Vegan Food Sources of Major Nutrients: Calcium
The Mighty Bone-Building Calcium
In the first of many articles on vegan nutrition I’ll be taking a look at the macromineral calcium. A commonly asked question of vegans is ‘but where do you get your calcium if you don’t drink milk?’. Let me dispel the myth right now that we’re all walking around on holey-bones and that none of our muscles contract properly. I’m ambulatory, and have just cycled across Canada, I think I’m all good for calcium thanks, and here’s why…
The Milk Myth
Contrary to popular belief (mainly promulgated by an unscrupulous dairy industry with a monstrously large advertising budget), cow’s milk and products derived from such stuff is not actually that good a source of calcium compared to some natural, and ethical, foods. A major drawback with cow’s milk is that it contains very little magnesium, which is very important for the proper absorption and metabolism of calcium in the body. As dairy is also a digestive irritant for many this will compromise the absorption of the milk’s nutrients anyway. Remember folks, we aren’t designed to drink milk from other animals, or even our own mothers forever! Most people lose their lactose-digesting abilities during childhood, making milk potentially allergenic and compromising to the general immune system through damage to the gut membranes and the first line of immune defense. The casein in dairy can actually become addictive in some people as the inability to digest it fully means that opioids are produced, just like people get addicted to morphine they can become hooked on milk and gluten too. All of the foods listed below are good calcium sources, and form part of a varied and healthy vegan diet. We do need to remember, however, that there are numerous ways absorption of nutrients can be affected and not everyone will absorb exactly the same amount of each mineral.
The figures used are from the nutrient tables listed here the official US Department of Agriculture nutrition tables, which as a not so amusing aside lists beef with broccoli as the first search result entry when simply typing in ‘broccoli’. Think that’s weird, try typing ‘sesame’ in and see what the first listing is… the answer’s at the bottom of the page for those of you who can’t be bothered to check!
Non-Dairy Calcium Food Sources
Plenty of wholefoods contain calcium without the need for it to be added from outside sources such as chalk, shellfish, or coral. Watch out for this in some fortified products as animal-derived calcium may still be used if the product is not labelled vegan or animal-product-free. An example of this is toothpaste (yes, I know you’re not supposed to eat it!), which frequently contains calcium lactate, phosphate, stearate, and stearoyl-2-lactylate which are sometimes derived from ground up animal bone and other non-vegan sources. Go vegan, use a product like Jason’s, Kingfisher (UK only at the moment I think, ah, I miss Kingfisher), or possibly Weleda, although a few of their products contain lanolin, or Tom’s of Maine which are often stated as being vegan but frequently contain propolis (another non-vegan ingredient) warranting a label-check of each individual product.
Many nuts contain good amounts of calcium and, as they are wholefoods, also contain numerous other minerals, as well as vitamins, protein, and essential fats, that contribute to good health. More specifically, almonds are a great calcium source with a decent amount of magnesium, folic acid, potassium, fibre, and protein in addition. Eating them by the handful, sprinkling them onto your morning cereal, in some soy yoghurt, on top of cakes, in cookies, in salads, as part of a nutroast mix, or in a main meal such as a sweet nutty paella can quickly raise your daily calcium intake to match, and indeed, surpass that supplied by dairy. Cow’s milk contains approximately 293mg of calcium per 244g (1/2 pint), and a paltry 27mg of magnesium. Almonds give a mighty 644mg in the same weight, and a whacking 654mg of magnesium to help with absorption, amongst other things. Still think dairy is a good source of calcium? Admittedly, you’re unlikely to eat a whole cup of almonds, but even just a handful as a snack gets you around 30mg of calcium, whereas a dash of milk in your coffee (which can also leach calcium from your system) would provide just 3mg of calcium, and hardly a trace of magnesium.
Sesame seeds are another great calcium source to include in the diet, with 320mg in 244g (equivalent to half a pint of cow’s milk). There’s a mammoth amount of magnesium in those little seeds too: 844mg per 244 grams. Clearly eating 1/2 pint of sesame seeds is ill-advised, but a tablespoon or so on your cereal, or a handful in some homemade houmous will give you 10-20mg of calcium, and 28-56mg of magnesium. Cow’s milk equivalent amount: 10-20mg calcium, 1-2mg magnesium, rendering the calcium a little ineffective in a lot of circumstances.
Blackstrap molasses are also a rich calcium source with 244g providing 500mg of calcium and 590mg of magnesium. Considered the ‘leftovers’ from sugar refining, they contain all of the nutrients of the plant and aren’t considered the empty calories like the diabetes-inducing sugar most consume on a daily basis. An excellent source of calcium, potassium, and iron, and tasty in sauces, baking, and marinades, molasses do still contain some sugar, so should be used sparingly to sweeten where desired. A tablespoon contains 41mg calcium and 48mg magnesium – equivalent in dairy: 24mg and 2mg.
Cruciferous vegetables are a wonderful source of calcium, and tasty too! As long as you don’t boil them to death anyway. Lightly steamed or raw veg including broccoli, kale, cabbage and spinach are calcium rich, with the mighty kale containing 94mg of calcium per cup.
Broccoli is another superstar superfood with just four florets providing 21mg of calcium, and in an easier to digest and absorb form too. Let’s not forget it also contains vitamin C, iron, potassium, and vitamin E too. Aah, houmous and broccoli, lovely. A note of caution with spinach however; it contains oxalic acid which can bond to the calcium in it and is associated with kidney stone formation. Counteract this effect by eating it with another good source of vitamin C (broccoli perhaps!).
You’re probably not going to want to eat too many of them, or there’ll be digestive consequences… ahem, but figs are another great calcium source. Five dried figs provides 68mg of calcium, with iron, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus along for the ride. Compared to a 1/2 pint glass of cow’s milk, the equivalent weight in figs would give 395mg of calcium and 166mg of magnesium (versus 293mg calcium and 27mg magnesium).
Soy and Calcium for Vegans
Vegans’ general, assumed, meat-substitute, soy, is also a good source of calcium, as well as iron, protein, and essential fatty acids. It’s not a good idea to rely on soy for everything though as too much soy, particularly non-fermented soy, can have a detrimental effect on health too.
Tempeh is a good source of fermented soy, and contains plenty of calcium. Tofu is a non-fermented soy product that is highly versatile, and the firmer textured brands are generally higher in calcium as the mineral is actually used to firm up the tofu, alongside magnesium. Using soy milk, soy yoghurt, eating the whole soybeans (cooked), edamame soy beans, or using silken tofu for toppings of flans and other culinary delights can provide an excellent dietary source of calcium without having to harm animals in the process. Check the tables out yourself for these soy-based products, as there are so many it’s pretty good fun roaming around the listings.
How Much Calcium do I Need?
So now we know where our calcium can be found in non-dairy, vegan-friendly, natural forms, why do we need calcium, and how much calcium is enough for each of us?
If you’re a little concerned about your calcium intake and are looking for an insurance dose from a good supplement then you can’t get better than the Calcium, Magnesium, and Vitamin D from the Vegan Society approved company Deva, on sale currently at iHealthTree.com, just search for Deva and stock up!
And the answer to the question in the first paragraph?
Shame on you for not being bothered to look it up yourself… the listing is for ‘Lemon Chicken, Chinese Style’, which clearly is what we mean when we search for sesame; a biased industry? Of course not. Rest assured however that there are plenty of vegan sources of calcium, sesame seeds included.