Food is delicious and fun to eat. But the main reason we eat is not pleasure. It is to make sure that our bodies get the necessary nutrients so they can function optimally. Most of our diet comprises of large amounts of macronutrients such as fat, carbohydrates, protein, and water. But we also need small amounts of specific other molecules. We usually call these other molecules micronutrients. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, and we most often consume them by eating fruits and vegetables.
What are Vitamins?
Probably the most well-known micronutrients are vitamins. All living animals, including humans, need vitamins. Vitamins are organic compounds that fulfill key bodily functions during metabolic processes. Our bodies need vitamins to stay healthy, and a deficiency can lead to various symptoms and illnesses. For instance, a lack of Vitamin A can cause night blindness, while a deficiency in Vitamin E can result in muscle degeneration.Combs, G., 2012. The vitamins. 4th ed. New York: Elsevier Academic Press.
Water soluble vs. fat-soluble vitamins
Vitamins come in many different shapes and sizes. Based on their molecular characteristics, they can be divided into groups. Most often, these groups are fat-soluble vitamins and water-soluble vitamins. Vitamins E, D, K, and A are fat-soluble. Vitamin C and B Vitamins, on the other hand, are water-soluble.
Did you know?
”Vitamin B” is actually many different molecules. For example, another name for vitamin B1 is Thiamin and another name for vitamin B2 is riboflavin! Check out my article ”What is Vitamin B?” if you want to know more!
All vitamins are organic substances and occur naturally in our food. Water-soluble vitamins must be dissolved in water before the body can absorb them. This might sound perfect since our bodies exist of about 60% water. However, this means that when water-soluble vitamins are not absorbed, they will (mostly) leave the body with all the other redundant molecules, and we flush them down the toilet.
Fat-soluble vitamins, however, are another story. These vitamins, as you might expect, can be absorbed by fat, also known as adipose tissue. When we store vitamins in our adipose tissue, vitamins can accumulate. That also means that if someone loses weight (fat weight) rapidly, these fat-soluble vitamins can be released into the body, potentially leading to an excess of a certain type of vitamin.
What are Minerals?
Minerals are another group of essential micronutrients. They are inorganic elements that often don’t get as much attention as vitamins, but their roles are equally vital.
Want to know more?
Would you like to know more about what elements and molecules are? Check out my article ”What are molecules?” and learn all about elements and molecules!
Some common minerals that humans need in their food include calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and selenium. These minerals are involved in various bodily functions, such as bone health, nerve signalling, and immune system support.
Where can you find micronutrients?
Our primary source of micronutrients is the food we eat. Nature provides a wide array of foods rich in vitamins and minerals. A good rule of thumb is to try to eat a wide variety of colours when it comes to the fruits and vegetables that you eat. That way, you have a pretty good chance that your diet includes a solid spread of the different micronutrients.
Micronutrients and our food
Because most of the food that we eat undergoes at least some form of processing, and in many cases multiple processing steps, the micronutrient concentration in food will change between for instance harvest and when it is consumed.
Micronutrients and the Effect of Food Processing
The way we process and store food can affect the stability and concentration of micronutrients in our food. In some cases, we, for instance, remove parts of the food that hold the majority of the micronutrients. This is the case for many fruits and vegetables that can be bought without their peel. The majority of micronutrients can be found in the peel, and by removing the peel to make the food more attractive to consumers, a lot of the micronutrients are discarded.
Common processing steps involve a heat or pressure treatment. These steps are needed to make sure the food is safe to eat when stored for a longer period, but some vitamins are sensitive to heat and can be lost during these steps. This is not only a risk for the food producers who process the food, but also the food processing we do at home can decrease the micronutrient content. For instance, Vitamin C is heat-sensitive, so overcooking vegetables can lead to a significant loss of this micronutrient.
Another example is that several micronutrients can degrade due to exposure to sunlight and others are sensitive to oxygen exposure. On top of the degradation due to processing steps and storage, additives or combining different types of food with different molecules in their food matrix can also cause degradation.
Did you know?
Food matrix is a fancy way of describing all the nutrient and non-nutrient components of food and how all these molecules interact and react with each other. [Ref]https://agclass.nal.usda.gov/vocabularies/nalt/concept?uri=https://lod.nal.usda.gov/nalt/17238[/Ref]
Food fortification is the process of adding essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to food products to improve their nutritional content. This is done to address specific nutrient deficiencies in a population and enhance the overall health and well-being of consumers. Food fortification is a critical strategy used by governments, food manufacturers, and public health organizations to combat malnutrition and improve public health outcomes.
Food Fortification: let’s toss in some of those amazing micronutrients!
In earlier decades of the 1900s, researchers became aware of micronutrient deficiencies within some countries and specific regions within countries. The researchers found that certain diseases were more common in some populations because of a lack of specific micronutrients. A lack of vitamin D, for instance, can lead to rickets https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/ and insufficient iodine is required for healthy brain development.https://www.who.int/tools/elena/interventions/salt-iodization To increase the intake of the lacking micronutrients, food can be ”fortified” with micronutrients. So, for example, vitamin D is often added to milk and iodine to salt, to help reduce the prevalence of rickets and to support healthy brain development in fetuses and young children respectively.
So the primary goal of food fortification is to ensure that people receive an adequate intake of vital nutrients in their diet, even if they consume a limited variety of foods. This is especially important in regions with certain nutrient deficiencies or limited access to a wide variety of food. Fortified foods can help bridge the nutritional gap, reducing the risk of related health problems.
Food fortification is a cost-effective and sustainable way to improve public health because it doesn’t require individuals to change their dietary habits significantly. It reaches a broad population, including vulnerable groups like children and pregnant women, who are at higher risk of nutrient deficiencies.
So while micronutrients might be small, their impact on our health is colossal. They are essential for various bodily functions, and a deficiency can lead to various health issues. To ensure you’re getting an adequate supply of micronutrients, make sure you eat the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. If you want to know more about what a healthy diet looks like, I recommend that you take a look at your country’s dietary guidelines. These guidelines are based on food availability and customs in your country and explain in a great way how you can ensure your diet is healthy. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has created a great webpage where you can easily find the dietary guidelines for each country or region. Check out their interactive map here.
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