Vitamin D2 vs D3: What’s the Difference?

What is Vitamin D? And what does it do?

What are the differences between Vitamin D2 vs D3? Before we get into that, it’s essential to understand what Vitamin D is and what it does. Ultimately, Vitamin D is a necessary nutrient for the body. It’s used in many bodily functions, such as cellular functioning, bone remodeling and calcium absorption.

You’ve maybe seen studies about how Vitamin D aids bone health but there are several other benefits. Research indicates it can improve longevity, boost immunity and reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis.

Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because it can be received from UV rays. Not only does the sun brighten your spirit, but Vitamin D may even brighten your mood.

However, these are just the start of what Vitamin D can accomplish. Other research indicates Vitamin D may help combat specific types of cancer and improve sexual function, as referenced in another study.

While the majority of studies focus on Vitamin D3 benefits, it’s important to note that both Vitamin D3 and Vitamin D2 support your overall well-being. With that said, they are not the same and the benefits of each one are not interchangeable. So, what is the difference between vitamin D2 and D3?

The Difference Between Vitamin D2 and D3

Vitamin D3 is also known as cholecalciferol, while vitamin D2 is called ergocalciferol. The liver must convert both D3 and D2 before it heads to the kidneys. However, Vitamin D3 raises the body’s level of active Vitamin D more effectively than D2 does, according to some research.

This leads consumers to look at Vitamin D2 versus D3 in terms of the effectiveness of supplements. Both of these can be included in a supplement, but research indicates D3 provides a more effective solution.

Vitamin D3 is also fat-soluble, meaning it absorbs into the body along with fats from your diet. Furthermore, Vitamin D3 can be made by the skin when exposed to direct sunlight. The body converts the 7-dehydrocholesterol into D3 through an advanced reaction that is started with ultraviolet B rays.

As you continue researching Vitamin D2 vs Vitamin D3, you also see a difference in how it is sourced. Vitamin D2 is only found from plant sources, such as yeast or mushrooms. Vitamin D3 is — for the most part — found in animal sources, such as fatty fishes and egg yolks. However, some forms of Vitamin D3 are sourced from plant lichen. Of the two, Vitamin D2 is most often added to foods, including cereals, milk, whole wheat bread and orange juice.

Sources of Vitamin D

Another consideration between Vitamin D2 vs D3 is how your body receives it. Unlike Vitamin D2, you can get Vitamin D3 by simply being outside. Spending time in the sunlight may actually be one of the easiest ways to source Vitamin D. However, some people face a disadvantage with this option. For example, if you live where it’s cloudy or cold, you may not get enough sun to synthesize Vitamin D.

On the other hand, if you live in a warmer climate, you can spend between five and thirty minutes in direct midday sun two times a week and possibly meet your D3 needs. With that said, you also have to think about the risk of skin cancer by doing this since sun exposure increases those chances as well.

Besides sunlight, you can get cholecalciferol Vitamin D3 or Vitamin D2 from the foods you eat and supplements. As with any nutrient, it’s best to get your daily Vitamin D requirement through a healthy diet. However, the list of vitamin D-rich foods isn’t as extensive as some people would like. For a lot of people, it makes sense to get Vitamin D through their diet in addition to supplements.

After evaluating the difference between Vitamin D2 and Vitamin D3, you’ll have to choose which foods you want to consume and what type of supplement will best meet your needs.

Foods That Contain Vitamin D2

Typically vegans and vegetarians strive to find D2-rich foods since these are plant-based. One of the best sources of Vitamin D2 is mushrooms. There are two particular mushrooms that feature a really high Vitamin D content — raw maitake and dried shiitake mushrooms.

Many mushrooms are now treated with UV lights. This process increases the levels of Vitamin D. A cup of diced portobello mushrooms exposed to UV rays can provide up to 79% of your daily Vitamin D2 intake.

If you don’t like the flavor of mushrooms, there are other ways to consume them. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved UV-treated mushroom powders as a food additive.

In addition to mushrooms, it’s possible to find Vitamin D2 in enriched foods. Plant milk alternatives are usually a good source. Many of the beverages made from oats, almonds and soy now come fortified with Vitamin D, similar to what is found in cow’s milk. You can also find breakfast cereals, margarine, yogurt, orange juice and other food sources that have been fortified with Vitamin D2.

Foods That Contain Vitamin D3

The list of vitamin D3 sources is much longer than D2, making it easier to obtain through diet alone.

If you enjoy eating fish, you’ll have plenty of Vitamin D options. For example, a 3.5-ounce serving of Atlantic salmon contains about 66% of your daily value. Herring is also a good choice, and it can be eaten smoked, canned, pickled or raw. However, note that pickled herring is very high in sodium.

Canned fish is also a good option and can be cheaper than fresh fish. Canned sardines provide about 22% of the DV in one 3.8-ounce can. Additionally, light tuna can provide up to 34% of the DV in one 3.5-ounce can. However, canned tuna also contains methylmercury, which is a toxin. If this toxin builds up in your body, it could cause health issues, so tuna should be enjoyed in moderation.

If you don’t eat fish, you can also get Vitamin D from eggs. There may be some in egg whites, but the egg yolk contains the majority of minerals, vitamins and fat. One egg yolk can contain 37IU of Vitamin D, which makes up about 5% of your daily intake requirements.

Of course, the level of vitamin D in the egg depends on how much sun exposure the chicken received and what type of food it ate. Pasture-raised chickens that roam in the sunlight produce eggs that contain three to four times the amount of Vitamin D compared with other eggs.

Vegan and Vegetarian Vitamin D3 Foods

Is Vitamin D3 vegan? Unfortunately, most foods that are rich in Vitamin D3 are not vegan-friendly. As you look at the above foods that contain vitamin D3, you notice that they are all animal-based. That’s one of the biggest differences between Vitamin D2 vs D3. However, all hope is not lost for vegans.

There are plant sources of Vitamin D3. Lichen, a small algae-like plant that gets UV exposure, is one source. In fact, according to the U.S. Forest Service, many types of lichen are edible. If you aren’t looking for lichen, you will likely miss it. The flat, leafy plant grows mostly on rocks and trees.

Lichen has been around for billions of years and might be one of the oldest life forms on the planet. In fact, there are more than 20,000 species of lichen. However, it’s difficult to source in mass quantities for food, which is why it isn’t a commonly recommended food source of Vitamin D3.

Vitamin D2 and Vitamin D3 Supplements

There are plenty of D3 supplements on the market, but many of them are not vegan-friendly. Oftentimes, lanolin from sheep’s wool is exposed to UVB rays to create Vitamin D3 supplements.

If you want to get Vitamin D3 from cholecalciferol, but you need a vegan option, your best bet is to choose one that’s made using lichen. However, this process can be expensive, which is why many cheaper and lower-quality supplements contain Vitamin D2 instead of Vitamin D3.

However, there are other ways to get Vitamin D through supplements, especially if you aren’t opposed to fish sources. Cod liver oil is a popular option that contains a lot of Vitamin D and Vitamin A. However, taking too much can be toxic because of the high Vitamin A content, so always follow the instructions.

Vitamin D2 to D3 conversion

When you are looking at available supplements, it’s important to note that not all will be labeled the same way. You need to pay close attention to the specific quantities of Vitamin D2 vs D3.

Simply put: Vitamin D2 and D3 are not interchangeable, as they are completely different compounds. While both are absorbed into the bloodstream, the liver metabolizes each one differently.

More specifically, your liver turns Vitamin D2 into 25-hydroxyvitamin D2, while Vitamin D3 becomes 25-hydroxyvitamin D3. Both of these compounds are known as calcifediol. Measuring the amount of this specific form of Vitamin D in your blood is the most accurate way to measure your Vitamin D level.

Most studies agree that Vitamin D2 yields less calcifediol than the same amount of Vitamin D3. That’s why you might need a higher Vitamin D2 intake versus your Vitamin D3 dosage to get the same results.

One study indicates that patients who took a single dose of Vitamin D3 received about double the calcifediol as those who took the same amount of Vitamin D2. This indicates a person may need to take double the amount of Vitamin D2 to get the same results as taking Vitamin D3. To be on the safe side, you might want to stick solely to Vitamin D3 if you want to achieve the maximum benefits.

Recommended Daily Allowance of Vitamin D

Research has demonstrated many health benefits of higher vitamin D levels. What do scientists say is the target amount? 48 world-wide vitamin D researchers agree it is 40-60 ng/ml (100-150 nmol/L). 

The best way to determine how much Vitamin D you need is to use a nutritional testing service to check. An estimated 42% of the American population is Vitamin D deficient, but it’s most prevalent in young women, the elderly, infants and anyone who has darker skin.

You can do Vitamin D testing in the comfort of your own home. By providing a blood in an easy to use test kit you can mail it back and your results are processed through a certified lab partner and available online within 7-10 days after receiving it back from you.

At home Vitamin D test kit

Thankfully, by paying a little more attention to your diet and by choosing a high-quality Vitamin D3 supplement, you can ward off any problems while further boosting your overall well-being. However, always talk to your healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen.