Antoine Lavoisier

It was the French scientist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) who discovered that the building blocks of chemical components (proteins, fats, carbohydrates, …) consist of the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. His theories paved the way for future discoveries about the building blocks of cells. It was soon revealed that all organisms are built from the same six essential elemental ingredients: carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and sulfur (S).

The elements

On top of the six elements mentioned above, the human body also contains inorganic compounds (also called minerals) to support life processes. Minerals are the ‘mortar and bricks’ of our body; all bodily processes depend upon the action and presence of minerals. They are building blocks of our skeleton, cells and tissues, as well as important components of enzymes, vitamins and hormones. When dissolved in a watery substance, minerals maintain fluid balance within body cells and acidity levels. Table salt (NaCl) contains positive and negative ions. When you dissolve it in water, it is broken up into positively and negatively charged ions. We call these electrolytes.

Approximately 4% of the human body consists of minerals. An adult of 75 kg contains about 3 kg of minerals. Because your body cannot make minerals, they must come from your diet. Minerals are therefore essential nutrients. At least 18 of them are considered crucial in our diet. They are all essential to life; without them you wouldn’t be able to function properly, grow or procreate.

Minerals can be divided into two main categories, based on the amount that is needed by the body.

1. Macro-minerals. They are present in relatively large amounts in the body and are required in fairly large amounts in the diet —more than 100 milligrams daily. Calcium is the most common and abundant mineral that accounts for approximately 2% of an adult body.

An adult of 75 kg contains about 1,5 kg of calcium. Over 99% is found primarily in bones and teeth. Major minerals are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chlorine, magnesium and sulfur.

2. Micro minerals or trace minerals. Trace minerals are required by the body in amounts of less than 100 mg/day. Iodine, for instance, accounts for only 0,00003 % of our body, which equals 0,0225 milligram. Nevertheless, iodine is an essential element that enables the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormones. Minor minerals are iron, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, fluoride, chromium, cobalt, selenium, molybdenum, silicon and vanadium.

A healthy and balanced diet consisting of milk and dairy products, meat or meat substitutes, fish, fresh vegetables and fruit contains sufficient amounts of all essential major and minor minerals. Not only the amount of minerals in food is important, but also the body’s ability to utilize them. Not all minerals are easily absorbed and some combinations are better avoided. For instance, a combination of sodium and potassium is easily soluble, while you should avoid taking calcium and iron together because they might interfere with one another. Those minerals that are not easily absorbed need to be taken in higher quantities in order to get the appropriate amount.

Minerals and other nutrients

Certain minerals are only absorbed by the body in combination with other nutrients. Iron, for instance, needs vitamin C to better absorb in the blood stream, whereas other nutrients might interfere with the absorption of minerals. The absorption of calcium, iron and zinc is slowed down when tannin (in tea) or phytic acid are present. The latter (inositol hexakisphosphate), which is present in brown rice, chelates (forms complex bonds) and thus makes certain important minerals unsolvable. This causes them to be excreted by the body unused. The body stores a small amount of minerals in the muscles, liver and bones, which it will retrieve when it needs them. If you have excessive amounts of minerals in your diet, the excess is usually excreted and causes no harm.

Overview important minerals

Mineral Chemical name Function DRA mg/day*) Can be found in …
Sodium Na Sodium and potassium work together to help control the body's water balance and to regulate pressure within and between the cells. 1200 – 1500 Table salt, seaweed, crustaceans, fish and fish products, smoked meat, bacon.
Potassium K Sodium and potassium work together to help control the body's water balance and to regulate pressure within and between the cells. 4500 – 4700 Citrus fruit, fish, nuts, green leaf vegetables, bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, apple syrup.
Calcium Ca Build and maintain bones and teeth; regulate muscle contractions; control heartbeat and blood pressure. 1000 – 1300 Milk and dairy products, cheese, soy, salmon, nuts, green vegetables.
Phosphorus P Phosphates are involved in energy, fat and protein metabolism; The central role of phosphates in life processes is indicated by their occurrence in DNA and RNA. 700 – 1250 Fish, poultry, meat, cereals, eggs, nuts, seeds.
Magnesium Mg Stimulates enzyme activity in body cells; produces and transports energy. 240 – 420 Figs, citrus fruits, nuts, seeds, green vegetables, apples.
Iron Fe Iron is necessary for oxygen transport in the blood. 8 – 18 Liver, heart, kidneys, sea mussels, oysters, red meat, egg yolk, nuts and seeds.

Cu A component of many different enzymes and important to pigment formation and development of bone and connective tissue. Also required for proper clotting of blood. 0.7 – 0.9 Beans, peas, prunes, liver, prawns, fish, nuts.
Zinc Zn More than 200 different enzymes depend on zinc for their ability to catalyze vital chemical reactions (insulin, growth hormone, sex hormone, … ). 8 – 11 All types of meat, wheat germs, yeast, eggs, vegetables, fish.
Manganese Mn Manganese activates many important enzymes in the body, including the development of sex hormones and the formation of proteins. It also improves glucose tolerance in the blood. 1.9 – 2.3 Vegetable foods such as cereals, pulse crops, nuts, vegetables and fruit.
Iodine I Iodine is the main building block of thyroid hormones T3 and T4. It is essential for normal growth and development. 0.12 – 0.15 Our diet does not supply sufficient amounts of iodine. Get iodine from iodine-enriched salt and bread enriched with potassium iodide.
Fluoride F Fluorine strengthens bones and teeth. 2.0 – 4.0 Seaweed, fish and crustaceans are rich in fluorine. Most people get their fluorine from brushing their teeth with toothpaste that contains fluoride.
Chromium Cr Not a lot is known about the functions that chromium is involved in. 0.025 – 0.035 Chromium is mostly found in meat, liver, whole grain products, oysters, mushrooms and egg yolk.
Cobalt Co Cobalt is an essential component of vitamin B12. Unknown All foods rich in vitamin B12 are also rich in cobalt.
Selenium Se Works with vitamin E to protect cells from damage caused by oxidation by free radicals (antioxidant). It reduces toxicity of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. 0.04 – 0.06

Present in all protein products. Tripe, chicken, eggs, sea fish, crustaceans, garlic.
Molybdenum Mo Molybdenum is a building block of enzyme structures that play an important role in the metabolism of fatty acids, detoxification of alcohol and iron. 0.034 – 0.045 Lentils, peas, cauliflower, spinach, brown rice, garlic, cereals.
Silicon Si Important to the formation of connective tissues, like ligaments and tendons. We use it, along with calcium, to grow and maintain strong bones. Unknown Whole grain products, root vegetables.

*) DRA = Dietary Reference Allowance. Amounts in microgram per day, based on average healthy adults of respectively 165 lbs (male) and 140 lbs (female). Recommendation from The American Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine

R.E. = Retinol Equivalent
mcg = microgram = 1/1000 milligram