A brief history of micronutrients

Nutrients: how much, how often, which ones?

Most people can’t go more than a few minutes without air, about 3 days without water, approximately 9 to 11 days without sleep [1] and anywhere from weeks to over a year without food if they’re fat enough to start with [2] – but how long can you go without essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids)? And how much do you need of each to be healthy? We’re still far from complete answers to these questions but we can already identify foods maximizing your odds of getting a decent amount of essential nutrients. It’s a bit of a good news bad news situation.

  • In part 1 I list 55 nutrients of which there are 15 minerals, 14 vitamins, 21 amino acids and 5 fatty acids. The list is a ‘work in progress’ because the science on some nutrients remains murky
  • In part 2 I give a brief timeline overview of the more than 100 years scientific history that went into identifying nutrients essential to humans
  • In part 3 I discuss the uncertainties surrounding a few nutrients and how changing conditions determine how much attention they deserve

Nutrient table legend

Green = essential

Orange = conditionally essential or disputed science

Red = plain wrong

Blue = non-essential

A brief history of nutrients [4]

1800s

The first essential minerals discovered to be important in the health of animals was iodine, iron and zinc in 1820, 1872 and 1873, respectively. Iodine was discovered as a treatment for goiter, iron for anemia and zinc for childhood diarrhea.

Taurine, although not essential and technically a different kind of amino acid than the standard ɑ-amino acids, was synthesized from ox bile in 1827 [5]. Taurine is from ‘taurus’ which is ox in latin. Taurine is an essential nutrient for (true) carnivores like cats [6].

1900s

The first vitamins were discovered in 1912 and called ‘accessory factors’. They were initially defined as anything that cured scurvy, pellagra or beriberi. Vitamin C cures scurvy, niacin cures pellagra and vitamin thiamine cures beriberi.

In 1918 vitamin A was discovered to cure rickets in dog and in 1922 vitamin D was identified as an anti-rickets factor. Discovery is one thing, but being able to synthesize it in a lab is another. Case in point, it took 29 years for vitamin A to be synthesized by Hoffman-Laroche in 1947.

Sometimes the science catches up to existing medical practices, like in 1873 when bread was fortified with cod-liver oil by french bakers to improve the health of hospitalized children.

The British government decided to fortify bread with thiamine (vitamin B1) in the summer of 1940 which launched the era of government intervention to enact dietary nutrient recommendations. 3 years later America fortified its flour with niacin (vitamin B3), thiamin, riboflavin (vitamin B2), iron and optionally calcium, and vitamin D.

Skip to the late 1950s where 80–90% of all white bread and white “family flour” made in the US was fortified in one way or another.

From 1952 to 1955 kwashiorkor was identified in Africa as a disease of malnourishment due to a lack of protein (amino acids). What cured kwashiorkor, or marasmus which is kwashiorkor with the additional burden of insufficient calories, was breastfeeding infants for longer or increasing the consumption of animal and plant proteins. Milk and meat received special emphasis.

In the 1990s Stanley Zlotkin et al. developed a micronutrient powder to fortify your own foods at home.

2000s

By 2004 economists from a Danish think-tank stated that

investments in micronutrients have higher returns than those from investments in trade liberalization, in malaria, or in water and sanitation […] No other technology offers as large an opportunity to improve lives at such low cost and in such a short time

The history of quelling micronutrient deficiencies in the developing and developed world follows an iterative paradigm, meaning that existing strategies are cyclically tested and refined. The diagram below outlines this in both developed and developing countries.

The most notable feature of nutrient deficient diets in the developing world is their lack of animal foods which are the major dietary sources of the ‘big 3’ – vitamin A, zinc and iron. For people in both developing and developed countries, the less animal food in their diet the less nutrient dense it tended to be. The diagram below illustrates this trend.

Undoing the nutrient density knot

In one sense, eating a nutrient dense diet simply requires getting the right list of foods to eat. But thinking ‘what you eat is what you get’ isn’t quite right. Of the reasons why this is the case, two are worth emphasizing. First, some nutrients come in different versions when found in food versus when used by your body, so you must convert them to their biologically active form. This is an inefficient process causing loss of the nutrient. The other issue is that the amount of nutrients in a food are often only partially absorbed by your gut.

There are many factors affecting your ability to get the right nutrients in the right amounts according to your personal circumstance. These factors can be broadly split into

  • Diet
  • Baseline physiology
  • Pathology
  • Environment

As far as diet is concerned, the ratio in which nutrients are ingested, caloric intake, the presence or absence of substances binding nutrients and the degree of food processing all matter.

Your own baseline physiology can affect nutrient status too, like your age, sex, genetic backgrounds, hormonal profile, circadian clock, state of pregnancy and lactation [x].

Being ill or having a disease also moves the needle up or down on your nutrient needs, like if you suffered an infection, trauma, neoplasia, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or fetal growth restriction.

Lastly, environmental factors, air pollution being a major one, can change your nutrient status.

Examples of context changing our nutrient needs

Vitamin C

The less carbohydrate you eat, the lower your need is for vitamin C. Amber O’Hearn covers this in depth for us in a guest-post titled Ketogenic diet and vitamin C: the 101.

Briefly, many cells in your body use the same transport system to take up vitamin C and glucose. This results in glucose and vitamin C outcompeting each other for cellular uptake (specifically the dehydroascorbic acid version of vitamin C).

Vitamin C has important anti-oxidant functions that can be subsumed by other anti-oxidants such as glutathione when dietary carbs are low enough [7].

The extent to which other anti-oxidants do this isn’t entirely clear. In practice nevertheless, the fewer carbs you eat the less vitamin C you need. If you eat a diet on the higher carb side, fruit and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C (all the more so when fresh).

Vitamin D

Oily fish is a great source of vitamin D. Some mushrooms bathed in sunlight or UVs also produce vitamin D. If you can get enough time under the sun then it’s probably your best source of vitamin D. This is all the more true if you live closer to the equator.

Depending on how dark your skin is, you can produce about 10,000 IUs of vitamin D by tanning at high noon for about 15min if you’re around or below the 37th parallel (Los Angeles, Sicily, Japan…). The amount of radiation from sunlight you need to reach these 10,000 IUs is known as the erythemal dose (MED).

It’s defined as “the amount of UV radiation that will produce minimal erythema (sunburn or redness caused by engorgement of capillaries) of an individual’s skin within a few hours following exposure” [8].

This’s what you’re aiming for on a daily basis, redder/darker skin without the burn. Dark skinned people will need more time under the sun or more vitamin D from food.

When obtaining vitamin D from the sun your body is particularly good at regulating how much it needs by degrading any excess. How long you need under the sun to get your MED depends on

  • latitude
  • how much vitamin D you already have
  • the amount of skin you have exposed
  • If you have any of these health conditions or take the following drugs, respectively
    • Kidney disease, liver disease, obesity, malabsorption, skin burns or weaned with low-vitamin D breast milk
    • Anticonvulsants, glucocorticoids, HAART (AIDS treatment) and anti-rejection meds
  • How pale or dark your skin is

Vitamin D research pioneer Dr.Holick’s gives the following guidelines for how long your sun exposure needs to be. “For pale skin, the exposure time for one MED in the summer noonday sun in the southern United States is about 4-10 minutes; for dark skin, such as for African Americans, the corresponding time is 60-80 minutes. Exposure times should be 25 – 50%of the MED” [9]

Nearly all other essential or conditionally-essential nutrients are obtained from food, yet vitamin D can be eaten and produced by tanning. Is our sun an essential Atomic Vitamin?

Nutrients are interdependent, meaning the amount you have of one affects how much you need of another or how much of another you can absorb.

For instance, your gut absorbs only 10% to 15% of dietary calcium and 60% of phosphorus if there isn’t enough vitamin D around.

Turn that deficiency around though and you can improve calcium absorption 30% to 40% and phosphorus a whopping 80% [10]. The more vitamin D you derive from the sun the less you’ll need from from food.

Choline

Choline is considered an essential nutrients despite there being a lack of evidence showing it and it alone is needed to reverse a deficiency induced by its absence.

In large part, this is due to the fact that the more vitamin B6, B12, folate or betaine you have, the less choline you’ll need. Those vitamins are said to spare choline, but they aren’t alone in affecting your choline needs. Alcohol, fat and sugar do that too.

Choline does a list of good things for our health, whether obtained from food or supplements, that aren’t expected to happen when it is absent [11]. It seems to be why it is now included as an essential vitamin.

Your body can makes its own choline but is limited by the amount of methionine available to it. Methionine is an essential amino acid found in large quantities in meat, fish and eggs. The cell membrane of mammals (rats, bats, cats, humans…) contain lots of choline; eggs and liver are particularly good sources.

Choline-loading recipe

Cook the eggs

  1. The eggs should take around 10min or less if you’re a good cook, so go ahead and break a few eggs in a COLD pan with a generous pad of butter
  2. Turn the heat all the way up and keep mixing the eggs like your life depends on it for about 30 seconds
  3. Leave the heat on but take the pan off it and keep mixing with the same determination
  4. If your arm fatigues recall you have another. If you don’t, buckle up buttercup
  5. Repeat this on-again off-again dance two to three times (according to how many eggs you used, you savage…)
  6. Take the pan off the heat when you think the eggs are about 80% done and add a good dollop of heavy cream (40% sour cream if you’re ballin’)
  7. The eggs are still cooking even off of the heat so keep mixing the heavy cream into them with a bit less aggression
  8. Just before you serve the eggs, add salt
  9. If you’re a gentleman or a snob depending on how you look at it, add pepper, maybe even some cumin and sprinkle a few chopped herbs on top (e.g. chives)
  10. Enjoy in good company

Cook the liver

  1. Buy fresh liver, it makes all the difference
  2. Cut it up in finger length strips
  3. Soak it in olive oil and vinegar for about 15min (if you dig spices add something like pepper, turmeric and paprika)
  4. Get the pan lightly sizzling with your preferred healthy fats choice (e.g. butter, olive oil, coconut oil…)
  5. Throw in the liver strips in for a few minutes to get them a little crisp (don’t scorch it like you might bacon, liver is more delicate)
  6. Enjoy in good company

Amino acids

It’s generally well accepted that these 9 amino acids are essential to us

  • histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine

The best source for these are animal foods. Plant foods lack certain essential amino acids [13]

  • Methionine and cysteine are low in legumes and fruit
  • Threonine is low in cereals
  • There’s considerably more lysine in animal foods than plant foods

Just to show there’s disagreement amongst top level researchers, both the distinguished Bruce Ames as well as Wu et al. [14] consider cysteine and arginine essential whilst the classic textbook for molecular biology [15] relegates them to conditionally essential.

So what exactly is meant by conditionally-essential? When everything is rolling along smoothly from the point of view of your physiology, these amino acids are produced fast enough to meet your biology’s basic needs, but when your system comes under pressure, supply no longer meets demand.

You can then make up for the missing amino acids by eating foods that contain them (e.g. shrimp). Early weaning, lactation, pregnancy, burns, injury, infection, heat stress and cold stress are examples of pressures rendering some amino acids conditionally-essential.

Fatty acids

To achieve a balance of essential fatty acids in your diet within this modern food ecosystem, you must first of all minimize your intake of high omega-6 vegetable oils (e.g. sunflower oil, soybean oil, margarine…). This comes down to avoiding junk food and some restaurants that cook with low-quality fats. Second, get your omega-3s by eating plenty of fish and meat during the week.

For the long and fascinating version of how industry, science and government got high-omega-6 vegetable oils to become a major part of western diets, read Nina Teicholz’s book the Big Fat Surprise.

So why do government recommendations identify the omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and the omega-6 fat linoleic acid (LA) as essential fatty acids? In past experiments, they failed to realize that the activity of AA and DHA was reversing the symptoms of fatty acid deficiencies, not the administered precursors LA and ALA. Although LA and ALA are precursors to AA and EPA, respectively, it is the actual activity of AA and DHA that cures deficiencies of their absence. AA is an essential fatty acid and DHA is somewhere between conditionally essential and essential [hat tip to Chris Masterjohn].

You have an enzyme called delta-6-desaturase that converts

  • the omega-6s: linoleic acid (LA) to arachidonic acid (AA)
  • the omega-3s: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

If you have an excess of the omega-6 LA (e.g. canola oil), the delta-6-desaturase enzyme will use it up to make AA and so less of the enzyme will be available for the omega-3 pathway to make DHA. Too much AA causes an imbalance in the omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio (AA:DHA) leading to chronic inflammation [16]. Recommended ratios can vary widely. The best range seems to be anywhere from 1:1 to 4:1 which is much lower than the ratios in westernized populations between 10:1 and +20: [17] !

Practically speaking, it’s much more effective for you to eat foods already containing significant amounts of EPA and DHA. In foods like fish and lamb, there’s lots of EPA and DHA that happen to be highly bioavailable. In other words, if you eat EPA and DHA from rich oily fish your body will waste very little of these fatty acids.

Conclusion

The dietary advice I think will suit most people in terms of their general health is one with a base of meat and seafood accompanied by varying portions of vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit.

Take a look at Marty Kendall’s Nutrient Optimiser which analyses the nutrient density of someone’s diet, as well as his Facebook group Optimising Nutrition and finally the Break Nutrition podcast I did with him.


Join us in our Q&A forum to ask us questions about nutrient density and how to choose the right foods for you.

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