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The Theme of Chemistry Meets Biology in Atoms, Molecules, and Ions

Vitamins in Our Diet

There are certain elements, molecules, and compounds our bodies need to function. There are the obvious molecules like oxygen, O2, that we need a lot of, but there are also chemicals that our body needs to function, even if it's a smaller amount.

We're referring to vitamins and minerals. These micronutrients help regulate our metabolism. Metabolism, in case you were wondering, is the biological term that is used to describe all chemical reactions involved in making your body function. Vitamins and minerals are the building blocks of blood and bone. They maintain muscles and nerves throughout our bodies. They are essential.

Each government has a set standard of nutrients that they recommend their citizens ingest each day. In the United States these figures are released by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) while Canada has a standard called the Recommended Nutrient Intake (RNI).5,6 These guidelines not only indicate how much of each micronutrient you should ingest, but also the best way to ingest them. So eat your spinach.

The best way to achieve nutrient bliss is to eat a well balanced diet. Research has shown that some micronutrients are better absorbed when they are ingested as food rather than in pill form. Sometimes, however, we may need to take a multivitamin supplement when it isn't possible to get the recommended nutrient intake through diet alone. There are also certain conditions such as pregnancy that definitely merit increased intake of certain micronutrients.


A balanced diet is the best way to go. (Image from here.)

It's surprising how many vitamins and other dietary supplements are on the market. How does anyone what to chose? And are they even necessary?

The label on a bottle of supplements lists all the vitamins and minerals the supplements contain. It also lists the form and source of each vitamin and mineral and the amount of each. The form of a mineral is especially important to know because it affects the quantity your body can use successfully. In other words, you have to know your science.

Here's a quick example. Suppose a supplement contains 650 mg of calcium carbonate, CaCO3, per tablet. Does this mean there is 650 mg of calcium in the tablet? Nope. Brush up on your stoichiometry skills here. In fact, it means the tablet only has 58 mg of calcium. Not only that, but supplements can contain different sources of minerals that might be easier for your body to ingest. A more ingestible and absorbable source of calcium, for example, is calcium gluconate.7


What is in that thing? (Image from here.)

Quality control is also something to consider when choosing a supplement. Multivitamin manufacturers employ chemists to ensure that the products they make have the right balance of micronutrients. These chemists analyze the raw materials in the supplements using lots of fancy machines that analyze almost everything in the tablet. Each country has a set of guidelines and standards that manufacturers must follow including a strict set of testing guidelines. These governmental agencies also help ensure that each bottle of product contains exactly what the label indicates. What we're getting at here is it's probably not advisable to pick up a bottle of supplements in a dark alley downtown. Instead, go with a name-brand from a company that is trusted.

How do the quality control chemists test their products? First, they prepare samples of the raw materials from which the supplements will be made. They label the samples according to the lot of materials from which the samples were taken. The samples are weighed and the vitamins are extracted from the samples. At the same time, standard solutions containing a known quantity of each vitamin are prepared. It sounds like experiments you've done in class, doesn't it? That's what being a quality control chemist is all about.

Next, the chemist compares the collected samples to the standards that were just prepared by subjecting them to the same tests. These test can include GC-MS (Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry), HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography), and many others. The chemist compares the results to make sure the information on the label is accurate and the quality of the contents are top-notch.

As we mentioned before, the best way to obtain all of the recommended daily nutrients is to eat a healthy well-balanced diet. Our lives our hectic and we don't always make the best food choices so often our bodies are lacking in several important and essential nutrients. That's why some individuals choose to supplement their diets with vitamins to make sure their bodies have all the elements it needs to perform correctly. If you choose to take a dietary supplement talk to your doctor first and do your research. Put your science skills to good use.

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