Definition and classification of vitamins
Vitamins are a group of organic compounds which are essential in very small amounts for the normal functioning of the body. Thirteen vitamins are recognized in human nutrition and these have been classified, according to their solubility, into two groups. The fat-soluble vitamins are represented by vitamins A, D, E and K; also included are the 50 or so carotenoids that possess varying degrees of vitamin A activity. The water-soluble vitamins comprise vitamin C and the members of the vitamin B group, namely thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, biotin, folate and vitamin B12. Vitamins have widely varying biochemical and physiological functions and are broadly distributed in natural food sources.
For several of the vitamins, biological activity is attributed to a number of structurally related compounds known as vitamers. The vitamers pertaining to a particular vitamin display, in most cases, similar qualitative biological properties to one another, but, because of subtle differences in their chemical structures, exhibit varying degrees of potency.
It is often stated that vitamins cannot be produced in the body and must, therefore, be supplied in the diet. This statement is valid for many of the vitamins, but is not strictly true for others. For example, vitamin D can be formed in the skin upon adequate exposure to ultraviolet radiation; vitamin K is normally produced in sufficient amounts by intestinal bacteria; and niacin can be synthesized in vivo from an amino acid precursor, L-tryptophan. With the possible exception of vitamins D and K, vitamins must be supplied by the diet because they cannot be produced in adequate amounts by the human body. Plants have the ability to synthesize most of the vitamins and serve as primary sources of these dietary essentials.
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