The 15 Best Vitamin D Food Sources

Sep 24, 2022 | Nutrition | 1 comment

A meal of smoked salmon topped with traditional poached eggs, both are food sources of Vitamin D.

Which Foods Contain Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is not common in food sources, but oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, salmon and tuna offer fairly reliable dietary servings of vitamin D, with cod liver being the most abundant source of dietary vitamin D. Meats including beef liver, turkey, and pork also offer some smaller amounts of vitamin D. As far as vegan options go, white cap mushrooms are perhaps the only non-animal, unfortified food source of vitamin D that can provide a substantial amount of vitamin D2 in a single serving. Other foods such as cereals, milk, and plant based milk substitutes are sometimes fortified with added vitamin D, though this varies by country and product. [1]

Using averages provided by the UK Department of Health, the United States Department of Agriculture, and numerous scientific studies, we have curated a list of our top food sources that naturally contain vitamin D. Several of these foods have multiple entries to correspond to different preparation methods, resulting in 19 separate entries from 15 individual food sources.

Vitamin D levels are measured in International Units (IU) in some contexts and micrograms (mcg) in others, so we have provided both measurements in the table. In the right hand column, we have used the European recommended daily intake (RDI) of 600 IU as a benchmark. [2]

Foods That Contain Vitamin D (Per 100g Serving)

Food SourceVitamin D Per 100g (IU)Vitamin D Per 100g (mcg)Percentage of Adult RDA
Cod Liver5000 IU125 mcg833%
Eels1200 IU30 mcg200%
Salmon (Smoked)684 IU17.1 mcg114%
Swordfish558 IU13.9 mcg93%
Salmon (Fresh)526 IU13.1 mcg88%
Sardines331 IU8.27 mcg55%
Mackerel (Smoked)328 IU8.2 mcg54%
Mackerel (Canned)296 IU7.4 mcg49%
Tuna (Canned)269 IU6.7 mcg45%
Tuna (Fresh)227 IU5.7 mcg38%
Herring (Fresh)214 IU5.3 mcg36%
Egg Yolk88 IU2.2 mcg15%
Herring (Kipper)88 IU2.2 mcg15%
Atlantic Cod54 IU1.3 mcg9%
Beef Liver45 IU1.1 mcg8%
White Button Mushrooms24 IU0.6 mcg4%
Turkey15 IU0.4 mcg3%
Pork Tenderloin 12 IU0.3 mcg2%
Cheddar Cheese6 IU0.15 mcg1%

Sources: [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

These figures are useful averages, but as they are natural products, these figures may fluctuate somewhat in reality. Processing, as well as cooking methods and cooking duration all are known factors that can cause these values to vary – sometimes by a significant degree. This can be observed by the fact that mackerel, herring, tuna, and salmon all have two rows on our list with different types of processing.

These values however, do provide a guideline for us to consider when planning a diet rich in Vitamin D. For example, we can use this data to deduce that a meal of eggs, smoked salmon, and white mushrooms is going to likely provide a reasonable serving of natural vitamin D. A meal of tinned cod liver and eels will provide even more, though we can’t guarantee your dinner guests would appreciate your generosity.

It is also worth remembering that these values are provided as an average per 100g serving. Naturally, some of these foods are much more commonly and readily eaten in 100g servings than others. It is not common or advisable for example, to try and obtain your daily Vitamin D intake through egg yolks, which would take around 25 eggs a day!

As vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, it is perhaps not surprising that the most abundant food sources of vitamin D are oily fish, as the oils provide a perfect vector to suspend the molecule. Notably, cod liver and it’s derivative cod liver oil are both extremely high in Vitamin D. [3]

A fishing boat in an arctic setting
Oily Fish Has Traditionally Provided Vitamin D To Nordic Countries

It is interesting to note that Cod Liver, is traditionally eaten in countries in the arctic circle with long and dark winters, such as Iceland and Norway. This could have historically provided sufficient vitamin D throughout the dark winter months to keep the populations healthy and protect against deficiency related diseases such as rickets.

It is notable however, how many of the foods in the table are animal foods. This is because vegetables tend not to be able to synthesise or store vitamin D. White mushrooms, however, are able to do so, making them one of the best options for dietary vitamin D for those on a vegan diet.

The amount of vitamin D in white mushrooms can be increased by exposing them to ultraviolet (UV) light such as sunlight or a UV lamp. The most common form of vitamin D in white mushrooms is D2 (ergocalciferol), with lesser amounts of vitamins D3 and D4. The amount of vitamin D in mushrooms will vary depending on this exposure to UV light.

Why Do We Need Vitamin D From Foods?

Vitamin D is more commonly associated with sunlight rather than foods, as our bodies can synthesise Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight. This process happens because a cholesterol-like compound called 7-DHC in our skin reacts with ultraviolet rays from the sun. A 2010 study suggested that “to prevent vitamin D deficiency, one should spend 15 to 20 minutes daily in the sunshine with 40% of the skin surface exposed.” [8]

A photo of a hand reaching up towards the sunlight shining through trees.
Sunlight Allows Us To Synthesise Vitamin D But Diet Still Has A Role To Play

Sunlight is a great way to get our vitamin D as it is impossible to ‘overdose’ on vitamin D from sunlight exposure. Our bodies only produce as much as we need, and this process automatically stops if we have reached our natural capacity.

For various reasons however, simply getting all our vitamin D from the sunlight might not be as simple as it sounds. People with sensitive skin types may avoid sun exposure, and in the deep dark days of winter, access to strong sunlight simply isn’t an option in many regions. Excessive sun exposure to the skin is also known to have it’s own issues such as an increased risk of sunburn and skin damage. Excessive long term exposure to sunlight is also known to increase the risk of skin cancer.

Furthermore, those with darker skin and higher levels of melanin require longer periods of sun exposure than those with paler skin tones. [9] Garments and clothing that cover the skin such as long sleeved tops, trousers, or certain religious coverings can also lower the amount of vitamin D we can synthesise from sunlight, due to decreased exposure of our skin to the ultraviolet rays.

Due to these limiting factors, it is estimated that around half of the population of the world has either low levels of vitamin D or a clinical deficiency. [10] When trying to work out why half the world is deficient in a vitamin that is provided free by sunlight, the mind may immediately conjure up images of dark, cold days in Scandinavia. Whilst vitamin D levels do decline in winter months for much of the world, this is not the only factor.

A public square in the city of Santiago de Chile, with exotic plants and palm trees.
Vitamin D Deficiency Is Common Even In Sunny Cities Such As Santiago de Chile

In actuality, the issue extends even to warm regions that are associated with sunny weather too. A study analysing data from Iran, Turkey, and India found that 90% of the infants in these countries have some level of vitamin D deficiency. [11]

Older people are also at risk of vitamin D deficiency, as similar results were noted from a study of inhabitants aged 60 to 98 years old in Santiago de Chile. Santiago de Chile is a city on the latitude of 33° South of the equator, and receives an average of around 2750 sunshine hours per year. Despite this abundant sunshine, 83% of females and 55.3% of males in the study displayed vitamin D serum levels below 20 ng/mL – the cutoff point for clinical deficiency. [12]

This data strongly suggests that dietary sources of vitamin D have a large role to play in maintaining adequate vitamin D levels across the world. The foods listed in the main table can therefore play vital roles in ensuring that populations are getting sufficient vitamin D.

Vitamin D Fortification

In addition to the foods listed in the table above, many foods are fortified with Vitamin D, meaning that supplemental vitamin D is added during the production process. Cereals, yoghurt, margarine, and milk are often fortified with vitamin D. Fortified foods can have as much vitamin D in them as a manufacturer or food regulatory authority requires, and so levels can vary widely between countries and the food source in question. For this reason, we have not included these foods on our main list, as it is essentially a form of supplementation.

A photo of a woman pouring milk from a glass on to cereal, which is a strange way to do it but that's another matter.
Milk And Cereals Are Two Food Sources That Are Frequently Fortified With Vitamin D

There is some data that suggests that this practice has been effective in improving the vitamin D levels of populations that get very little in the way of winter sunlight. Regulatory authorities in Finland mandated the fortification of butter, spreads and milk products in 2003. A 2012 comparison of data from populations in Finland showed statistically significant improvements in vitamin D levels for the general population since the introduction. [13]

Manufacturers may sometimes fortify their products with vitamin D. In 2005, a study in Spain calculated that around half the Spanish population ate breakfast cereals. The research team was then funded by Kellogg’s to see what effect cereal fortification might be having on their citizens from the ages of 2-24. Results revealed that half of the groups in the study benefited from improved levels of Vitamin D and other added micronutrients from eating fortified breakfast cereals. [14] Despite their widespread consumption, breakfast cereals are nutritionally poor by nature, and are often high in processed sugars. Wheat and gluten are both also associated with a wide range of health issues.

Fortification is therefore sometimes used cynically by companies in order to market their products more effectively as ‘healthy’. Simply adding vitamin D to the product at the production stage allows the companies to market the vitamin D content on the front of the packet – a move that may help to drive sales. Taking otherwise nutritionally weak foods and boosting them with industrially added micronutrients may produce desired statistical improvements upon analysis, but taking a vitamin D supplement tablet alongside any meal would also be likely to boost blood serum levels of vitamin D over time. Fortification is essentially just a low dose vitamin D supplement added to the food.

A bowl of breakfast cereal and milk.
Foods May Be Fortified By The Manufacturer To Improve The Perceived Health Value Of Their Products

Even then, fortification may not be enough to provide adequate amounts of vitamin D for the general public. As a fat soluble vitamin, vitamin D requires a fat source for proper suspension of the molecule. Appropriate levels of fats are found in cheeses, milk, and butter, which are all targeted by regulators for fortification. Many other foods with fortified vitamin D that do not have the appropriate fat levels, and many foods are not even fortified with the most suitable form of vitamin D. It is therefore likely that some cheaply fortified foods may not actually even provide biologically relevant deliveries of vitamin D to the consumer after digestion. [15]

Questions surrounding fortification reveal a more fundamental issue with our modern diets; why are we eating foods that are not naturally nutritious in the first place? Polling commissioned by the Royal Osteoporosis Society in March 2022 indicated that 29% of adults in the UK could not name a dietary source of vitamin D. Improved education for the public on this matter and an increased awareness of Vitamin D rich foods is likely to provide better results than simply fortifying otherwise low quality foods for mass consumption.

These issues are taken seriously in Germany, where the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment does not recommend vitamin D enrichment of foods for the general population. Consumption of foods fortified with vitamin D is ‘only recommended if inadequate intake has been diagnosed, and if a targeted improvement cannot be achieved either by diet or the body’s synthesis through sunlight exposure’. Companies wishing to boost the vitamin D content of their products using fortification must do so under a special permit, and follow strict limits set by regulators. [16]

Conclusion

Vitamin D levels are low across multiple regions and climates. The widespread extent of vitamin D deficiency indicates that dietary sources can play a vital role in keeping levels adequate. The foods listed in our main table can all form part of a diet that aims to increase vitamin D levels. Certain fortified foods also provide the potential to support vitamin D intake in populations with widespread deficiencies, but are not the ultimate solution to be applied in all circumstances.

A winter sunset shining an orange glow across a field through trees.
Vitamin D Supplementation Is Recommended In The UK During Winter Months

Supplementation can also play a key role in fighting off deficiencies. Supplementation is perhaps even more important for those on a vegan diet, as so many of the dietary sources of vitamin D are off limits, and there are only so many mushrooms exposed to UV rays that you can eat. Fortunately, vegan friendly vitamin D supplements do exist and can help to improve serum vitamin D levels, especially in the winter. Winter supplementation of vitamin D is recommended by the UK Department of Health for vulnerable groups such as the elderly. [17] [18]

However you decide to get your vitamin D, the European Food Commission and the NHS both recommend not exceeding a dietary vitamin D intake of 4,000 IU per day. When we get vitamin D from sunlight, our bodies naturally do not produce more than we need, but when consuming vitamin D through diet or supplements, it is possible to ingest quantities that build up in the system. This is because vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, and therefore can be stored and accumulate in fatty tissues over time.

Excess levels of vitamin D can cause unpleasant effects such as softening bones and increasing the likelihood of kidney stone formation. That said, vitamin D toxicity is rare, and usually only presents in individuals that have been taking vitamin D supplements well above the recommended dosage for several months. [19]

Regular but safe periods of sunlight exposure, combined with a diet rich in vitamin D provides the best and most reliable way to increase our vitamin D stores. Supplementation can also be a useful addition for those on vegan diets or with darker skin tones.


To learn more about how the body uses Vitamin D, you can read our article on the matter here.

[References]

1. Cardwell G, Bornman JF, James AP, Black LJ. A Review of Mushrooms as a Potential Source of Dietary Vitamin D. Nutrients. 2018 Oct 13;10(10):1498. doi: 10.3390/nu10101498. PMID: 30322118; PMCID: PMC6213178.

2. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Dietary Reference Values For nutrients, Summary Report, 2017 Dec. 4, Amended: 23 September 2019. doi: 10.2903/sp.efsa.2017.e151

3. Brustad M, Sandanger T, Wilsgaard T, Aksnes L, Lund E. Change in plasma levels of vitamin D after consumption of cod-liver and fresh cod-liver oil as part of the traditional north Norwegian fish dish “Mølje”. Int J Circumpolar Health. 2003 Mar;62(1):40-53. doi: 10.3402/ijch.v62i1.17527. PMID: 12725340.

4. United Kingdom Department of Health. Nutrient analysis of fish and fish products and nutrient analysis of eggs, Summary Report, 2013

5. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central, 2019. fdc.nal.usda.gov.

6. O’Toole P, Evaluating The Vitamin D Content In Sardines And Mackerel, Boston University School of Medicine, 2013

7. Schmid A, Walther B. Natural vitamin D content in animal products. Adv Nutr. 2013 Jul 1;4(4):453-62. doi: 10.3945/an.113.003780. PMID: 23858093; PMCID: PMC3941824.

8. Naeem Z. Vitamin d deficiency- an ignored epidemic. Int J Health Sci (Qassim). 2010 Jan;4(1):V-VI. PMID: 21475519; PMCID: PMC3068797.

9. WHO/IARC (World Health Organization/International Research Agency for Cancer) 2008. Vitamin D and cancer. A report of the IARC Working Group on Vitamin D. Available at: http://www.iarc.fr/en/publications/pdfs-online/wrk/wrk5/Report_VitD.pdf 

10. Nair R, Maseeh A. Vitamin D: The “sunshine” vitamin. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2012 Apr;3(2):118-26. doi: 10.4103/0976-500X.95506. PMID: 22629085; PMCID: PMC3356951.

11. Palacios C, Gonzalez L. Is vitamin D deficiency a major global public health problem? J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2014 Oct;144 Pt A:138-45. doi: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2013.11.003. Epub 2013 Nov 12. PMID: 24239505; PMCID: PMC4018438.

12. Carrasco G M, Domínguez De L A, Martínez F G, Ihle S S, Rojas Á V, Foradori C A, Marín L PP. Niveles de vitamina D en adultos mayores saludables chilenos y su relación con desempeño functional [Vitamin D levels in older healthy Chilean adults and their association with functional performance]. Rev Med Chil. 2014 Nov;142(11):1385-91. Spanish. doi: 10.4067/S0034-98872014001100004. PMID: 25694283.

13. Helidan A, Kosonen M, Tapanainen H, et al. 2013. The National FINDIET 2012 Survey Helsinki National Institute for Health and Welfare 2013 Report No 16/2013.

14. van den Boom A, Serra-Majem L, Ribas L, Ngo J, Pérez-Rodrigo C, Aranceta J, Fletcher R. The contribution of ready-to-eat cereals to daily nutrient intake and breakfast quality in a Mediterranean setting. J Am Coll Nutr. 2006 Apr;25(2):135-43. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2006.10719524. PMID: 16582030.

15. Vieth R. Vitamin D supplementation: cholecalciferol, calcifediol, and calcitriol. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2020 Nov;74(11):1493-1497. doi: 10.1038/s41430-020-0697-1. Epub 2020 Jul 23. PMID: 32704098.

16. German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. Nutrients supply? Plate rather than pill! 03/2019, 17.01.2019, Press releases 2019

17. Pittaway JK, Ahuja KD, Beckett JM, Bird ML, Robertson IK, Ball MJ. Make vitamin D while the sun shines, take supplements when it doesn’t: a longitudinal, observational study of older adults in Tasmania, Australia. PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e59063. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059063. Epub 2013 Mar 18. PMID: 23527088; PMCID: PMC3601102.

18. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/vitamin-d-for-vulnerable-groups

19. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/

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Written by Keymer Health

September 24, 2022

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