A vitamin is an organic compound required as a nutrient in tiny amounts by an organism.
In other words, an organic chemical compound (or related set of compounds) is called a vitamin when it cannot be synthesized in sufficient quantities by an organism, and must be obtained from the diet. Thus, the term is conditional both on the circumstances and on the particular organism. For example, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is a vitamin for humans, but not for most other animals, and biotin and vitamin D are required in the human diet only in certain circumstances. By convention, the term vitamin does not include other essential nutrients such as dietary minerals, essential fatty acids, or essential amino acids (which are needed in larger amounts than vitamins), nor does it encompass the large number of other nutrients that promote health but are otherwise required less often. There are 13 vitamins universally recognized at present.
Vitamins are classified by their biological and chemical activity, not their structure. Thus, each “vitamin” refers to a number of vitamer compounds that all show the biological activity associated with a particular vitamin. Such a set of chemicals is grouped under an alphabetized vitamin “generic descriptor” title, such as “vitamin A”, which includes the compounds retinal, retinol, and four known carotenoids. Vitamers by definition are convertible to the active form of the vitamin in the body, and are sometimes inter-convertible to one another, as well.
Vitamins have diverse biochemical functions. Some have hormone-like functions as regulators of mineral metabolism (e.g., vitamin D), or regulators of cell and tissue growth and differentiation (e.g., some forms of vitamin A). Others function as antioxidants (e.g., vitamin E and sometimes vitamin C).
The largest number of vitamins (e.g., B complex vitamins) function as precursors for enzyme cofactors, that help enzymes in their work as catalysts in metabolism. In this role, vitamins may be tightly bound to enzymes as part of prosthetic groups: For example, biotin is part of enzymes involved in making fatty acids. Vitamins may also be less tightly bound to enzyme catalysts as coenzymes, detachable molecules that function to carry chemical groups or electrons between molecules. For example, folic acid carries various forms of carbon group – methyl, formyl, and methylene – in the cell. Although these roles in assisting enzyme-substrate reactions are vitamins’ best-known function, the other vitamin functions are equally important.
Until the mid-1930s, when the first commercial yeast-extract and semi-synthetic vitamin C supplement tablets were sold, vitamins were obtained solely through food intake, and changes in diet (which, for example, could occur during a particular growing season) can alter the types and amounts of vitamins ingested. Vitamins have been produced as commodity chemicals and made widely available as inexpensive semisynthetic and synthetic-source multivitamin dietary supplements, since the middle of the 20th century.
The term vitamin was derived from “vitamine,” a combination word made up by Polish scientist Casimir Funk from vital and amine, meaning amine of life, because it was suggested in 1912 that the organic micronutrient food factors that prevent beriberi and perhaps other similar dietary-deficiency diseases might be chemical amines. This proved incorrect for the micronutrient class, and the word was shortened to vitamin.