THE 28 ESSENTIAL VITAMINS & MINERALS (AND BEST FOOD SOURCES)

“Without an adequate supply of micronutrients, not only are we less likely to sleep deeply, recover briskly from exercise, ward off sickness and fully exploit our brainpower, we get hungry. And we stay hungry." ~Brendan Brazier, Endurance Athlete & Author


THERE ARE AT LEAST 28 ESSENTIAL MICRONUTRIENTS

Today we’re examining the 14 vitamin and 14 mineral groups which are formally recognized as essential for human survival and health, along with the best dietary sources for each. There are several other nutrients that many researchers believe should also be recognized as essential for human health, including minerals like boron, silica and sulfur. We’ll cover information for those as well.


HOW I ORGANIZE MICRONUTRIENTS

I generally organize vitamins and minerals in the following way…


First, water-soluble vitamins: These include the 8 B vitamins (which includes choline) as well as vitamin C. These micronutrients tend to be more fragile and are more easily affected by things like light, heat and time.


Next, fat-soluble vitamins: This includes 4 vitamins- A, D, E and K (which includes K1 and K2). These micronutrients are best utilized by the body when accompanied by a dietary fat.


Then, major minerals: The major minerals are calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and chloride (a minority of researchers may also include sulfur here). These 6 major minerals are also electrolytes- a substance that help produce an electrically conducive solution when dissolved in a solvent like water or blood. Major minerals are more stable than vitamins and are typically needed by the body in relatively large amounts when compared to trace minerals.


Finally, trace minerals: The 8 micronutrients here include chromium, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium and zinc (a few researchers may also include boron and silica here). Like major minerals, trace minerals tend to be more stable than vitamins, but unlike major minerals they are only needed in relatively small amounts.



MAIN DATA SOURCES FOR THE INFO BELOW

The following data sources were used for the nutritional information that follows…

1. USDA Food Data Central-> https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/

2. Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Info. Center-> http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic

3. George Mateljan Foundation-> www.whfoods.com (site no longer active as of 09/2021)

4. SELF Nutrition Data Nutrient Search Tool-> http://nutritiondata.self.com/tools/nutrient-search


COMMON PROBLEMATIC FOODS

NOT INCLUDED BELOW

I’ve chosen to leave out micronutrient info on some of the more problematic and allergenic foods, including…

· conventional wheat (high in gluten)

· soy products (except naturally fermented soy foods like tempeh, miso and natto)

· peanuts (can be high in mold mycotoxins)

· cashews, pistachios and mangos (the latter 3 are members of the botanical family that includes poison ivy and can contain urushiol oil, which can irritate soft tissue)

· some nightshade veggies (namely eggplant but also peppers and tomato, although the clinical evidence for these being problematic is relatively low)

· mushrooms (certain types are a worm/parasite risk, such as oyster mushrooms which often contain white worms, the larval stage of a type of black beetle)

· pork (Trichinosis can be caused by parasites found in pork, although the disease is relatively rare today)

· shellfish

· canola oil (a rapeseed oil hybrid; most varietals are low in erucic acid, which has been shown to be pathogenic in animals).


Dairy products (including milk, yogurt and cheese) have been included, despite many people having sensitivities to dairy (specifically lactose and A1 beta casein protein). [1-10]


VITAMIN & MINERAL AMOUNTS FOR THE SAME FOOD CAN VARY SIGNIFICANTLY

(AND WHAT WE’RE DOING ABOUT THAT)

Micronutrient amounts for many foods can fluctuate significantly, depending on several factors, including seed varietal (or breed type for animal foods), soil content, growing methods, animal husbandry methods and food preparation methods (to name just a few). As such I’ve made some approximation when data from various sources has been conflicting. [11]


Note that the average vitamin and mineral content of many foods has dropped over the last 50+ years, likely due to changes in factors like seed selection, soil care, fertilizer use, modern conventional growing methods, and certain food preservation and preparation techniques. [12]


AREAS WE'RE COVERING FOR EACH MICRONUTRIENT

For each essential vitamin and mineral we’ll be looking at several things, including…


PRIMARY & SECONDARY ROLES: In other words, what the nutrient does in the body (or why the body needs it).


RDA: The recommended dietary allowance. Set by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), this is the daily amount advised for good health, although many researchers regularly dispute the RDA guidelines. [13]

Linus Pauling, two-time Nobel prize winner and nutritional researcher said, “No evidence compels the conclusion that the minimum required intake of any vitamin comes close to the optimum intake that sustains good health.”


THERAPEUTIC DOSE: This is the daily dosage amount most often needed to stimulate a significant, positive health effect.


THERAPEUTIC DOSES FROM FOOD ALONE? We’ll try to answer the question “Will most adults be able to get truly therapeutic doses of this nutrient from food alone, or will they likely need to use a supplement to achieve therapeutic levels?”


TOLERABLE UPPER INTAKE LEVEL (UL): Set by the IOM, taking more than this amount may carry a risk of negative side effects, although many researchers regularly dispute these thresholds as well. [13]


CAN WE OVERDOSE FROM FOOD ALONE? We’ll try to answer the question, “Can we overdose on this nutrient from food sources alone?”


BEST FOOD SOURCES: For most nutrients we’ll cover the top 5-8 food sources. For some nutrients, only a few foods contain significant amounts of the nutrient in question. For example, for sodium and chloride, the only significant dietary source is salt.


SERVING SIZES: Some controversy exists over current serving size guidelines. Also, different researchers use different serving sizes for the same foods, further adding confusion to the body of research. I have attempted to clear up some of the confusion by creating what is (hopefully) a more accurate serving size guide (i.e. more reflective of actual serving sizes consumed by American adults) and have modified some original data to reflect this.


Also, for the foods we’re discussing today, I’ll indicate the percentage of the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for adults that food has of the nutrient in question. For example, the RDA for adults for Vitamin B1 (thiamin) is 1.5mg. Our top food source for thiamin is sunflower seeds, which contains 40% of the RDA at ¼ cup serving.


IS DEFICIENCY COMMON? For each nutrient we’ll cover if deficiency is common and if so, who may be at increased risk. Common deficiency is sometimes defined as when less than 60% of the population is meeting the EAR for that micronutrient (EAR is ~20% less than the RDA).


For some nutrients I may also share some additional bits of information I found interesting or helpful.


Without further ado, let’s look at the 28 essential vitamins and minerals and the best food sources for each!


1. VITAMIN B1/THIAMIN

PRIMARY & SECONDARY ROLES: Primarily thiamin is used to promote energy and support basic metabolism. Secondarily thiamin plays a role in cardiovascular, neurological and digestive health.


RDA & THERAPEUTIC DOSE: The RDA for adults is 1.5mg and the therapeutic dose for adults is 500-1000mg/day.


THERAPEUTIC DOSES FROM FOOD ALONE? Generally, therapeutic doses can’t be achieved with food alone, although regular intake of foods high in thiamin can help prevent beriberi, a disease caused by thiamin deficiency.


TOLERABLE UPPER INTAKE LEVEL (UL): The UL for adults is 1-8g/day, although some studies have shown that thiamin is nontoxic even at excessive doses. [14]


CAN WE OVERDOSE FROM FOOD ALONE? No.


BEST FOOD SOURCES:

1. Sunflower seeds (1/4 cup) 40% of RDA

2. Oats, cooked (1 cup) 35%

3. Barley, cooked (1 cup) ~35%

4. Black or navy beans, cooked (1 cup) ~35%

5. Green peas, cooked (1 cup) ~30%

6. Lentils or pinto beans, cooked (1 cup) ~25%


In short, grains like oats and barley, and legumes like beans, lentils and peas are some of the best sources of thiamin.


IS DEFICIENCY COMMON? While more prevalent in the past, thiamin deficiency (beriberi) is currently not common in the United States. Populations at increased risk include those dealing with alcoholism, people on extreme diets and refugees relying on emergency food aid. [15]


OTHER NOTES: Consuming large amounts of caffeine can inhibit thiamin absorption.


2. VITAMIN B2/RIBOFLAVIN

PRIMARY & SECONDARY ROLES: Primarily riboflavin is used to promote energy and support basic metabolism, as well as iron metabolism. Secondarily, riboflavin plays a role in cardiovascular and nervous system health (riboflavin supplements are often used to treat migraines).


RDA & THERAPEUTIC DOSE: The RDA for adults is 1.7mg and the therapeutic dose for adults is 400-1200mg/day.


THERAPEUTIC DOSES FROM FOOD ALONE? Generally, therapeutic doses can’t be achieved with food alone, although regular intake of foods high in riboflavin can help prevent riboflavin deficiency.


TOLERABLE UPPER INTAKE LEVEL (UL): Has not been set.


CAN WE OVERDOSE FROM FOOD ALONE? No.


BEST FOOD SOURCES:

1. Beef liver (4oz) 300%

2. Eggs (3 eggs) 55%

3. Tempeh (4oz) 30%

4. Milk (8oz or 1 cup) 30%

5. Spinach, cooked (1 cup) 25%


The main source of riboflavin in Western diets comes from dairy products (including eggs and milk).


IS DEFICIENCY COMMON? Riboflavin deficiency is not common in the general U.S. population but is relatively common in certain groups- especially those who don’t consume any meat or dairy products. [16]

OTHER NOTES: Riboflavin is adversely affected by light. For example, 50% of B2 in milk is destroyed after 2 hours of sunlight exposure. Bright colored urine is often the result of consuming high amounts of supplemental vitamin B2. Flavin comes from the Latin “flavus”, meaning “yellow.” [17]


3. VITAMIN B3/NIACIN

PRIMARY & SECONDARY ROLES: Niacin plays a primary role in energy production as well as skin, cardiovascular and nervous system health. Niacin plays more of a secondary role in enzyme functioning and digestive health.


RDA & THERAPEUTIC DOSE: The RDA for adults is 20mg and the therapeutic dose for adults is 100-3000mg/day.


THERAPEUTIC DOSES FROM FOOD ALONE? Generally, therapeutic doses can’t be achieved with food alone, although regular intake of foods high in niacin can help prevent niacin deficiency, which results in a condition called pellagra. Pellagra is marked by 3 common symptoms- dermatitis (skin), dementia (neurological) and diarrhea (digestive). If untreated pellagra can result in death.


TOLERABLE UPPER INTAKE LEVEL (UL): The UL for niacin is set at 35mg, in part because certain forms of supplemental niacin (namely nicotinic acid or “flush” niacin) can cause the skin to flush (temporarily turn red due to increased blood flow) at higher doses. This effect often doesn’t happen until at least 100mg is consumed (100, 250 and 500mg capsules are commonly available), and the flush effect itself is part of what makes nicotinic acid therapeutic for the cardiovascular system.


CAN WE OVERDOSE FROM FOOD ALONE? No.


BEST FOOD SOURCES:

(4oz serving size for all):

1. Tuna 115%

2. Beef liver 95%

3. Chicken 85%

4. Turkey 85%

5. Salmon 60%


Fish and poultry are some of the best food sources of niacin.


IS DEFICIENCY COMMON? Niacin deficiency (including pellagra) is uncommon in industrialized nations, although those living in poverty, refugees and those on a protein-deficient diet are more at risk. The form of niacin found in animal foods is more bioavailable than that found in plant sources. Cooked brown rice (1 cup) and sweet potato (1 large potato or 1 cup) contain around 15% of the RDA for niacin and are some of the best plant sources for niacin. As such strict vegans may be at increased risk of deficiency. [18]



4. VITAMIN B5/PANTOTHENIC ACID

PRIMARY & SECONDARY ROLES: Pantothenic acid plays a primary role in energy production, skin and respiratory health, and a somewhat more secondary role in enzyme functioning.


RDA & THERAPEUTIC DOSE: The RDA for adults is 10mg and the therapeutic dose for adults is 2-10g/day.


THERAPEUTIC DOSES FROM FOOD ALONE? Generally, therapeutic doses can’t be achieved with food alone, although regular intake of foods high in vitamin B5 can help prevent deficiency (which is extremely rare).


TOLERABLE UPPER INTAKE LEVEL (UL): There is no UL for pantothenic acid.


CAN WE OVERDOSE FROM FOOD ALONE? No.


BEST FOOD SOURCES:

1. Beef liver (4oz) 150%

2. Avocado, raw (1 med. fruit or 1 cup) 40%

3. Eggs (3 eggs) 35%

4. Sweet potato (1 large or 1 cup) 35%

5. Lentils, cooked (1 cup) 25%

6. Milk (8oz or 1 cup) 20%

7. Chicken (4oz) 20%


Pantothenic acid is found in a variety of foods, including eggs, dairy, meat and plant foods.


IS DEFICIENCY COMMON? Vitamin B5 deficiency is very rare, in large part because of its presence in a wide variety of foods.

OTHER NOTES: Pantothenic comes from the Greek word meaning “from everywhere.”


5. VITAMIN B6/PYRIDOXINE

PRIMARY & SECONDARY ROLES: Vitamin B6 plays a notable role in energy production and general metabolism, as well as neurological health. Vitamin B6 is involved in more than 100 enzyme reactions in the body, including amino acid, fatty acid and carbohydrate metabolism.


RDA & THERAPEUTIC DOSE: The RDA for adults is 2mg and the therapeutic dose for adults is 50-200mg/day.


THERAPEUTIC DOSES FROM FOOD ALONE? Generally, therapeutic doses can’t be achieved with food alone, although regular intake of foods high in vitamin B6 can help prevent deficiency.


TOLERABLE UPPER INTAKE LEVEL (UL): The UL for vitamin B6 is 100mg. Studies have shown that a habit of consuming more than 200-250mg a day can lead to nervous system dysfunction, including peripheral neuropathy. While sometimes this is due to excessive supplementation, it’s often due to excessive consumption of energy drinks containing high amounts of B6.


CAN WE OVERDOSE FROM FOOD ALONE? No.


BEST FOOD SOURCES:

1. Tuna (4oz) 70%

2. Turkey (4oz) 55%

3. Salmon (4oz) 45%

4. Chicken (4oz) 40%

5. Beef (4oz) 40%

6. Sweet potato or potato (1 large or 1 cup) 30%


The best food sources of vitamin B6 are animal foods, including fish, poultry and beef.


IS DEFICIENCY COMMON? Vitamin B6 deficiency is not uncommon in the general population (10.5% of U.S. population in 2012) and relatively common in certain susceptible populations, including alcoholics, those on very low protein diets, those with gastrointestinal or renal conditions and the elderly. For instance, in a 2013 study of 61 residents of a nursing home (average age of 85), half were found to be deficient in vitamin B6. Other studies have shown that B6 is more bioavailable in animal than plant foods, meaning strict vegans may also be at increased risk of deficiency. [19-20]


6. VITAMIN B7/BIOTIN

PRIMARY & SECONDARY ROLES: Vitamin B7 plays a primary role in hair and nail health, as well as neurological health.


RDA & THERAPEUTIC DOSE: The RDA for adults is 300mcg and the therapeutic dose for adults is 1-30mg a day. Doses up to 300mg/day have been used with certain neurological conditions. High dose biotin (10mg/day or more) is known to cause acne in certain people.


THERAPEUTIC DOSES FROM FOOD ALONE? A diet high in eggs (more than 6 a day) could allow someone to reach therapeutic doses of biotin from food alone.


TOLERABLE UPPER INTAKE LEVEL (UL): There is no UL for biotin.


CAN WE OVERDOSE FROM FOOD ALONE? No.


BEST FOOD SOURCES:

1. Beef liver (4oz) 135%

2. Eggs (3 eggs) 80%-190% (average of 135%)

3. Almonds (1/4 cup) 50%


Eggs tend to be the best and most common source of biotin in the diets of Americans.


IS DEFICIENCY COMMON? Despite the fact that only a few foods contain relatively high amounts of biotin, biotin deficiency is highly uncommon. [21]


7. VITAMIN B9/FOLATE

One of the challenges with vitamin B9, especially when it comes to surveying the clinical literature, is differentiating between folate and folic acid. Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9 (found in foods) while folic acid is a synthetic form. Folic acid is more heat-stable than folate, which is one of the reasons it’s used in food fortification and supplements more than folate. However, high intake of folic acid has been shown to increase the risk of unmetabolized folic acid in the blood, which can cause several adverse health issues. [22]


PRIMARY & SECONDARY ROLES: Folate plays a primary role in energy production, nervous system functioning, red blood cell production and cellular detox (folate helps remove high levels of homocysteine from the blood).


RDA & THERAPEUTIC DOSE: The RDA for adults is 400mcg and the therapeutic dose for adults is 400mcg to 15mg a day.


THERAPEUTIC DOSES FROM FOOD ALONE? Yes, it’s generally not difficult to obtain therapeutic doses of folate from food alone (a diet high in “beans and greens” will usually accomplish this).


TOLERABLE UPPER INTAKE LEVEL (UL): The UL for folate is 1000mcg (or 1mg), although dosages above this amount (via nutritional supplement) are common for certain conditions (ex. MTHFR gene mutation). One of the reasons the UL for folate is set at 1mg/day is because high doses of folate can mask vitamin B12 deficiency. [23]


CAN WE OVERDOSE FROM FOOD ALONE? While it’s not overly difficult to consume well over 1mg/day of folate via diet, cases of toxicity arising from consumption of too much dietary folate are very rare.


BEST FOOD SOURCES:

1. Lentils, cooked (1 cup) 90%

2. Pinto or garbanzo beans, cooked (1 cup) 75%

3. Asparagus, cooked (1 cup) 65%

4. Spinach, cooked (1 cup) 65%

5. Black, navy, kidney beans, cooked (1 cup) 60%

6. Broccoli, cooked (1 cup) 40%


Beans (including lentils, pinto, garbanzo, black, navy and kidney beans) and green veggies (including asparagus, spinach and broccoli) are the best dietary sources of folate.


IS DEFICIENCY COMMON? Folate deficiency in pregnant women can result in neural defects in baby. In a study that looked at 39 countries over a 15 year period (2000-2014), the prevalence of folate deficiency was greater than 20% in many lower income countries but was typically less than 5% in countries with higher income economies (in part because of folic acid fortification efforts). [24]


OTHER NOTES: With nutritional supplements, 5-MTHF (which is an active, tissue-ready form of folate) is highly preferred to folic acid.



8. VITAMIN B12/COBALAMIN

PRIMARY & SECONDARY ROLES: Vitamin B12 plays a primary role in energy production, nervous system health and red blood cell production.


RDA & THERAPEUTIC DOSE: The RDA for adults is 6mcg and the therapeutic dose for adults is 1,000-15,000mcg a day.


THERAPEUTIC DOSES FROM FOOD ALONE? Generally, therapeutic doses can’t be achieved with food alone, although regular intake of foods high in vitamin B12 can help prevent deficiency.


TOLERABLE UPPER INTAKE LEVEL (UL): A UL for vitamin B12 has not been set, due to its low level of toxicity.


CAN WE OVERDOSE FROM FOOD ALONE? No.


BEST FOOD SOURCES: (4oz serving size for all below)

1. Beef liver 1500%

2. Salmon 235%

3. Tuna, cod 110%

4. Beef, lamb, bison 100%


The best dietary sources of vitamin B12 are animal foods, including fish (salmon, tuna, cod) and red meat.


IS DEFICIENCY COMMON? In the Unites States, approximately 6% of adults ages 20-60 have vitamin B12 deficiency (roughly 1 in 15 people). However, the rate is closer to 20% in those 60 years old and older. Other populations at increased risk include strict vegans and those with gastrointestinal conditions (where absorption of B12 is more difficult). Additionally, some medications interfere with B12 utilization. [25]


OTHER NOTES: Vitamin B12 is the only vitamin containing a metal (cobalt). A healthy adult can generally store about 2 years-worth of B12 in their liver. In supplement form, methyl, hydroxo and adenosyl forms are preferred to cyanocobalamin.


Keep your eyes peeled for parts 2 and 3 on this topic, which will cover choline, vitamin C, the 4 fat soluble vitamins and the 14 essential minerals!



SOURCES

1 https://farrp.unl.edu/informallbig8 (8 common food allergies, including soy, shellfish, wheat, peanuts, eggs, milk, tree nuts, fish)

2 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4414527/ (2015 review of allergy basics; includes discussion of wheat, peanuts, eggs, milk, tree nuts, fish [doesn’t include soy, shellfish])

3 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5123910/ (2016 review of food allergies; includes discussion of soy, shellfish, wheat, peanuts, eggs, milk, tree nuts, fish)

4 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5940350/ (2018 review of food allergies; includes discussion of soy, shellfish, wheat, peanuts, eggs, milk, tree nuts, fish)

5 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-do-cashews-mangoes-and-poison-ivy-have-in-common/

6 https://www.healthline.com/health/nightshade-vegetables-and-inflammation

7 https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/trichinellosis/gen_info/faqs.html

8 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2691543/ (1989; food safety & health effects of canola oil)

9 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/766575/ (1975; pathological effects of rapeseed oil)

10 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6414033/ (2019; rapeseed oil reduced laying production in hens)

11 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21929333/ (2011; micronutrient composition higher in organic vs conventionally grown foods)

12 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15637215/ (changes in food micronutrient composition; 1950-1999)

13 https://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Dietary_Reference_Intakes.aspx

14 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482360/ (2021; thiamin non toxic even at excessive doses)

15 https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/116930-overview#a6 (thiamin deficiency worldwide)

16 https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/77/6/1352/4689829 (2003 on riboflavin and health; deficiency common in populations whose diets lack dairy and meat)

17 https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article-abstract/3/4/126/1938801?redirectedFrom=PDF (1945; the destruction of riboflavin by sunlight/UV light)

18 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557728/ (2021; stat pearls on niacin)

19 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470579/ (2021 stat pearls on vitamin B6 deficiency)

20 https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2318-13-13 (2013 study; of 61 nursing home residents, 50% were vitamin B6 deficient)

21 https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/984803-overview (info on biotin deficiency)

22 https://www.medicinenet.com/which_is_better_folic_acid_or_folate/article.htm

23 https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/folic-acid/

24 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6282622/ (2018 review of folate status of women in 39 countries)

25 https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/