The human body can do amazing things but producing significant amounts of nutrients isn’t one of them, so we need to obtain them from the food we eat. Vitamins and minerals perform a range of critical tasks, from converting food into energy and boosting our immunity, to healing wounds and repairing damaged cells. But what is the difference between vitamins and minerals, what do they do, and in which foods are they found? Here’s the lowdown from A to Z (Vitamin A to Zinc)!
What is the difference between vitamins and minerals?
In a nutshell, vitamins are organic compounds obtained from plants and animals, whereas minerals are inorganic compounds that originate in the earth. We need to consume a range of vitamins and minerals to keep our bodies functioning correctly.
Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of vitamins and minerals, and why they’re important.
What are vitamins?
Vitamins are organic compounds obtained from plants and animals. They have diverse biochemical functions with our bodies, with all thirteen needed for our metabolic processes. Because our bodies can’t synthesise vitamins, we need to get them from the food we eat.
There are thirteen essential vitamins and sixteen minerals, however not all the minerals are needed. Vitamins are classified as either fat or water-soluble, and minerals as either macrominerals or microminerals.
Vitamins can be destroyed with chemical agents or heat while cooking. Maintaining good nutrition by eating raw foods and organic foods with minimal processing can help to preserve vitamins.
Why do we need vitamins and minerals?
The body has thousands of chemical reactions occurring in every one of its cells, every second of the day. These cells continually process the fats, proteins, and carbohydrates we obtain from food. Vitamins and minerals are vital to these chemical reactions, and without them, critical body functions may break down.
Vitamins play a significant role in immune and nervous system functioning, repairing and healing wounds, developing red blood cells, and growth and development by releasing energy from food. They also keep our eyes, lungs, skin, hair, bones, tissues and gastrointestinal tract functioning well.
How are vitamins classified?
Vitamins are classified as either fat-soluble or water-soluble.
There are four different fat-soluble vitamins — vitamins A, D, E and K. They require fat to be absorbed and can be stored in our liver and fatty tissues for several days.
There are nine different water-soluble vitamins — Vitamin C, and the eight B vitamins — riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, folate, biotin, pantothenic acid, and vitamins B6 and B12. These vitamins need to be dissolved in water before being absorbed by our bodies and are absorbed directly into our bloodstream, producing energy and building cells and proteins.
What do vitamins do - a breakdown of each
All vitamins function differently and play a variety of roles, and our bodies require different amounts of them to maximise our health. Fat-soluble vitamins can be stored, whereas water-soluble vitamins can’t as the excess is excreted through urine, so need to be replenished regularly.
Vitamin A (fat-soluble)
Vitamin A plays an important role in immunity, eye and bone health, and in blood cell development. It is found in eggs, kale and orange-coloured foods like pumpkin, carrots, sweet potato, mango, and melon.
Vitamins B1, B2, B6, B7 and B12 (water-soluble)
B vitamins are vital for metabolic health, which is the process of turning food into the usable fuel our bodies need to stay healthy. They also assist with cell regeneration, hormone production, mood regulation, nerve and immune system health, and a range of other key bodily functions. They are found in seafood, chicken, eggs, dairy, nuts, legumes, and fortified grain products.
Vitamin C (water-soluble)
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. It helps with collagen production, and promotes skin, blood, hair and joint health. Vitamin C may also reduce the risk of certain cancers, improve immune health, and help the body absorb other nutrients. It is found in kale, broccoli, capsicum, Brussels sprouts and citrus fruits.
Vitamin D (fat-soluble)
The body naturally produces Vitamin D in response to sun exposure. It promotes healthy bone growth, helps the body fight infection, and assists in nervous system function. It also helps the body to use calcium, which can lower the risks of osteoporosis. We obtain the most out of this vitamin in its natural form, however it is also found in eggs, mushrooms and fish. Many dairy and grain products are also fortified with Vitamin D, including soy products.
Vitamin E (fat-soluble)
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that contributes to strong cellular walls, nerve health and muscle strength. It is found in the fats of foods such as hazelnuts, almonds, olive oil and avocado.
Vitamin K (fat-soluble)
Vitamin K is often confused with potassium (a mineral). This vitamin assists with healthy bone development and is vital for blood health by promoting wound healing and blood clotting. It is found in cruciferous vegetables like kale, bok choy, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, and also in asparagus, soybeans, pine nuts and blueberries.
Folic acid (water-soluble)
Folate is vital for cell growth throughout the body, so recommended for pregnant women. Many foods are fortified with folate including grain products, but it can also be found in spinach, asparagus, legumes and orange juice.
What are minerals?
Minerals are inorganic compounds that originate in the earth and are obtained from water and soil. They help with muscle contraction, blood coagulation, heart and brain function, the formation of bone and teeth, and the production of enzymes and hormones.
How are minerals classified?
There are 16 essential minerals in the body, and they are classified as either macrominerals or microminerals (also called “trace” minerals). The word “macro” means large in Greek, so we need larger amounts of these. The macrominerals are potassium, calcium, chloride, sodium, phosphorus, sulphur, and magnesium.
Microminerals are required in smaller amounts and include iodine, iron, zinc, selenium, chromium, fluoride, copper, manganese, and molybdenum.
What do minerals do - a breakdown of each
The functions of minerals also differ, and not all minerals are required by our bodies. For example, phosphorus, calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium are required more than zinc and iron, although the exact amounts should be recommended by a nutritionist.
Calcium is important for health teeth and bones, nerve functioning, blood pressure regulation, blood clotting, immune system health, and it helps muscles relax and contract. It is found in dairy, bony fish, legumes, fortified tofu and soymilk, and in legumes like broccoli.
Chloride is needed for stomach acid and to help our bodies properly balance fluid. It is found in salt, and soy sauce.
Chromium works closely with insulin to regulate blood sugar (glucose) levels. It is found in liver, nuts, cheese and whole grains.
Copper is needed for iron metabolism and is found in whole grains, nuts and seeds, shellfish, legumes and organ meats.
Fluoride is involved in the formation of teeth and bones and helps prevent tooth decay. It is found in fish and in fluoridated water.
Iodine is evident in our thyroid hormones, and it helps regulate growth, development and metabolism. It is found in iodized salt, dairy products, seafood and foods grown in iodine-rich soils.
Iron is part of hemoglobin, found in red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body, and needed for energy metabolism. It is found in fish, red meat, poultry, shellfish, nuts, seeds, prunes, egg yolks, legumes, dried fruit and dark leafy greens.
Magnesium is found in our bones and assists with nerve transmission, muscle contraction and immune system health. It is found in milk, legumes, nuts and seeds, seafood, chocolate, artichokes and leafy green vegetables.
Part of many enzymes, manganese is found in nuts, legumes, fish, whole grains and tea.
Molybdenum forms part of some enzymes and is found in milk, liver, legumes, breads and grains and leafy green vegetables.
Phosphorus exists in all cells, is important for healthy teeth and bones, and is part of the system that regulates our acid-base balance. It is found in fish, meat, poultry, liver, eggs, milk, peas, potatoes, broccoli and almonds.
Potassium helps with muscle contraction, nerve transmission and is needed for proper fluid balance. It is found in milk, meats, whole grains, legumes and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Selenium is an antioxidant that helps defend your cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules called free radicals. It can be found in seafood, organ meats, walnuts and grains.
Sodium is needed for nerve transmission, proper fluid balance and muscle contraction. It is found in soy sauce, table salt, and in small amounts in vegetables, bread, milk and unprocessed meats.
Sulphur is found in protein molecules and in foods as part of protein including poultry, meat, fish, dairy, eggs, nuts and legumes.
Zinc forms part of many enzymes and is needed for making protein and genetic material. It also has a function in wound healing, immune system health, the production of sperm and sexual maturation. It is found in fish, meat, poultry, legumes, nuts, vegetables and whole grains.
- Amy Height, 2017, Everything you need to know about vitamins, The Warm Up
- 2019, Vitamins and minerals: What’s the difference and what are they for? NIB
- 2020, Difference between vitamins and minerals, Byjus
- 2020, The difference between vitamins and minerals, Faithful to Nature
- 2013, Minerals: Their functions and sources, University of Michigan