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Unlike the complex organic compounds (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, vitamins) discussed in previous sections, minerals are simple inorganic elements—often in the form of salts in the body—that are not themselves metabolized, nor are they a source of energy. Minerals constitute about 4 to 6percent of body weight—about one-half as calcium and one-quarter asphosphorus (phosphates), the remainder being made up of the other essential minerals that must be derived from the diet. Minerals not only impart hardness to bones and teeth but also function broadly in metabolism, e.g., aselectrolytes controlling the movement of water in and out of cells, as components of enzyme systems, and as constituents of many organic molecules.
As nutrients, minerals are traditionally divided into two groups according to the amounts present in and needed by the body. The major minerals (macrominerals)—those required in amounts of 100 milligrams or more per day—are calcium, phosphorus (phosphates),magnesium, sulfur, sodium,chloride, and potassium. The trace elements (microminerals or trace minerals), required in much smaller amounts of about 15 milligrams per day or less, include iron, zinc, copper,manganese, iodine (iodide), selenium, fluoride, molybdenum, chromium, andcobalt (as part of the vitamin B12 molecule). Fluoride is considered a beneficial nutrient because of its role in protecting against dental caries, although an essential function in the strict sense has not been established in human nutrition.
The term ultratrace elements is sometimes used to describe minerals that are found in the diet in extremely small quantities (micrograms each day) and are present in human tissue as well; these include arsenic, boron, nickel, silicon, and vanadium. Despite demonstrated roles in experimental animals, the exact function of these and other ultratrace elements (e.g., tin, lithium, aluminum) in human tissues and indeed their importance for human health are uncertain.
Minerals have diverse functions, including muscle contraction, nerve transmission, blood clotting, immunity, the maintenance of blood pressure, and growth and development. The major minerals, with the exception of sulfur, typically occur in the body in ionic (charged) form: sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium as positive ions (cations) and chloride and phosphates as negative ions (anions). Mineral salts dissolved in body fluids help regulate fluid balance, osmotic pressure, and acid-base balance.
Sulfur, too, has important functions in ionic forms (such as sulfate), but much of the body’s sulfur is nonionic, serving as an integral part of certain organic molecules, such as the B vitamins thiamin, biotin, and pantothenic acid and the amino acids methionine, cysteine, and cystine. Other mineral elements that are constituents of organic compounds include iron, which is part of hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells), and iodine, a component of thyroid hormones, which help regulate body metabolism. Additionally, phosphate groups are found in many organic molecules, such as phospholipids in cell membranes, genetic material (DNA and RNA), and the high-energy molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
The levels of different minerals in foods are influenced by growing conditions (e.g., soil and water composition) as well as by how the food is processed. Minerals are not destroyed during food preparation; in fact, a food can be burned completely and the minerals (ash) will remain unchanged. However, minerals can be lost by leaching into cooking water that is subsequently discarded.
Many factors influence mineral absorption and thus availability to the body. In general, minerals are better absorbed from animal foods than from plant foods. The latter contain fibre and other substances that interfere with absorption. Phytic acid, found principally in cereal grains and legumes, can form complexes with some minerals and make them insoluble and thereby indigestible. Only a small percentage of the calcium in spinach is absorbed because spinach also contains large amounts of oxalic acid, which binds calcium. Some minerals, particularly those of a similar size and charge, compete with each other for absorption. For example, iron supplementation may reduce zinc absorption, while excessive intakes of zinc can interfere with copper absorption. On the other hand, the absorption of iron from plants (nonheme iron) is enhanced when vitamin C is simultaneously present in the diet, and calcium absorption is improved by adequate amounts of vitamin D. Another key factor that influences mineral absorption is the physiological need for the mineral at the time.
Unlike many vitamins, which have a broader safety range, minerals can be toxic if taken in doses not far above recommended levels. This is particularly true for the trace elements, such as iron and copper. Accidental ingestion of iron supplements has been a major cause of fatal poisoning in young children.