A vitamin is an organic molecule (or a set of molecules closely related chemically, i.e. vitamers) that is an essential micronutrient which an organism needs in small quantities for the proper functioning of its metabolism. Essential nutrients cannot be synthesized in the organism, either at all or not in sufficient quantities, and therefore must be obtained through the diet. Vitamin C can be synthesized by some species but not by others; it is not a vitamin in the first instance but is in the second. The term vitamin does not include the three other groups of essential nutrients: minerals, essential fatty acids, and essential amino acids. Most vitamins are not single molecules, but groups of related molecules called vitamers. For example, there are eight vitamers of vitamin E: four tocopherols and four tocotrienols. Some sources list fourteen vitamins, by including choline, but major health organizations list thirteen: vitamin A (as all-trans-retinol, all-trans-retinyl-esters, as well as all-trans-beta-carotene and other provitamin A carotenoids), vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B7 (biotin), vitamin B9 (folic acid or folate), vitamin B12 (cobalamins), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin D (calciferols), vitamin E (tocopherols and tocotrienols), and vitamin K (phylloquinone and menaquinones).
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Vitamins have diverse biochemical functions. Vitamin A acts as a regulator of cell and tissue growth and differentiation. Vitamin D provides a hormone-like function, regulating mineral metabolism for bones and other organs. The B complex vitamins function as enzyme cofactors (coenzymes) or the precursors for them. Vitamins C and E function as antioxidants. Both deficient and excess intake of a vitamin can potentially cause clinically significant illness, although excess intake of water-soluble vitamins is less likely to do so.
Before 1935, the only source of vitamins was from food. If intake of vitamins was lacking, the result was vitamin deficiency and consequent deficiency diseases. Then, commercially produced tablets of yeast-extract vitamin B complex and semi-synthetic vitamin C became available. This was followed in the 1950s by the mass production and marketing of vitamin supplements, including multivitamins, to prevent vitamin deficiencies in the general population. Governments have mandated the addition of some vitamins to staple foods such as flour or milk, referred to as food fortification, to prevent deficiencies. Recommendations for folic acid supplementation during pregnancy reduced risk of infant neural tube defects.
The term vitamin is derived from the word vitamine, which was coined in 1912 by Polish biochemist Casimir Funk, who isolated a complex of micronutrients essential to life, all of which he presumed to be amines. When this presumption was later determined not to be true, the "e" was dropped from the name. All vitamins were discovered (identified) between 1913 and 1948.