Choline: Staying Level While Staying Green

Firstly, bravo: we are slowly working our way towards a vegan country, if not a vegan world.  Self-congratulatory pats on the back (rather than shoulder thwacking your colleagues as you read this).  PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk would be proud and – surely – livestock across the planet would also put two hooves together in grateful applause if they could…  Or perhaps that’s going a bit far.  Nevertheless, the immanent possibility of losing the planet to our own wasteful and polluting ways has caused a global wake-up call the last couple of years (aided in no small part by various vocal environmentalists whose names are so renowned they need no further introduction here). 

However, plant-based eating – just like an omnivorous lifestyle – comes with its own very real risks if not done correctly.  Indeed, recently, concerns have been raised over the significant and potentially negative impact of a lack of choline in the vegan diet.  Listed as a critical part of our daily alimentary intake by the Institute of Medicine only back in 1998, press of late has focussed on the risks of deficiency particularly for those who shun animal products. 

But is it only vegans who need to be aware of not having enough choline?  Or is this yet another B12-type over-egging (pun most definitely intended)?

The B Vitamins: Revision & Sources

B1 – Thiamine

B2 – Riboflavin

B3 – Niacin

B5 – Pantothenic Acid

B6 – Pyridoxine

B7 – Biotin

B9 – Folate or Folic Acid


Meat, eggs, and dairy are – so we are told – the best sources of choline and B12.  In addition to aiding the liver in processing cholesterol, choline is crucial in the formation and maintenance of a healthy brain.  Our brain cells are quite literally made up of a choline-containing membrane (together with phospholipids).  This membrane is attached to Omega-3 DHA, enabling its functionality.  Nonetheless, even this attachment requires other nutrients – namely B vitamins, which aid the attaching methylation stage.  The key B vitamins in this process are B12, folate, and B6.

To provide one example of the seriousness of not getting enough choline, take the case of pregnant women.  Choline is a fundamental necessity for pregnant women, for if their own levels are insufficient then the developing foetus will literally steal choline from the mother’s brain, thus shrinking maternal grey matter for its own gain.  Placing the term “Preg Head” in an entirely new perspective, and putting aside this shocking parasitism, choline basically determines a child’s cognitive capabilities for life.  When born, a baby’s blood levels of choline are triple that of the mother’s, illustrating just how critical choline is for a newborn who, according to nutritionist and author Patrick Holford, is “building neuronal connections […] at a rate of up to a million [each] second”.

Clearly, then, choline is utterly crucial.  Our livers produce a miniscule amount, but the majority of what we need comes from our food.  The RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of choline is between 400mcg and 520mcg.  In pregnant and breastfeeding women, the upper end of the bracket is required.

In a vegetarian diet, one egg provides 120mcg of the daily recommended intake of choline; in a vegan diet, 50g of either almonds or broccoli provides only 25mcg of choline (clearly inadequate).  Although cauliflower, spinach, wheatgerm, firm tofu, kidney beans, quinoa, and amaranth also offer some quantity of choline, it is suggested that lecithin granules be included in some meal preparations (though pregnant and breastfeeding women should consult with their GP beforehand, due to the risk of any allergy to the source of lecithin).

Identified in 1846 by the French chemist Theodore Gobley, ‘lecithin’ (otherwise known as phosphatidylcholine) is a general term encompassing a range of fatty compounds which include not only choline but also triglycerides, glycolipids, phosphoric acid, phospholipids, glycerol, and fatty acids.  Vegan lecithin is normally derived from soya, but can be sourced from oils such as sunflower oil.  However, it must be remembered that it needs iodine (think algae or seaweed) to activate the choline for absorption in the human body.  As with iron and its absorbency rate being increased by vitamin C, so choline needs a helping hand, too.

Hidden Ingredients: What to Watch for on a Vegan Diet

The Not-So-Yum…

Casein – a milk protein
Lactose – a milk sugar
Whey – a milk by-product
Collagen – from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of livestock and fish
Elastin – from the neck ligaments and aorta of cows
Keratin – from the skin, bones and connective tissues of livestock and fish
Gelatine/gelatin – from boiled skin, tendons, ligaments and/or bones (usually cows or pigs)
Aspic – from clarified meat blended with fish stock and gelatine
Lard/tallow – animal fat
Shellac – female scale insect bodies, tachardia lacca
Royal Jelly – secretion of the honey bee’s throat gland
Honey – bee food
Propolis – constructive material for bee hives
Vitamin D3 – from fish liver oil or sheep’s wool
Albumen/albumin – from egg
Isinglass – from dried swim bladders of fish (for clarifying wine and beer)
Pepsin – from pig stomachs

The Dreaded E Numbers…

E120 – aka carmine, or cochineal, or carminic acid, or natural red 4 – crushed up beetles
E441 – aka gelatine
E542 – aka bone phosphate – ground up animal bones
E901 – aka beeswax
E904 – aka shellac
E910, 920, 921 – aka L-cysteine and derivatives – from animal hair and feathers
E913 – aka lanolin – the grease secreted by sheep and other woolly creatures
E966 – aka lactitol – sweetener in lactose, or milk sugar

However, you might believe supplementation would be a simpler route (just like B12).  And if you do think you’ve been sorely lacking in the amount of choline in your vegan diet (one symptom is a prolonged tiredness), fear not: an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) study conducted on adults between 50 and 85 years of age found that through a concentrated upping in intake of choline, via supplementation of 1,000mg/day, there could be noted an improvement in “short- and long-term verbal memory”.  Furthermore, research conducted prior to the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations, in 1996, resulted in findings which suggested a correlation between choline therapy and a reduction in mania in bipolar disorder patients.

Nonetheless, the spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, Bahee Van de Bor disagrees that supplementation is obligatory for vegans.  The key, she says, is to have a plan; a plant-based meal plan (and not fall prey to the trap of the “junk food vegan” way of convenience food living).  In short, fresh is best and, as with any diet, giving time to what we fuel our bodies with is just as crucial as worrying about how we’re going to pay the bills: for without our health, what point that money in that bank when the grave is only a step away (nihilistic answers not accepted)?

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