What You Need to Know About B Vitamins

Dark leafy greens salad

B vitamins are a family of water-soluble vitamins that play a crucial role in our overall health.

We need B vitamins for effectively utilizing carbohydrates and proteins in energy production, the development and formation of healthy red blood cells, nervous system functioning, and healthy cell division, growth, and metabolism.

Read on to explore the specific roles a few key B vitamins play in the body.

Vitamin B2: Riboflavin

Close up of bottles with milk  and eggs in basket.

Riboflavin is essential for a wide range of enzymatic reactions in the body and is also an important player in activating two other B-vitamins — niacin (B3) and vitamin B6.

Without riboflavin, our body’s ability to produce energy is compromised, and signs of deficiency can include sores on the face and body, as well as anemia. Gut bacteria produce some riboflavin, but it must be obtained from food and through supplementation. Dietary sources include milk, eggs, organ meats, lean meats, some green vegetables, as well as flour, bread and pasta fortified with riboflavin. [1]

Fun fact: Riboflavin breaks down with exposure to UV light, which is why milk is rarely stored in clear containers or glass bottles.

Vitamin B3: Niacin

Like riboflavin, niacin is a critical component in the body’s energy production system. Deficiency – while rare – causes a condition called pellagra, which manifests in symptoms of dermatitis, diarrhea and dementia.

There are 2 chemical forms that play different roles in the body:

  • Nicotinic acid: often recommended as a supplement for its positive effects on cholesterol levels and heart health. [2]
  • Niacinamide or nicotinamide: which may help treat psoriasis and skin issues. [3]

Niacin is widely available in meats, as well as vegetables, including potatoes, seeds, peppers, and mushrooms and many breakfast cereals and flours are also fortified with niacin.

Tip: If you are supplementing with niacin, increase the dose slowly, as it can cause mild flushing of the skin, particularly in the face and neck. Niacin can also modulate our blood lipids, so speak with your health care practitioner about your needs.

Vitamin B7: Biotin

Biotin is often touted for its role in strengthening hair and nails, but biotin’s benefits go beyond just helping us look great. It helps regulate cell growth, producing crucial fatty acids and, like many B vitamins, break down food for energy.

Biotin is found in many food sources include soybeans (and other) legumes, meats, eggs, and nuts and can also be produced in small amounts in the gut.

Vitamin B9: Folate

Folate – sometimes called folic acid – is one of the better-known B vitamins because of its importance during pregnancy. This vitamin helps human cells to divide and grow properly in the early weeks of fetal development and is essential for spinal cord formation and helping to prevent neural tube defects, along with other long-term health complications. [4]

Folate is found in dark green vegetables, leafy greens and legumes and many packaged foods are fortified with it due to its essential role in cell development.

Folate deficiency can lead to an inability to form red blood cells properly[5], although this is rare. Speak to your health care practitioner if you’re concerned about getting enough folic acid – particularly if you follow a gluten-free diet and consume products that aren’t fortified.

Tip: Adult women are encouraged to supplement specifically with folate or have a high-quality prenatal multivitamin if considering pregnancy.

Vitamin B12: Cobalamin

B12 is involved in the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins for energy like many of the B vitamins, as well as blood cell formation. But its most crucial role is supporting the normal functioning of the nervous system and helping maintain the protective coating around our neurons, called myelin. [6]

There has also been research examining the role of B12 in mental health. One study noted significantly improved depressive symptoms among a group with normal to low B12 levels when administered B12 supplementation alongside antidepressants. [7]

Dietary sources of B12 include meat, organ meats, certain dairy products, and some fish and shellfish. The body can store excess B12 in the liver for future use, but vegetarians and vegans are encouraged to supplement with vitamin B12.

Fun fact: Vitamin B12 requires a protein known as “intrinsic factor” found in the stomach lining that binds to it and ensures its absorption into the blood and cells.

How to Get Enough B Vitamins

B vitamins are water-soluble and don’t accumulate in the body, so regular dietary intake from foods or supplements are required to ensure adequate levels (unlike vitamins A, D, E and K, which are fat-soluble and accumulate in our fatty tissue). Health Canada provides a recommended daily intake guide of B vitamins for the whole family.

B vitamins often naturally occur together in foods including whole grains and cereals, legumes, eggs, dark leafy greens, liver and kidneys, blackstrap molasses, and nutritional yeast. Several common packaged foods such as cereals and dairy alternatives are often fortified with certain B vitamins.

You can also find B vitamins in supplement form, either individually or grouped together in a “B-complex” which provides a balance of the eight essential B vitamins we need to obtain from our diet. B vitamins can be found in tablets, capsules and powdered formats that easily fit into your daily routine.

To find high-quality B-vitamin supplement that works for your body and lifestyle, visit your local CHFA Member health food store for the best selection and guidance.


  1. Riboflavin Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Riboflavin-HealthProfessional/
  2. Kamanna, Vaijinath and Kashyap, Moti L. (2008). “Mechanism of action of niacin “. Am J Cardiol. 2008 Apr 17;101(8A):20B-26B. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18375237/
  3. Namazi, Mohammad Reza. (2003), “Nicotinamide: a potential addition to the anti-psoriatic weaponry”. FASEB J. 2003 Aug;17(11):1377-9. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12890690/
  4. Government of Canada Public Health Services. Folic acid and neural tube defects. Retrieved from:  https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/pregnancy/folic-acid.html
  5. “Folate-deficiency anemia”. National Institutes of Health U.S. National Library of Medicine Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000551.htm
  6. Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/
  7. Syed, Ehsan Ullah. (2013). Vitamin B12 Supplementation in Treating Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Open Neurol J. 2013; 7: 44–48. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3856388/

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