As indicated in Vitamania, vitamins are essential chemicals our bodies need to maintain health. They are also viewed as miraculous molecules found in bottles of supplements and packages of functional foods as glorified by both small and large companies in either the pharmaceutical or food industries. How vitamins and their micronutrient companions, the minerals, function in the body is poorly understood by most purchasers of these products. The daily need for such nutrients is not as overrated as some critics of modern nutrition science would have us believe. Most of us who eat a reasonably balanced diet, however, should be able to receive sufficient nourishment from foods. Likewise, we should be very wary of the exaggerated claims associated with megadoses heralded as cures for cancer and modern chronic diseases.
A vitamin is an organic (carbon-containing) chemical that is essential for health. Some vitamins are converted to cofactors necessary for enzymes to speed up chemical reactions in our bodies. For example, niacin (aka vitamin B3) is a component of NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) and NADP (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate). These derivatives are key to proper function of enzymes involved in the breakdown of food components (NADH) and synthesis of cellular components (NADPH). A severe lack of niacin in the diet results in pellagra characterized by diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. Lack of sufficient niacin over time leads to inefficient performance of metabolic and other enzymes with less pronounced symptoms. The recommended daily value for niacin is 16 mg which can easily be obtained by consuming whole or fortified foods.
Note all the vitamins and vitamins in this product, including niacin and calcium.
A mineral is an element that can be used to fortify foods as simple salts or is found in whole foods as natural components of complex organic chemicals. Minerals can also be parts of enzyme cofactors or key components of bodily fluids such as iron in the blood or a key component of a body structure such as calcium in the bones. For example, pronounced lack of calcium in the diet can result in osteoporosis–a weakening of the bones making fractures much more likely. Lesser deficiencies can lead to osteopenia or decreased bone density with less likelihood of a fracture. Too much calcium, however, can lead to kidney stones or weak bones. Supplementation then can be a blessing to those deficient in the mineral and a curse to those who overdose. Fortunately, there seems to be a wide gap in the dose that is needed and the dose that can cause damage.
It is interesting how pop nutritionists and marketers of dietary supplements or functional foods manipulate terms to push their products. A chemical is a negative term used to designate a component of a food or ingredient that should not be consumed. A molecule is a positive term used to designate a component of a food, ingredient or supplement that purportedly has extra-special properties, particularly to promote health. Note how either term is used the next time it appears in a news story or product advertisement. All vitamins, minerals and other components of foods are chemicals just as all vitamins, minerals and other components of foods are molecules. It is only the spin the pop nutritionist or marketer wants to put on it that matters in making the sale.
Next week: Antioxidants and other bioactive compounds in foods