Vitamins and minerals… most people are familiar with the two terms. But what exactly are they? And what is so important about them? Today, I’m going to address these basic questions and, over the coming weeks, I’ll be discussing the science behind each and every vitamin and mineral.
What are vitamins and minerals?
In nutrition, we can divide the compounds into two distinct categories – macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are nutrients that are required in large quantity in order to supply an organism with energy and provide structure. You likely know them from every day life – carbohydrates, fats and protein.
Vitamins and minerals are the micronutrients that an organism requires. Unlike macros, only small quantities of these nutrients are needed in the organism; what ones are required depends on the organism in question. For example, Vitamin C must be obtained through diet for humans, but the vast majority of animals and plants can synthesise the vitamin from precursor molecules.
The word vitamin is a portmanteau of the words “vital” and “mineral”, which should be a clear indicator of just how important vitamins are for health. The importance of vitamins was first discovered by James Lind, a Scottish surgeon, in 1747. He noticed that sailors who ate citrus fruits and vegetables on their voyages would not develop scurvy, whereas the sailors who did not eat such foods did develop the disease. The British Royal Navy adopted this treatment, and today still sailors are nicknamed “limeys”.
Vitamins can be further split into two categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins must be eaten daily due to their loss through urine and a typically small storage capacity within the body. Fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the body’s adipose tissue for later use and thus do not necessarily need to be eaten on a daily basis.Humans require the following water-soluble vitamins. Alternate names are in parentheses:
- Thiamin (vitamin B1)
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- Niacin (vitamin B3)
- Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5)
- Vitamin B6
- Biotin (vitamin B7)
- Folic acid (vitamin B9)
- Vitamin B112
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
Humans require the following fat-soluble vitamins:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D (calciferols)
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K (quinones)
Minerals are the chemical elements that an organism requires for biochemical processes. Note that the term “mineral” is not synonymous with the crystal structures typically associated with the word. In nutrition, a dietary mineral refers only to the chemical element.
Humans require the following 16 minerals:
Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen are also requirements, but are not considered dietary minerals as they make up the structures of carbohydrates, fats, proteins and vitamins.
What are the similarities and differences between vitamins and minerals?
Vitamins are organic compounds (carbon-containing compounds) whereas minerals are elements. Food processes and natural occurrences can affect the amount of vitamin in a food. Heat, water, light and air can all destroy the structure of a vitamin. Minerals, however, are not affected by any of these processes and always remain present.
It’s important to note that we cannot ingest an unlimited amount of every vitamin and mineral. We require these important compounds and elements in limited quantities. With the exception of bromine, cobalt and sulfur, every micronutrient is associated with a deficiency disease when not eaten in sufficient quantities. Similarly, with the exception of riboflavin and biotin, every micronutrient is associated with an overdose disease when too much of a micronutrient is consumed.
We will explore the deficiency and overdose diseases associated with each vitamin in later posts.
And that’s it!
With that, we have a very brief overview of vitamins and minerals that humans require. In future posts, we will be looking at each vitamin and mineral in depth, looking at the functions, sources, absorption, diseases and dietary recommendations.