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Overview of water-soluble vitamins

Sassan Pazirandeh, MD
Clifford W Lo, MD, MPH, ScD
David L Burns, MD
Section Editor
Timothy O Lipman, MD
Deputy Editor
Alison G Hoppin, MD


Vitamins are a number of chemically unrelated families of organic substances that cannot be synthesized by humans but need to be ingested in the diet in small quantities to prevent disorders of metabolism. They are divided into water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins (table 1).

Many of the vitamin deficiency diseases, such as rickets (vitamin D), scurvy (vitamin C), beriberi (thiamine), and pellagra (niacin), have been almost completely eliminated in developed countries. Great interest and controversy continues into whether vitamin supplementation can prevent cancer, heart disease, upper respiratory infections, and other common diseases. (See "Vitamin supplementation in disease prevention".)

The best dietary sources for most of the water-soluble vitamins are fruits and vegetables; these also contain many related substances such as flavins and carotenoids which are generally not recognized as vitamins but may have protective effects against various diseases. This topic review will focus on the water-soluble vitamins excluding folic acid and vitamin B12, which are discussed separately. (See "Etiology and clinical manifestations of vitamin B12 and folate deficiency".)

Minerals and fat-soluble vitamins are also reviewed elsewhere. (See "Overview of vitamin A" and "Overview of vitamin D" and "Overview of vitamin E" and "Overview of vitamin K" and "Overview of dietary trace minerals".)


Several systems have been used to describe nutritional requirements of a population. Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) were developed by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine to guide nutrient intake in a variety of settings. Under this system, requirements can be expressed as a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), which is defined as the dietary intake that is sufficient to meet the daily nutrient requirements of 97 percent of the individuals in a specific life stage group. If there is insufficient data to determine an RDA for a given nutrient, requirements can be expressed as an Adequate Intake (AI), which is an estimation of the nutrient intake necessary to maintain a healthy state. These terms are described in greater detail in a separate topic review. (See "Dietary history and recommended dietary intake in children".)


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Literature review current through: Sep 2016. | This topic last updated: Aug 16, 2016.
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