Vitamins and minerals are terms that most people are familiar with. However, few really understand their role in nutrition. Vitamins and minerals should really be thought of as the nuts and bolts that hold human health together. This is because their role centres on their function as cofactors to enzymes in metabolic pathways. In this role vitamins and minerals tend to function in the same way, with just minor nuances. Vitamins are organic compounds synthesised by plants, or in some cases microorganisms. Vitamins are therefore derived from eating plants, but eating animals that have previously eaten food containing vitamins also supplies humans with some vitamins. In contrast minerals are inorganic compound derived from rock. Plants absorb minerals to their tissues from the soil, and then animals eat the plants to obtain minerals. Some animals obtain their minerals through eating clay or soil. If the minerals are absent from the soil then they will also be absent from the plants and animals living on those soils.
Vitamins and minerals act as cofactors to enzymes in metabolic pathways. A metabolic pathways is a number of chemical reactions that are linked together to form a chain of reactions. These reactions can be catabolic if they break a substance down or anabolic if the synthesised new chemicals. The sum of the anabolic and catabolic pathways is called metabolism and it is this that accounts for the energy required at rest. Enzymes catalyse many of the metabolic reactions in the body. Enzymes are proteins with specific shapes and charges that allow them to speed the rates of particular reactions by lowering the activation energy of the reaction. However, many enzymes require vitamins or minerals to provide particular conditions within the active site of the enzyme. If these vitamins and minerals are missing, the enzymes stops working and the pathway ceases to exist. This leads to a specific deficiency disease and ultimately death. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be reversed before death by addition of the missing nutrient to the diet.