Vitamins, minerals, herbals: What’s the difference?

Supplements are in the news everywhere you turn: Try this vitamin, it’ll help you see better. Take this mineral because it will improve your bone density. This herbal will make you feel less tired. So, how do you know if you need to take any of these? How is one different from the other?

Supplements is the name for a broad category of things that the body needs to be healthy. The main ones are vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, and botanicals.


Vitamins are organic compounds essential for normal growth and nutrition. The body can’t make these compounds, so they must be consumed in small quantities through diet. There are two categories—fat-soluble and water-soluble.

Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in fat cells and need fat to be absorbed. Examples are vitamins A, D, E, and K.

  • Vitamin A helps form and maintain healthy teeth, bones, soft tissue, mucus membranes, and skin. It can be obtained from eating dark-colored fruit, dark leafy vegetables, egg yolk, fortified milk and dairy products (cheese, yogurt, butter, and cream), liver, beef, and fish.
  • Vitamin D is also called the “sunshine vitamin” because the body makes it after being in the sun. Just 10 – 15 minutes of sunshine three times a week is enough to produce the body’s vitamin D requirement for most people at most latitudes. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and maintain proper blood levels of calcium and phosphorus. Food sources of vitamin D are fish (fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring), fish liver oils (cod’s liver oil), fortified cereals, and fortified milk/dairy products (ex. cheese, yogurt, butter, and cream).
  • Vitamin E is an antioxidant also known as tocopherol. It helps the body form red blood cells and use vitamin K. It’s found in avocado, dark green vegetables (spinach, broccoli, asparagus, and turnip greens), margarine (made from safflower, corn, and sunflower oil), oils (safflower, corn, and sunflower), papaya, mango, seeds, nuts, wheat germ, and wheat germ oil.
  • Vitamin K isn’t listed among the essential vitamins, but without it, blood would not stick together (coagulate). Some studies suggest that it’s vital for bone health. Good sources include cabbage, cauliflower, cereals, dark green vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus), dark leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, collards, and turnip greens), fish, liver, beef, and eggs.

Water-soluble vitamins must be taken in each day in the amount the body needs, and the extra is gotten rid of. Examples are B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, and C.

  • Vitamin B1 or thiamin helps the body cells change carbohydrates into energy (especially important for pregnancy/breastfeeding). It’s essential for heart function and healthy nerve cells. To get enough B1, consume dried milk, eggs, enriched bread and flour, lean meats, legumes (dried beans), nuts, seeds, organ meats, peas, and whole grains.
  • Vitamin B2 or riboflavin works with the other B vitamins to help the body grow and produce red blood cells. It can be found in whole grains, enriched grains, liver, nuts, and seeds.
  • Vitamin B3 or niacin helps maintain healthy skin and nerves. It also has cholesterol-lowering effects. Avocado, eggs, enriched breads, fortified cereals, fish (tuna and salt-water fish), lean meats, legumes, nuts, potato, and poultry are good food sources.
  • Vitamin B5 or pantothenic acid is essential for the metabolism of food. It also plays a role in the production of hormones and cholesterol. Get plenty of B5 by taking in avocado, broccoli, kale, eggs, legumes, lentils, milk, mushroom, organ meats, poultry, white and sweet potatoes, and whole-grain cereals.
  • Vitamin B6 or pyridoxine assists in the formation of red blood cells and maintaining brain function. It also plays an essential role in breaking down proteins that are part of many chemical reactions in the body, which is why the more protein you eat, the more pyridoxine your body requires. You can find B6 in avocado, banana, legumes, meat, nuts, poultry, and whole grains (since milling and processing removes a lot of this vitamin).
  • Vitamin B7 or biotin is essential for the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates and for producing hormones and cholesterol. It’s found in chocolate, cereal, egg yolk, legumes, milk, nuts, organ meats (liver, kidney), pork, and yeast.
  • Vitamin B9 or folic acid works with vitamin B12 to help form red blood cells. It’s needed to produce DNA, which controls tissue growth and cell function. Low folate levels are linked to birth defects such as spina bifida, which is why many foods are now fortified with it. To consume vitamin B9, try asparagus, broccoli, beets, brewer’s yeast, dried beans (cooked pinto, navy, kidney, and lima), fortified cereals, green/leafy vegetables (spinach and romaine lettuce), lentils, oranges, orange juice, peanut butter, and wheat germ.
  • Vitamin B12 is critical for metabolism. It also helps form red blood cells and maintain the central nervous system. Good sources include meat, eggs, fortified foods, milk, milk products, organ meats (liver and kidney), poultry, and shellfish. It’s vital to note that animal sources of vitamin B12 are absorbed much better by the body than plant sources.
  • Vitamin C or ascorbic acid is an antioxidant that promotes healthy teeth and gums. It helps the body absorb iron and maintain healthy tissue. It also promotes wound healing. It can be found in broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, citrus fruits, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, tomato juice, and tomatoes.


Minerals are like vitamins in that the body doesn’t make them but needs them to be healthy. There are also two categories—macrominerals and trace minerals. You need a larger amount of macrominerals than you do of trace minerals.

Macrominerals include calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, and chloride.

  • Calcium helps build strong bones and teeth and plays a role in nerve transmissions, muscle function, and hormone secretion. It can be found in dairy products (milk and yogurt) and vegetables (kale, broccoli, and cabbage).
  • Potassium controls the electrical activity of the heart. So, it’s vital to maintain a normal heart rhythm. The body also needs it to build proteins, break down and use carbohydrates, maintain the pH balance of the blood, and support normal growth. Good sources include beef, fish, chicken, cantaloupe, potatoes, tomatoes, and lima beans.
  • Sodium stimulates nerve and muscle function, maintains the correct fluid balance in the cells, and supports the absorption of other nutrients, including chloride, amino acids, and glucose. It’s found in all food sources and doesn’t need to be added at the table.
  • Magnesium supports more than 300 biochemical reactions, such as maintaining muscle and nerve function, keeping your heart beating regularly, building strong bones, and boosting immunity. Get magnesium from beans, nuts, whole grains, and green vegetables.
  • Phosphorus is important in building strong bones and teeth, producing proteins the body needs, and repairing cells. It’s found in dairy foods, meat, and whole grains.
  • Chloride is usually consumed as a salt compound (sodium chloride), better known as table salt. Chloride balances the fluids in the body and plays an essential role in the production of digestive juices in the stomach. With the high salt content of foods, most people meet the daily.

Trace minerals serve many functions in the body and are found in various food sources. One trace mineral most people have heard of is iron, which helps produce hemoglobin and myoglobin (essential blood components). Iodine is vital for thyroid hormones, which regulate nearly every cell in the body. Manganese regulates blood sugar, enhances calcium absorption, and assists in the production of connective tissues and bones. Chromium enhances the action of insulin, making it essential in regulating blood sugar. Fluoride keeps your teeth strong and healthy. Your body needs copper, selenium, molybdenum, and zinc to produce enzymes important in various reactions throughout the body.

Amino Acids

Amino acids are simple organic compounds that proteins are made of. They also make up a large portion of the body’s cells, especially muscle and tissue. They are crucial for every metabolic process that the body performs. They are divided into essential, nonessential, and conditional.

Essential amino acids aren’t produced by the body, so they must be consumed from food sources. Examples are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Nonessential amino acids are produced by the body. Examples include alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, and glutamic acid.

Conditional amino acids aren’t needed unless the body is under stress or illness. Examples are arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.

Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, yogurt, wheat, and soybeans contain all of the essential amino acids and are considered complete proteins. Other food items have some but not all essential amino acids, so combining them together is a good way to get all of them. Examples include:

  • Beans combined with either rice or a corn or wheat tortilla
  • Rice with lentils
  • Pea soup with bread or crackers
  • Chickpeas with sesame paste
  • Pasta with beans
  • Peanut butter with bread


Enzymes are substances that the body produces to speed up biochemical reactions. Each is designed to do a specific task and is vital for life. They play a significant role in digestion and metabolism. Each enzyme helps with digesting a different item:

  • Alpha-galactosidase works on carbohydrates in legumes that cause gas
  • Amylase digests starches
  • Beta-glucanase takes care of beta-glucan, which is a special type of fiber in yeast, grains, and medicinal mushrooms
  • Cellulase breaks down cellulose (fiber) in fruits, vegetables, grains, and seeds
  • Glucoamylase focuses on maltose (sugar in grains)
  • Hemicellulase deals with plant fibers
  • Invertase is for sucrose (sugar)
  • Lactase is specifically for lactose (sugar in milk)
  • Lipase helps break down fats
  • Malt diastase is for carbohydrates
  • Pectinase digests pectin (a carbohydrate in fruits)
  • Protease focuses on proteins
  • Peptidase breaks down casein (in milk) and gluten (in grains)
  • Phytase assists with minerals bound to phytic acid in plants
  • Xylanase works on plant fibers


Botanicals are plants or parts of plants that some individuals use to try to stay healthy or to treat conditions or illnesses. Herbals are a type of botanical and usually contain one or more herbs. Talking to a doctor before using any of these to treat a medical condition is vital.

  • Black cohosh is used for menopausal conditions, painful menstruation, uterine spasms, and vaginitis.
  • Echinacea strengthens the immune system and is used as a prevention against colds and the flu.
  • Evening primrose reduces symptoms of arthritis and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
  • Feverfew helps with migraines and menstrual cramps.
  • Garlic lowers high cholesterol and triglyceride levels associated with the risk of atherosclerosis.
  • Gingko biloba improves poor circulation and memory loss.
  • Ginseng increases overall body tone, which helps elevate energy levels and improve stress resistance.
  • Goldenseal has healing properties and antiseptic qualities, so it’s used for colds and the flu to aid in soothing the nose lining when it is inflamed or sore.
  • Green tea combats fatigue, prevents arteriosclerosis and certain cancers, lowers cholesterol, and aids in weight loss.
  • Hawthorn is supportive in treating angina, atherosclerosis, heart failure, and high blood pressure.
  • Saw palmetto helps men with enlarged prostates.
  • John’s wort is used to treat mild to moderate depression.

Who needs supplements?

While there are various ways to get the proper nutrients the body needs, the best is eating healthy foods rather than taking a supplement because food has more than one nutrient.

Food contains a variety of micronutrients, natural fiber that prevents some diseases, and other substances that are good for your health. For example, phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables help fight against diseases. Another example is antioxidants that slow down oxidation, a natural process that leads to cell and tissue damage.

Supplements should be used if enough of the essential nutrients aren’t being consumed through diet. Some individuals might need supplements because of natural body changes, such as pregnant women, adults over 50 years of age, vegan/vegetarians, women who have heavy menstrual cycles, people with medical conditions that affect how the body absorbs nutrients, or people who have had surgery on the digestive tract causing it not to be able to digest nutrients properly. These can affect how your body absorbs nutrients from your food intake.

How do you choose which supplements to take?

When taking supplements, the main thing to remember is to talk to a doctor before taking any of them, especially if already taking prescription medications or other supplements, since new supplements can interact with the existing ones that could result in harmful outcomes

To avoid megadoses of nutrients, always read the label to see a list of ingredients, serving size, and amount of nutrients per serving. Another way to prevent megadoses is to choose a multivitamin that has 100% of the Daily Value (DV) of all the vitamins and minerals the body needs. Be sure to check the expiration date (if it doesn’t have one, don’t buy it and if it is expired, throw it away).

Watch the foods you eat because more and more are being fortified with vitamins and minerals making it possible to take too much of a nutrient without realizing it.

Before taking any dietary supplement, it is a good idea to ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the potential health benefits of this dietary supplement?
  • Are any of its potential benefits?
  • Are there any safety risks?
  • What is the proper dose to take?
  • How, when, and for how long should the supplement be taken?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, don’t take a supplement without talking to your health care provider first.

Essential nutrients are vital for your well-being, and by taking the time to be informed, you will have a healthier body. If you have any questions about supplements, please talk to your doctor. For more information about supplements, please visit the FDA’s page about Dietary Supplements at