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Understanding Your Label: Vitamins, Minerals and Nutrients Explained!

Bottle pouring water into a glass

Supplement labels can be puzzling, I mean macro vs. micro-nutrients; vitamins vs. minerals. What do they all mean? Why do we need them? What do they do? Understanding your label can sometimes be frustrating if you don’t know what all the different things are. In this post I’ll try and break down the different components of your nutritional supplements so you have a better understanding of what you’re taking and why.

I’m going to start by talking about minerals and what they are, where they come from and what they do. The Linus Pauling Institute (which is part of Oregon State University) tells us “minerals are elements that originate in the Earth and cannot be made by living organisms.” So, as human beings, we need minerals (either from our diets or supplements) because we are unable to produce them ourselves.

Some of the best sources of minerals are plant based foods because “plants obtain minerals from the soil, and most of the minerals in our diets come directly from plants or indirectly from animal sources,” according to LPI. Examples of minerals that are necessary for proper health include calcium, iodine, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, selenium, sodium, and zinc. Each mineral plays a different role in maintaining proper health. For example, magnesium is used in our body’s production of energy, while zinc plays an important role in the release of certain hormones.

Another category of minerals is trace minerals. Trace minerals include (but are not limited to): Boron, Carbon, Chloride, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Fluoride, Gold, Iron, Molybdenum, Nickel, Rhodium, Silver, Sodium, Sulfur, Tantalum, Titanium, Tungsten, and Zirconium. People can sometimes be apprehensive about the listing of trace minerals on their supplement. The thing about trace minerals is that if the product you’re taking has any kind of plant source ingredient, sea vegetation, etc. in it then the trace minerals are coming from that ingredient. These ingredients that come from the ground receive these trace minerals from the soil they grow in. According to health-report.co.uk, “Plants take up the minerals, we eat the plants, our bodies take in the minerals because they are bio-available and excrete the ones we don’t need on a regular daily basis.”

The Linus Pauling Institute says vitamins are “organic compounds required by humans in small amounts from the diet. An organic compound is considered a vitamin if a lack of that compound in the diet results in overt symptoms of deficiency.” While most vitamins include the word “vitamin” in their popular name (such as Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, etc.) there are a couple of necessary vitamins that do not. These vitamins are commonly known as Folic Acid (vitamin B9), Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and Biotin (vitamin B7). The other vitamins required by our body to function are: Vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, C, D, E and K. Vitamins are classified as either water-soluble or fat soluble, meaning the vitamin is dissolved in either water or fat before it is absorbed into the body (more on this here). Vitamins play an important role in many functions and systems within our bodies ranging from our metabolism to the formation of blood cells to the maintenance of healthy teeth and bones.

Lastly, I’ll address the topic of nutrients, namely macro vs. micro-nutrients. Onegreenplanet.org says, “macro-nutrients are those that provide energy (calories), and include carbohydrates, protein and fat.” On the other hand, most every other vitamin and mineral is considered a micro-nutrient. Micro-nutrients “are needed only in minuscule amounts, these substances are the “magic wands” that enable the body to produce enzymes, hormones and other substances essential for proper growth and development,” according to the World Health Organization.

This has only scratched the surface of explaining about minerals, vitamins, macro vs. micro-nutrients, and all their necessary functions. In the future I may write more in depth articles on each topic, but I hope, for now, this has helped to clear up some of the confusion you may have felt when trying to decipher your multivitamin label. While it may seem daunting, when you break it down there are just lots of things the human body needs in order to operate properly.

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