Vitamins and minerals are organic compounds in our bodies that fulfill a variety of metabolic processes. They’re essential for keeping us healthy and helping our body’s function. We mainly get vitamins and minerals from the food we eat, and for most of us, a varied diet that includes all five food groups which cuts out processed food is all we need to stay healthy. While the food we eat is our primary source of nutrients, supplements are also a popular alternative for many people. So, where do the nutrients found in our food and supplements come from, and why are they added to them?
Minerals vs vitamins
Vitamins are like tiny helpers in your body; often found in fruits and veggies, they help with various tasks. Minerals are more like building blocks; they come from things like soil and water, and they help with important jobs like making your bones strong.
You need different amounts of minerals and vitamins in your body, but there is a set of major minerals that are required in higher quantities each day. These include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, sodium, chloride and magnesium. Minerals other than these major ones are known as ‘trace minerals’, and while still essential, they’re required in lower amounts.
Processing minerals for our food and supplementsMinerals sourced from mining are rigorously processed before they are added into our food and supplements. The first step involves extracting mineral-rich ores through methods like crushing, grinding and leaching , followed by a purification process to filter out impurities and contaminants. After this, these refined minerals are made even safer for human consumption through chemical processes designed to allow for better absorption of the minerals by the human body. Once minerals have been properly refined, they are carefully measured and added to food and supplements during manufacturing in a process known as food fortification.
Food fortification is the process of adding essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to food to enhance nutritional content and address specific deficiencies in the diets of individuals or populations. This practice aims to improve public health by ensuring that individuals receive adequate levels of key nutrients such as iron, iodine, vitamin A and folic acid through commonly consumed foods. Fortification can target specific populations or implemented on a broader scale to address widespread nutrient gaps, helping to prevent nutritional deficiencies and the health problems associated with them.
- Large-scale food fortification: Large-scale food fortification (LSFF) is the act of adding micronutrients to staple foodstuffs like salt, flour, and oils while they’re being processed. LSFF is on the industrial scale, and so are usually under governmental control or oversight. In Australia, it is mandatory that some foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals, such as the requirement that folic acid is added to wheat flour used for making bread.
- Biofortification: Biofortification is the process of increasing the nutrient content of food crops through plant breeding, agronomic practices, or biotechnology.
- Point-of-use fortification: Point-of-use fortification is the process of adding vitamins and minerals to already cooked food that is ready to be eaten. Ending malnutrition in developing countries is an ongoing project around the world, taken on by companies and governments looking to make a difference. For instance, think tank Sight and Life has been working to end malnutrition in children and women of childbearing age around the world since 1986, and in India they have worked with the government to help fortify the nation’s rice supply - one of the staples of the population’s diet.
Main minerals mined
- Calcium: An essential mineral for bone and teeth health, calcium is abundant in dairy products, fortified plant-based milk, and certain juices.
- Iron: Important for hemoglobin production and preventing iron deficiency anemia. Iron is often added to cereals, bread, and supplements.
- Zinc: Helps strengthen the immune system, heal wounds, and DNA synthesis. Meat and dairy are good sources of Zinc.
- Magnesium: Important for muscle and nerve function. Commonly found in nuts, seeds, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables like spinach.
- Potassium: Essential for maintaining proper fluid balance and nerve function and found in many fruit and vegetables.
- Sodium: Found in salt and used to enhance flavour in various processed foods.
- Iodine: Crucial for thyroid function, iodine is added to table salt and is naturally present in seafood.
- Copper: Helps to form red blood cells and maintain bone and nerve health. Commonly found in nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
- Selenium: Acts as an antioxidant and is important for thyroid health. Commonly found in nuts, seeds, and seafood.