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Vitamins are substances that the body generally cannot produce itself but that are important to the proper functioning of the body. We must therefore obtain them from our diet.


Vitamins are involved in many process in the body and occur in small quantities in our food. We do not need large quantities of them, in contrast to, for instance, essential nutrients such as fats, proteins and sugars. Vitamins are organic compounds that derive from plants and animals, but nowadays they can also be produced in a lab.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Polish biochemist Casimir Funk discovered that a deficiency of a certain substance could cause certain diseases. He called these substances ‘vitamins’ from ‘vita’ (life) and ‘amine’ (amino acid). He discovered the first vitamin, B1 or thiamine. Although it was later discovered that not all vitamins contained amino acid, the name stuck. At the end of the 20th century it became possible to produce vitamins in the lab. These were initially used in medication to treat and prevent disease.

Minerals and trace elements

Alongside vitamins, minerals and trace elements are substances that the body needs but cannot produce itself. The main difference is that they come from dead matter and are absorbed by plants and animals through water and food. The body is less reliant on minerals and trace elements, and it has not been proven that they are essential to the body. They will not be covered in this article.


The human body can produce a huge arsenal of compounds (chemical substances) that make life possible. There are only 13 compounds that we require but cannot produce ourselves. Their names result from the sequence of discovery, but as the names can vary per country it is becoming more common to use the precise chemical name.

A distinction is often made between water-soluble (B and C) and fat-soluble (A, D, E and K) vitamins. As much of our body is made up of fat, the fat-soluble vitamins can easily be stored in tissue. Deficiencies in these vitamins can occur in people suffering from diseases in which the body has difficulty absorbing fat from food. If large quantities of the water-soluble vitamins (B and C) are ingested, the body excretes them in the urine, but a harmful amount of these vitamins can remain in the body. Listed below are the 13 vitamins together with what they do, in which foods they occur and the effects of a deficiency or excess.

It is important to note that the symptoms of vitamin deficiency described below are very rare in the West. Severe vitamin deficiency mainly occurs nowadays in alcoholics and people who cannot absorb vitamins properly from their food because of illness. Vitamin deficiency from a very limited diet mainly occurs in developing countries and generally does not occur in people who eat a normal varied western diet.

Vitamin A

The most important sources of vitamin A are yellow and orange vegetables (carrots!), milk, eggs and liver. Vitamin A is particularly important for the proper function of the retina. This layer of tissue at the back of the eye receives light and sends these signals through the optic nerve to the brain. Vitamin A also has an important role in the growth (and thus renewal) of the skin and mucous membranes. A lack of vitamin A can cause night blindness and dry skin and mucous membranes. Too much vitamin A can cause headache and joint pain.

Vitamin B1

Vitamin B1 is also known as thiamine. We obtain it from meat, beans, pulses and grain. It is particularly important for the metabolism of carbohydrates in the body. A deficiency leads to sensory disorders in the feet and hands. In the western world, a deficiency is due to alcoholism.

Vitamin B2

This vitamin is also called riboflavin and is found in meat, fish and dairy products. It plays a role in various chemical reactions in the body. A severe deficiency leads to inflammation of the skin and mucous membranes.

Vitamin B3

Vitamin B3 is also known as niacin and is found in fish, milk and grains. Although the body can produce niacin, it cannot produce enough. A deficiency can lead to pellagra, which causes lesions on skin that is exposed to the sun, diarrhoea and mental disorders. It is needed to produce growth hormone.

Vitamin B5

Vitamin B5, also known as pantothenic acid, is found in many foodstuffs, particularly meat and grain. It plays an important role in the synthesis of fat. A vitamin B5 deficiency is very rare.

Vitamin B6

Also known as pyridoxin, vitamin B6 plays a role in the synthesis of proteins in the body. It is found in various types of meat and vegetable. A deficiency or an excess can lead to sensory disorders in the hands and feet and skin conditions. A reasonably high level of protein and consequently this vitamin is needed in the first months of life.

Vitamin B8

Vitamin B8 is found is various foodstuffs such as grain, egg and liver. Also known as biotin, it is produced by gut bacteria too. A deficiency is rare, but can arise if there are problems with the gut bacteria. The symptoms are hair loss, muscle pain and inflammation of the skin and intestine.

Vitamin B11

This vitamin is better known as folic acid, and is found in fresh fruit and leafy vegetables. It has an important function in the body in the synthesis of protein. A deficiency in adults can lead to anaemia (too few red blood cells).

It has also been found that folic acid plays an important role in the development of the nervous system of the foetus. A supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid from four weeks before to eight weeks after conception can help prevent defects in the nervous system such as spina bifida (advice from The Health Council of the Netherlands).

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is also known as cobalamin, and only occurs in animal products. A deficiency can lead to a lack of red blood cells (anaemia) and in severe cases to nerve damage.

Vitamin C

One of the best-known vitamins is vitamin C, or ascorbic acid. We obtain it from fresh fruit and vegetables. It plays an important role in the absorption of iron from food in the gut. A deficiency can cause scurvy, a disease that occurred on ships in the past because of a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Vitamin D

This vitamin mainly occurs in fish and milk, but the body can produce it when the skin is exposed to sunlight. In the body, vitamin D is involved in the absorption of calcium and phosphate, both of which are important for the bones. A deficiency can therefore lead to bone disorders, whereas an excess can result in too much calcium in the body.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is found in leafy vegetables, plant oils and grains. It works as an antioxidant in the body, which means that it can prevent harmful reactions. A deficiency can cause degeneration of the nervous system.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K is an exception to the other vitamins because it is mainly produced by the gut bacteria and supplemented by absorption from leafy vegetables. This vitamin is essential to the production of coagulation factors that help the blood clot. New-born babies do not yet have gut bacteria and thus are deficient in vitamin K. They are therefore given one milligram at birth, and parents are advised to give them a daily supplement until the age of three months. See also the section below ‘vitamin supplements for children’.

Vitamin supplements

The advice below on supplements comes from The Health Council of the Netherlands, an independent body that advises the Dutch government on public health. The advice is for healthy people with a regular diet. Other advice applies for adults and children who have vitamin deficiencies.

Vitamin supplements for children

The Health Council of the Netherlands advises giving children up to the age of four ten micrograms of vitamin D daily. Children with dark skin and children who do not go outside much may need to take vitamin D for a longer period. It is advisable to consult your GP here. The Council advises giving breastfed babies between the age of one week and three months a supplement of 150 micrograms of vitamin K.

Please note: the Health Council also advises giving bottle-fed babies ten micrograms of vitamin D per day. Babies that drink 500 ml of formula milk per day will receive enough vitamin K, but the Council advises giving vitamin K to babies that drink less than 500ml per day.

Vitamins during pregnancy

A healthy and varied diet during pregnancy will meet the vitamin needs of mother and child, the exceptions being vitamin D and folic acid. The Health Council therefore advices taking ten micrograms of vitamin D and 400 micrograms of folic acid from four weeks before to eight weeks after conception.


Sufficient quantities of most vitamins are present in breastmilk to meet the needs of the baby. The exceptions are vitamins D and K, which means that new-born babies are dependent on their own production in the skin (vitamin D) and by the gut bacteria (vitamin K). As they are likely to be deficient in these two vitamins, the advice is to supplement them. See also the section above ‘vitamin supplements for children’.


1. Advice from the Health Council of the Netherlands

2. Vitamin K supplements in babies

3. RDA vitamin D

4. Kindergeneeskunde, J. van den Brande, third edition 1998.

External links


The first version of this article was written by Daphne Voorend and Anton Bussink.


Healthy eating, supplement, supplements, vitamin pill, vitamin pills, nutrition, healthy eating


Information published via Babypedia must not in any way be construed as nor is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. It must not be used in place of the advice of your physician, dietician or other qualified health care provider. The texts on Babypedia intend to provide a better understanding of certain topics, they are not suitable for (self)diagnostics. Please contact a medical professional in the appropriate area of expertise in order to obtain a professional opinion.

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