rule of thumb, a vegan is a de facto vegetarian, so any product that is suitable for vegans will also be suitable for vegetarians.
It's your choice
Ultimately, it's all about personal choice. Our goal in this article is not to recommend you avoid animal-based products, and in particular we don't want to promote the expectation that self-identified vegans or vegetarians must always strictly adhere to vegan or vegetarian vitamins, since it may not always be possible to get such ideal products, especially for prenatal needs.
Our goal in this article is to present as much information as possible, so that you can be better informed, and choose products that make you most comfortable.
To help vegetarians and vegans identify vitamin supplement source ingredients that they may not be comfortable with, we have compiled a comprehensive list of animal ingredients commonly found in vitamins. Our list includes ingredients that may be included for specific nutritional value, and also ingredients frequently included in supplements for desirable characteristics like making pills easier to swallow. Since choosing a vitamin that is free of hidden animal ingredients is clearly important for vegans, we have also suggested alternative plant-based sources.
Are prenatal vitamins really necessary?
Prenatal vitamins are strongly recommended even for pregnant mothers-to-be with no dietary restrictions whatsoever. Given that vegetarian and vegan women will often be deficient in some key nutrients (like Omega 3s), prenatal vitamins are especially important for pregnant women who adhere to vegan or vegetarian diets. We have addressed the question of why prenatal vitamins are important in a previous guide, so if you have any doubts on the importance of prenatal vitamins, please do check it out.
The very first ingredient that we must address in the list of animal ingredients in prenatal supplements is also the leading one in terms of usage. Gelatin is a protein with gel-forming properties and it is extremely common in vitamins of all sorts. Typically, it is obtained from animal skin, bones, ligaments, and/or tendons. These elements are boiled in water to derive the ingredient that creates gel-like consistency when used in foods, supplements, shampoos, and other cosmetics.
The usual sources of gelatin are cattle, cows, hogs, and horses. It is used as a coating material or a filler for supplemental capsules.
Is your gelatin bovine or porcine?
Although vegans and vegetarians obviously need to watch out for gelatin, the fact that gelatine may be of bovine (i.e. cow) or porcine (i.e. pig) origin may be a factor for others as well, in particular anyone who avoids pork and/or beef for cultural reasons.
Alternatives to animal-derived gelatin
Although gelatin is ubiquitous in pills of all kinds, fortunately there are many non-animal derived alternative sources available. Popular plant-based substitutes include:
- Agar: A jelly like substance used as a gelation substitute in vitamins. Agar, also termed as agar-agar, is obtained from red algae.
- Algin: A chemical found in the cell walls of brown algae. Often called alginic acid, algin is used as a gelling agent in food and supplements industry.
- Carrageen: Often known as Carrageen Moss or Irish Moss, it’s obtained from seaweed and is used to gel substances.
- Kelp: Sodium alginate derived from kelp – a sea algae rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals – is used as a thickening agent in foods and vegan vitamins.
- Gellan gum: A byproduct of bacterial fermentation, gellan gum is a common gelatin substitute in vegan products.
- Dextrins: Commonly known as starch gum or vegetable gum, dextrin is artificially produced from rice, arrowroot, wheat, corn, potato, sago, milo, and other agricultural products.
- Pectin: A starch found in the cell walls of various terrestrial plants. Commercial pectin is mainly sourced from citrus fruits.
The word food glaze and/or food grade coating in the list of ingredients also hints that it’s a gelatin-free product.
Lanolin is a waxy substance – sometimes referred to as wool grease or wool wax – derived from sheep. The lanolin secreted by sheep is used to protect it from the harsh environment and also to make its wool water-resistant. But in the industrial world, lanolin is a by-product of sheep farming and is gathered from the wool after the sheep have been sheared. It is then used for various purposes in the pharmaceutical, food, and cosmetics industry.
Lanolin helps to moisturize the skin and is frequently used to treat various dermatological conditions that result in a dry, rough, scaly, and itchy skin. Besides that, lanolin is also used in vitamin D supplements, and this is why you need to look out for this animal-derived ingredient before buying supplements.
There are two forms of vitamin D: D2 and D3. Vitamin D2 is derived from plants, whereas D3 comes from lanolin, fish oil, or plant source – lichen, a complex life form composed of a symbiotic relationship between fungus and an alga or cyanobacteria.
Vegans who opt for vitamin D2 may need a greater intake to get the same benefits that are achievable through a comparatively low dose of vitamin D3. So, it is best to look for lichen-derived vitamin D3 so to avoid animal source products and also to get the maximum benefit with less dose.
“The upper limit (UL) for vitamin D is 50 mcg (2000 IU), although many experts suggest that up to 250 mcg (10,000 IU) is safe for adults. It makes good sense for vegans to aim for 25-50 mcg (1000-2000 IU) per day during the months that they do not get sufficient sun exposure.” - Brenda Davis, R.D
If the ingredient list simply states vitamin D, it is more likely to be from lanolin. You will find a “lichen-derived” note prior or next to vitamin D in the ingredient list if it really is a plant-sourced vitamin.
Bee pollen is collected from the tibia of the bee’s hind legs. This pollen also contains some bee nectar and saliva. It is not to be confused with royal jelly or honey.
Bee pollen is widely available in food stores and is also used as an ingredient in dietary supplements, deodorants, and skin care products. Athletes use it as a performance-enhancement aid. Due to a variety of claimed health benefits, some people like to use it during pregnancy.
But here’s the thing: there are some claims that bee pollen is not safe for pregnancy. While there seems to be a lack of rigorous scientific study into this claim, the crux of the argument against prenatal use of bee pollen seems to be around the perceived risk that bee pollen can trigger allergies, which can be dangerous during pregnancy.
On the other hand, there is some early stage scientific research that suggests that bee pollen could have benefits for neural development particularly as an offset against other environmental toxins .
Until more conclusive research can yield a conclusive determination about the safety and benefit of bee pollen during pregnancy, it is probably best to simply avoid bee pollen for prenatal needs, especially since there aren’t any good vegan-friendly substitutes anyway.
Magnesium stearate is a chemical compound consisting of magnesium, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules Mg(C18H35O2)2. Magnesium stearate comes from stearic acid, a fatty acid that is typically derived from fish, pork, beef, chicken, or milk. It is frequently used as an anti-adherent, lubricant, filler, or a mold-release agent in nutritional supplements.
The good news for vegans is that stearic acid is also found in vegetable oils, grains, and cocoa. Just make sure that the vegan supplement you buy is free of animal-fat-derived magnesium stearate. Usually, the manufacturers mention it on the label if it’s plant-derived.
Alternative names for magnesium stearate
Think you've never come across magnesium stearate? You may have without knowing it. This chemical compound is also commonly known by several other names:
- Stearic acid
- Magnesium distearate
- Magnesium octadecanoate
- Octadecanoic acid
- Magnesium salt
Carmine is used as a dye in the food industry and is also added in some nutritional supplements. The history of carmine goes back to the 1500s, when South Americans were using cochineal-dyed fabric, and from there it became a popular trade good. Cochineal are insects that are sun dried and crushed. This crushed powder is added in acidic alcohol to produce carminic acid – the pigment that converts to carmine. One pound of carmine requires the killing of about 70,000 insects.
Due to allergic reactions in some people, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires manufacturers to disclose carmine or cochineal extracts in the ingredient list explicitly. Previously, businesses used to mention it as a natural color.
Be warned that carmine is also commonly known as Red 4, so keep an eye out for terms like Red 4, Carmine, and Cochineal Extracts in the ingredient list. An alternative to carmine is Tomat-O-Red which is derived from sunflower oil, palm oil, and sugar.
Lipase is a digestive enzyme found in various organisms, including human beings. Fat-soluble vitamins – vitamin A, D, E, K – need lipase for absorption from the intestines. It breaks down fats into bits making their digestion easy.
Lipase is often used as a digestive component in supplements. It is taken from the stomachs of calves and lambs. However, lipases are also widely distributed in the plant kingdom, and you can purchase vegan vitamins containing plant-sourced lipase. If it is plant-sourced, the manufactures usually mention this information in the leaflet.
Omega-3 fatty acids, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are critical for the neurodevelopment of the fetus, which is why DHA is so strongly recommended for prenatal supplementation.
Pregnant vegetarian women often do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their diet because the major source of these nutrients is seafood. Furthermore, omega-3 supplements are commonly sourced from fish oil for use in manufactured products. Typically, cod liver oil – derived from cod fish – is used as a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids in prenatal supplements.
Alternative sources of omega-3s include vegetable oils, algae-derived omega-3s (algal oil), and yeast extract ergosterol – a steroid that converts to vitamin D2 in the presence of sunshine.
Vitamin B12 is an essential micronutrient for human health. It performs many functions, synthesis of DNA and the red blood cells being the most important ones. Most sources of this vitamin are animal-based. Vegans are likely to have a deficiency of vitamin B12, which can lead to anemia, smooth tongue, numbness or tingling, and mental health issues like depression.
While most multivitamins contain B12, the only concern is its source. Because B12 is most commonly available from meat, a lot of manufacturers use animal-sourced vitamin B12, but there are vegan sources like fortified yeast and spirulina (blue-green algae). Note that vitamin B12 is often called cyanocobalamin on nutrient labels. Whatever the case, you will find “vegan B12“ written somewhere on the supplement packaging if it is from a source other than animals.
Pantothenic acid is a widely distributed vitamin which along with its derivatives is frequently used in prenatal supplements because of increased demand for this vitamin during pregnancy. As per the guidelines of the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, adequate intake of pantothenic acid for adults is 5mg/day, whereas for pregnant females, it is 6mg/day, going up to 7mg/day when breastfeeding. Benefits include improved hormone regulation and heart health.
Pantothenic acid is known by many industry names; Vitamin B5, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Calcium Pantothenate, and D-Panthenol to name a few. The common sources of pantothenic acid include meat, eggs, milk, grains, and vegetables. Although it is found in both plants and animals, the variety used in supplements needs a verification from the manufacturers. You can see the vegan source of pantothenic acid in the ingredients section of the supplement leaflet. If the source is not mentioned, checking with the product company would be advisable. Especially if you buy your supplements via Amazon, many manufacturers do respond if you ask a question, since they know their answer may benefit many other customers as well.
Honey and bee pollen are not the only bee-derived products used in vitamins and supplements. Propolis, a resinous substance collected by bees for use in the construction of beehives, is extensively used in foods, beverages, and multivitamins. It is also known as bee glue.
Propolis has shown to have various health benefits in research studies. More than 300 compounds have been found in propolis samples.  Based on its beneficial properties, propolis has become a popular ingredient in many health products. Of the many compounds found in propolis, vitamin B complex, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, zinc, iron, and manganese have specifically attracted the attention of manufactures from the supplements market.  It is also used as a binder in tablets. 
The alternative to propolis is tree sap which is often used as a binder in pharmaceutical and supplement industry. However, if you are unsure of the ingredients, using a propolis-free vegan vitamin is a safe, sensible choice.
Be wary of “cruelty-free”
Many businesses label their products as “cruelty-free”, but what does that mean? It does not necessarily mean that the product is free of animal-sourced ingredients. For peace of mind, to be confident of the vegan nature of vitamins, you should go through the ingredients list. Armed with our list of things to watch out for, hopefully this will be a little bit easier.
We hope this article helped to addressing your concerns around prenatal vitamins that are compatible with your vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.
Here at Intrepid Wellbeing we prefer to source information from high quality, academically rigorous sources. These are the references we used to develop this article:
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- Al-Osaimi M, El-Ansary A, Al-Daihan S, Bhat RS, Ben Bacha A. Therapeutic and Protective Potency of Bee Pollen Against Neurotoxic Effects Induced by Prenatal Exposure of Rats to Methyl Mercury. J Mol Neurosci. 2018 Jul;65(3):327-335. doi: 10.1007/s12031-018-1107-1. Epub 2018 Jun 26.
- Khalil ML. Biological activity of bee propolis in health and disease. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2006 Jan-Mar;7(1):22-31.
- Pasupuleti VR, Sammugam L, Ramesh N, Gan SH. Honey, Propolis, and Royal Jelly: A Comprehensive Review of Their Biological Actions and Health Benefits. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017;2017:1259510. doi: 10.1155/2017/1259510. Epub 2017 Jul 26.
- Ong TH, Chitra E, Ramamurthy S, Siddalingam RP, Yuen KH, Ambu SP, Davamani F. Chitosan-propolis nanoparticle formulation demonstrates anti-bacterial activity against Enterococcus faecalis biofilms. PLoS One. 2017 Mar 31;12(3):e0174888. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0174888. eCollection 2017.