Skip to main content
Select Source:




A mineral is a naturally occurring, typically inorganic substance with a specific chemical composition and structure. An unknown mineral usually can be identified according to known characteristics of specific minerals in terms of certain parameters that include its appearance, its hardness, and the ways it breaks apart when fractured. Minerals are not to be confused with rocks, which are typically aggregates of minerals. There are some 3,700 varieties of mineral, a handful of which are abundant and wide-ranging in their application. Many more occur less frequently but are extremely important within a more limited field of uses.


Introduction to Minerals

The particulars of the mineral definition deserve some expansion, especially inasmuch as mineral has an everyday definition somewhat broader than its scientific definition. In everyday usage, minerals would be the natural, nonliving materials that make up rocks and are mined from the earth. According to this definition, minerals would include all metals, gemstones, clays, and ores. The scientific definition, on the other hand, is much narrower, as we shall see.

The fact that a mineral must be inorganic brings up another term that has a broader meaning in everyday life than in the world of science. At one time, the scientific definition of organic was more or less like the meaning assigned to it by nonscientists today, as describing all living or formerly living things, their parts, and substances that come from them. Today, however, chemists use the word organic to refer to any compound that contains carbon bonded to hydrogen, thus excluding carbonates (which are a type of mineral) and oxides such as carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. Because a mineral must be inorganic, this definition eliminates coal and peat, both of which come from a wide-ranging group of organic substances known as hydrocarbons.

A mineral also occurs naturally, meaning that even though there are artificial substances that might be described as "mineral-like," they are not minerals. In this sense, the definition of a mineral is even more restricted than that of an element, discussed later in this essay, even though there are nearly 4,000 minerals and more than 92 elements. The number 92, of course, is not arbitrary: that is the number of elements that occur in nature. But there are additional elements, numbering 20 at the end of the twentieth century, that have been created artificially.


The specific characteristics of minerals can be discussed both in physical and in chemical terms. From the standpoint of physics, which is concerned with matter, energy, and the interactions between the two, minerals would be described as crystalline solids. The definition of a mineral is narrowed further in terms of its chemistry, or its atomic characteristics, since a mineral must be of unvarying composition.

A mineral, then, must be solid under ordinary conditions of pressure and temperature. This excludes petroleum, for instance (which, in any case, would have been disqualified owing to its organic origins), as well as all other liquids and gases. Moreover, a mineral cannot be just any type of solid but must be a crystalline onethat is, a solid in which the constituent parts have a simple and definite geometric arrangement that is repeated in all directions. This rule, for instance, eliminates clay, an example of an amorphous solid.

Chemically, a mineral must be of unvarying composition, a stipulation that effectively limits minerals to elements and compounds. Neither sand nor glass, for instance, is a mineral, because the composition of both can vary. Another way of putting this is to say that all minerals must have a definite chemical formula, which is not true of sand, dirt, glass, or any other mixture. Let us now look a bit more deeply into the nature of elements and compounds, which are collectively known as pure substances, so as to understand the minerals that are a subset of this larger grouping.


The periodic table of elements is a chart that appears in most classrooms where any of the physical sciences are taught. It lists all elements in order of atomic number, or the number of protons (positively charged subatomic particles) in the atomic nucleus. The highest atomic number of any naturally occurring element is 92, for uranium, though it should be noted that a very few elements with an atomic number lower than 92 have never actually been found on Earth. On the other hand, all elements with an atomic number higher than 92 are artificial, created either in laboratories or as the result of atomic testing.

An element is a substance made of only one type of atom, meaning that it cannot be broken down chemically to create a simpler substance. In the sense that each is a fundamental building block in the chemistry of the universe, all elements are, as it were, "created equal." They are not equal, however, in terms of their abundance. The first two elements on the periodic table, hydrogen and helium, represent 99.9% of the matter in the entire universe. Though Earth contains little of either, our planet is only a tiny dot within the vastness of space; by contrast, stars such as our Sun are composed almost entirely of those elements (see Sun, Moon, and Earth).


Of all elements, oxygen is by far the most plentiful on Earth, representing nearly half49.2%of the total mass of atoms found on this planet. (Here the term mass refers to the known elemental mass of the planet's atmosphere, waters, and crust; below the crust, scientists can only speculate, though it is likely that much of Earth's interior consists of iron.)

Together with silicon (25.7%), oxygen accounts for almost exactly three-fourths of the elemental mass of Earth. If we add in aluminum (7.5%), iron (4.71%), calcium (3.39%), sodium (2.63%), potassium (2.4%), and magnesium (1.93%), these eight elements make up about 97.46% of Earth's material. Hydrogen, so plentiful in the universe at large, ranks ninth on Earth, accounting for only 0.87% of the planet's known elemental mass. Nine other elements account for a total of 2% of Earth's composition: titanium (0.58%), chlorine (0.19%), phosphorus (0.11%), manganese (0.09%), carbon (0.08%), sulfur (0.06%), barium (0.04%), nitrogen (0.03%), and fluorine (0.03%). The remaining 0.49% is made up of various other elements.

Looking only at Earth's crust, the numbers change somewhat, especially at the lower end of the list. Listed below are the 12 most abundant elements in the planet's crust, known to earth scientists simply as "the abundant elements." These 12, which make up 99.23% of the known crustal mass, together form approximately 40 different minerals that account for the vast majority of that 99.23%. Following the name and chemical symbol of each element is the percentage of the crustal mass it composes.

Abundance of Elements in Earth's Crust

  • Oxygen (O): 45.2%
  • Silicon (Si): 27.2%
  • Aluminum (Al): 8.0%
  • Iron (Fe): 5.8%
  • Calcium (Ca): 5.06%
  • Magnesium (Mg): 2.77%
  • Sodium (Na): 2.32%
  • Potassium (K): 1.68%
  • Titanium (Ti): 0.86%
  • Hydrogen (H): 0.14%
  • Manganese (Mn): 0.1%
  • Phosphorus (P): 0.1%

Atoms, Molecules, and Bonding

As noted earlier, an element is identified by the number of protons in its nucleus, such that any atom with six protons must be carbon, since carbon has an atomic number of 6. The number of electrons, or negatively charged subatomic particles, is the same as the number of protons, giving an atom no net electric charge.

An atom may lose or gain electrons, however, in which case it becomes an ion, an atom or group of atoms with a net electric charge. An atom that has gained electrons, and thus has a negative charge, is called an anion. On the other hand, an atom that has lost electrons, thus becoming positive in charge, is a cation.

In addition to protons and electrons, an atom has neutrons, or neutrally charged particles, in its nucleus. Neutrons have a mass close to that of a proton, which is much larger than that of an electron, and thus the number of neutrons in an atom has a significant effect on its mass. Atoms that have the same number of protons (and therefore are of the same element), but differ in their number of neutrons, are called isotopes.


Whereas there are only a very few elements, there are millions of compounds, or substances made of more than one atom. A simple example is water, formed by the bonding of two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom; hence the chemical formula for water, which is H2O. Note that this is quite different from a mere mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, which would be something else entirely. Given the gaseous composition of the two elements, combined with the fact that both are extremely flammable, the result could hardly be more different from liquid water, which, of course, is used for putting out fires.

The difference between water and the hydrogen-oxygen mixture described is that whereas the latter is the result of mere physical mixing, water is created by chemical bonding. Chemical bonding is the joining, through electromagnetic attraction, of two or more atoms to create a compound. Of the three principal subatomic particles, only electrons are involved in chemical bondingand only a small portion of those, known as valence electrons, which occupy the outer shell of an atom. Each element has a characteristic pattern of valence electrons, which determines the ways in which the atom bonds.


Noble gases, of which helium is an example, are noted for their lack of chemical reactivity, or their resistance to bonding. While studying these elements, the German chemist Richard Abegg (1869-1910) discovered that they all have eight valence electrons. His observation led to one of the most important principles of chemical bonding: atoms bond in such a way that they achieve the electron configuration of a noble gas. This concept, known as the octet rule, has been shown to be the case in most stable chemical compounds.

Abegg hypothesized that atoms combine with one another because they exchange electrons in such a way that both end up with eight valence electrons. This was an early model of ionic bonding, which results from attractions between ions with opposite electric charges: when they bond, these ions "complete" each other. Metals tend to form cations and bond with nonmetals that have formed anions. The bond between anions and cations is known as an ionic bond, and is extremely strong.

The other principal type of bond is a covalent bond. The result, once again, is eight valence electrons for each atom, but in this case, the nuclei of the two atoms share electrons. Neither atom "owns" them; rather, they share electrons. Today, chemists understand that most bonds are neither purely ionic nor purely covalent; instead, there is a wide range of hybrids between the two extremes, which are a function of the respective elements' electronegativity, or the relative ability of an atom to attract valence electrons. If one element has a much higher electronegativity value than the other one, the bond will be purely ionic, but if two elements have equal electronegativity values, the bond is purely covalent. Most bonds, however, fall somewhere between these two extremes.


Chemical bonds exist between atoms and within a molecule. But there are also bonds between molecules, which affect the physical composition of a substance. The strength of intermolecular bonds is affected by the characteristics of the interatomic, or chemical, bond.

For example, the difference in electronegativity values between hydrogen and oxygen is great enough that the bond between them is not purely covalent, but instead is described as a polar covalent bond. Oxygen has a much higher electronegativity (3.5) than hydrogen (2.1), and therefore the electrons tend to gravitate toward the oxygen atom. As a result, water molecules have a strong negative charge on the side occupied by the oxygen atom, with a resulting positive charge on the hydrogen side.

By contrast, molecules of petroleum, a combination of carbon and hydrogen, tend to be nonpolar, because carbon (with an electronegativity value of 2.5) and hydrogen have very similar electronegativity values. Therefore the electric charges are more or less evenly distributed in the molecule. As a result, water molecules form strong attractions, known as dipole-dipole attractions, to each other. Molecules of petroleum, on the other hand, have little attraction to each other, and the differences in charge distribution account for the fact that water and oil do not mix.

Even weaker than the bonds between non-polar molecules, however, are those between highly reactive elements, such as the noble gases and the "noble metals"gold, silver, and copper, which resist bonding with other elements. The type of intermolecular attraction that exists in such a situation is described by the term London dispersion forces, a reference to the German-born American physicist Fritz Wolfgang London (1900-1954).

The bonding between molecules of most other metals, however, is described by the electron sea model, which depicts metal atoms as floating in a "sea" of valence electrons. These valence electrons are highly mobile within the crystalline structure of the metal, and this mobility helps explain metals' high electric conductivity. The ease with which metal crystals allow themselves to be rearranged explains not only metals' ductility (their ability to be shaped) but also their ability to form alloys, a mixture containing two or more metals.

The Crystalline Structure of Minerals

By definition, a solid is a type of matter whose particles resist attempts at compression. Because of their close proximity, solid particles are fixed in an orderly and definite pattern. Within the larger category of solids are crystalline solids, or those in which the constituent parts are arranged in a simple, definite geometric pattern that is repeated in all directions.

The term crystal is popularly associated with glass and with quartz, but only one of these is a crystalline solid. Quartz is a member of the silicates, a large group of minerals that we will discuss later in this essay. Glass, on the other hand, is an amorphous solid, meaning that its molecules are not arranged in an orderly pattern.


Elsewhere in this book (Earth, Science, and Nonscience and Planetary Science), there is considerable discussion of misconceptions originating with Aristotle (384-322 b.c.). Despite his many achievements, including significant contributions to the biological sciences, the great Greek philosopher spawned a number of erroneous concepts, which prevailed in the physical sciences until the dawn of the modern era. At least Aristotle made an attempt at scientific study, however; for instance, he dissected dead animals to observe their anatomic structures. His teacher, Plato (427?-347 b.c.), on the other hand, is hardly ever placed among the ranks of those who contributed, even ever so slightly, to progress in the sciences.

There is a reason for this. Plato, in contrast to his pupil, made virtually no attempt to draw his ideas about the universe from an actual study of it. Within Plato's worldview, the specific qualities of any item, including those in the physical world, reflected the existence of perfect and pure ideas that were more "real" than the physical objects themselves. Typical of his philosophy was his idea of the five Platonic solids, or "perfect" geometric shapes that, he claimed, formed the atomic substructure of the world.

The "perfection" of the Platonic solids lay in the fact that they are the only five three-dimensional objects in which the faces constitute a single type of polygon (a closed shape with three or more sides, all straight), while the vertices (edges) are all alike. These five are the tetrahedron, octahedron, and icosahedron, composed of equilateral triangles (four, eight, and twenty, respectively); the cube, which, of course, is made of six squares; and the dodecahedron, made up of twelve pentagons. Plato associated the latter solid with the shape of atoms in outer space, while the other four corresponded to what the Greeks believed were the elements on Earth: fire (tetrahedron), earth (cube), air (octahedron), and water (icosahedron).

All of this, of course, is nonsense from the standpoint of science, though the Platonic solids are of interest within the realm of mathematics. Yet amazingly, Plato in his unscientific way actually touched on something close to the truth, as applied to the crystalline structure of minerals. Despite the large number of minerals, there are just six crystal systems, or geometric shapes formed by crystals. For any given mineral, it is possible for a crystallographer (a type of mineralogist concerned with the study of crystal structures) to identify its crystal system by studying a good, well-formed specimen, observing the faces of the crystal and the angles at which they meet.

An isometric crystal system is the most symmetrical of all, with faces and angles that are most clearly uniform. Because of differing types of polygon that make up the faces, as well as differing numbers of vertices, these crystals appear in 15 forms, several of which are almost eerily reminiscent of Plato's solids: not just the cube (exemplified by halite crystals) but also the octahedron (typical of spinels) and even the dodecahedron (garnets).


Mineral Groups

Before the time of the great German mineralogist Georgius Agricola (1494-1555), attempts to classify minerals were almost entirely overshadowed by the mysticism of alchemy, by other nonscientific preoccupations, or by simple lack of knowledge. Agricola's De re metallica (On minerals, 1556), published after his death, constituted the first attempt at scientific mineralogy and mineral classification, but it would be two and a half centuries before the Swedish chemist Jöns Berzelius (1779-1848) developed the basics of the classification system used today.

Berzelius's classification system was refined later in the nineteenth century by the American mineralogist James Dwight Dana (1813-1895) and simplified by the American geologists Brian Mason (1917-) and L. G. Berry (1914-). In general terms, the classification system accepted by mineralogists today is as follows:

  • Class 1: Native elements
  • Class 2: Sulfides
  • Class 3: Oxides and hydroxides
  • Class 4: Halides
  • Class 5: Carbonates, nitrates, borates, iodates
  • Class 6: Sulfates, chromates, molybdates, tungstates
  • Class 7: Phosphates, arsenates, vanadates
  • Class 8: Silicates


The first group, native elements, includes (among other things) metallic elements that appear in pure form somewhere on Earth: aluminum, cadmium, chromium, copper, gold, indium, iron, lead, mercury, nickel, platinum, silver, tellurium, tin, titanium, and zinc. This may seem like a great number of elements, but it is only a small portion of the 87 metallic elements listed on the periodic table.

The native elements also include certain metallic alloys, a fact that might seem strange for several reasons. First of all, an alloy is a mixture, not a compound, and, second, people tend to think of alloys as being man-made, not natural. The list of metallic alloys included among the native elements, however, is very small, and they meet certain very specific mineralogic criteria regarding consistency of composition.

The native elements class also includes native nonmetals such as carbon, in the form of graphite or its considerably more valuable alter ego, diamond, as well as elemental silicon (an extremely important building block for minerals, as we shall see) and sulfur. For a full list of native elements and an explanation of criteria for inclusion, as well as similar data for the other classes of mineral, the reader is encouraged to consult the Minerals by Name Web site, the address of which is provided in "Where to Learn More" at the end of this essay.


Most important ores (a rock or mineral possessing economic value)copper, lead, and silverbelong to the sulfides class, as does a mineral that often has been mistaken for a precious metaliron sulfide, or pyrite. Better known by the colloquial term fool's gold, pyrite has proved valuable primarily to con artists who passed it off as the genuine article. During World War II, however, pyrite deposits near Ducktown, Tennessee, became valuable owing to the content of sulfur, which was extracted for use in defense applications.

Whereas the sulfides fit the common notion of a mineral as a hard substance, halides, which are typically soft and transparent, do not. Yet they are indeed a class of minerals, and they include one of the best-known minerals on Earth: halite, known chemically as NaCl or sodium chlorideor, in everyday language, table salt.


Oxides, as their name suggests, are minerals containing oxygen; however, if all oxygen-containing minerals were lumped into just one group, that group would take up almost the entire list. For instance, under the present system, silicates account for the vast majority of minerals, but since those contain oxygen as well, a list that grouped all oxygen-based minerals together would consist of only four classes: native elements, sulfides, halides, and a swollen oxide category that would include 90% of all known minerals.

Instead, the oxides class is limited only to noncomplex minerals that contain either oxygen or hydroxide (OH). Examples of oxides include magnetite (iron oxide) and corundum (aluminum oxide.) It should be pointed out that a single chemical name, such as iron oxide or aluminum oxide, is not limited to a single mineral; for example, anatase and brookite are both titanium oxide, but they represent different combinations.


All the mineral classes discussed to this point, as well as several others to follow, are called nonsilicates, a term that stresses the importance of silicates among mineral classes.

Like the oxides, the carbonates, or carbon-based minerals, are a varied group. This class also contains a large number of minerals, making it the most extensive group aside from silicates and phosphates. Among these are limestones and dolostones, some of the most abundant rocks on Earth.

The phosphates, despite their name, may or may not include phosphorus; in some cases, arsenic, vanadium, or antimony may appear in its place. The same is true of the sulfates, which may or may not involve sulfur; some include chromium, tungsten, selenium, tellurium, or molybdenum instead.


In addition to the seven formal classes just described, there are two other somewhat questionable classes of nonsilicate that might be included in a listing of minerals. They would be included, if at all, only with major reservations, since they do not strictly fit the fourfold definition of a mineral as crystalline in structure, natural, inorganic, and identifiable by a precise chemical formula. These two questionable groups are organics and mineraloids.

Organics, as their name suggests, have organic components, but as we have observed, "organic" is not the same as "biological." This class excludes hard substances created in a biological settingfor example, bone or pearland includes only minerals that develop in a geologic setting yet have organic chemicals in their composition. By far the best-known example of this class, which includes only a half-dozen minerals, is amber, which is fossilized tree sap.

Amber is also among the mineraloids, which are not really "questionable" at allthey are clearly not minerals, since they do not have the necessary crystalline structure. Nevertheless, they often are listed among minerals in reference books and are likely to be sold by mineral dealers. The other four mineraloids include two other well-known substances, opal and obsidian.


Where minerals are concerned, the silicates are the "stars of the show": the most abundant and most widely used class of minerals. That being said, it should be pointed out that there are a handful of abundant nonsilicates, most notably the iron oxides hematite, magnetite, and goethite. A few other nonsilicates, while they are less abundant, are important to the makeup of Earth's crust, examples being the carbonates calcite and dolomite; the sulfides pyrite, sphalerite, galena, and chalcopyrite; and the sulfate gypsum. Yet the nonsilicates are not nearly as important as the class of minerals built around the element silicon.

Though it was discovered by Jöns Berzelius in 1823, owing to its abundance in the planet's minerals, silicon has been in use by humans for thousands of years. Indeed, silicon may have been one of the first elements formed in the Precambrian eons (see Geologic Time). Geologists believe that Earth once was composed primarily of molten iron, oxygen, silicon, and aluminum, which, of course, are still the predominant elements in the planet's crust. But because iron has a greater atomic mass, it settled toward the center, while the more lightweight elements rose to the surface. After oxygen, silicon is the most abundant of all elements on the planet, and compounds involving the two make up about 90% of the mass of Earth's crust.


On the periodic table, silicon lies just below carbon, with which it shares an ability to form long strings of atoms. Because of this and other chemical characteristics, silicon, like carbon, is at the center of a vast array of compoundsorganic in the case of carbon and inorganic in the case of silicon. Silicates, which, as noted earlier, account for nine-tenths of the mass of Earth's crust (and 30% of all minerals), are to silicon and mineralogy what hydrocarbons are to carbon and organic chemistry.

Whereas carbon forms it most important compounds with hydrogenhydrocarbons such as petroleumthe most important silicon-containing compounds are those formed by bonds with oxygen. There is silica (SiO2), for instance, commonly known as sand. Aside from its many applications on the beaches of the world, silica, when mixed with lime and soda (sodium carbonate) and other substances, makes glass. Like carbon, silicon has the ability to form polymers, or long, chainlike molecules. And whereas carbon polymers are built of hydrocarbons (plastics are an example), silicon polymers are made of silicon and oxygen in monomers, or strings of atoms, that form ribbons or sheets many millions of units long.


There are six subclasses of silicate, differentiated by structure. Nesosilicates include some the garnet group; gadolinite, which played a significant role in the isolation of the lanthanide series of elements during the nineteenth century; and zircon. The latter may seem to be associated with the cheap diamond simulant, or substitute, called cubic zirconium, or CZ. CZ, however, is an artificial "mineral," whereas zircon is the real thingyet it, too, has been applied as a diamond simulant.

Just as silicon's close relative, carbon, can form sheets (this is the basic composition of graphite), so silicon can appear in sheets as the phyllosilicate subclass. Included among this group are minerals known for their softness: kaolinite, talc, and various types of mica. These are used in everything from countertops to talcum powder. The kaolinite derivative known as kaolin is applied, for instance, in the manufacture of porcelain, while some people in parts of Georgia, a state noted for its kaolinite deposits, claim that it can and should be chewed as an antacid stomach remedy. (One can even find little bags of kaolin sold for this purpose at convenience stores around Columbus in southern Georgia.)

Included in another subclass, the tectosilicates, are the feldspar and quartz groups, which are the two most abundant types of mineral in Earth's crust. Note that these are both groups: to a mineralogist, feldspar and quartz refer not to single minerals but to several within a larger grouping. Feldspar, whose name comes from the Swedish words for "field" and "mineral" (a reference to the fact that miners and farmers found the same rocks in their respective areas of labor), includes a number of varieties, such as albite (sodium aluminum silicate) or sanidine (potassium aluminum silicate).

Other, more obscure silicate subclasses include sorosilicates and inosilicates. Finally, there are cyclosilicates, such as beryl or beryllium aluminum silicate.

Identifying Minerals

Mineralogists identify unknown minerals by judging them in terms of various physical properties, including hardness, color and streak, luster, cleavage and fracture, density and specific gravity, and other factors, such as crystal form. Hardness, or the ability of one mineral to scratch another, may be measured against the Mohs scale, introduced in 1812 by the German mineralogist Friedrich Mohs (1773-1839). The scale rates minerals from 1 to 10, with 10 being equivalent to the hardness of a diamond and 1 that of talc, the softest mineral. (See Economic Geology for other scales, some of which are more applicable to specific types of minerals.)

Minerals sometimes can be identified by color, but this property can be so affected by the presence of impurities that mineralogists rely instead on streak. The latter term refers to the color of the powder produced when one mineral is scratched by another, harder one. Another visual property is luster, or the appearance of a mineral when light reflects off its surface. Among the terms used in identifying luster are metallic, vitreous (glassy), and dull.

The term cleavage refers to the way in which a mineral breaksthat is, the planes across which the mineral splits into pieces. For instance, muscovite tends to cleave only in one direction, forming thin sheets, while halite cleaves in three directions, which are all perpendicular to one another, forming cubes. The cleavage of a mineral reveals its crystal system; however, minerals are more likely to fracture (break along something other than a flat surface) than they are to cleave.


Density is the ratio of mass to volume, and specific gravity is the ratio between the density of a particular substance and that of water. Specific gravity almost always is measured according to the metric system, because of the convenience: since the density of water is 1 g per cubic centimeter (g/cm3), the specific gravity of a substance is identical to its density, except that specific gravity involves no units.

For example, gold has a density of 19.3 g/cm3 and a specific gravity of 19.3. Its specific gravity, incidentally, is extremely high, and, indeed, one of the few metals that comes close is lead, which has a specific gravity of 11. By comparing specific gravity values and measuring the displacement of water when an object is set down in it, it is possible to determine whether an item purported to be gold actually is gold.

In addition to these more common parameters for identifying minerals, it may be possible to identify certain ones according to other specifics. There are minerals that exhibit fluorescent or phosphorescent characteristics, for instance. The first term refers to objects that glow when viewed under ultraviolet light, while the second term describes those that continue to glow after being exposed to visible light for a short period of time. Some minerals are magnetic, while others are radioactive.


Chemists long ago adopted a system for naming compounds so as to avoid the confusion of proliferating common names. The only compounds routinely referred to by their common names in the world of chemistry are water and ammonia; all others are known according to chemical nomenclature that is governed by specific rules. Thus, for instance, NaCl is never "salt," but "sodium chloride."

Geologists have not been able to develop such a consistent means of naming minerals. For one thing, as noted earlier, two minerals may be different from each other yet include the same elements. Furthermore, it is difficult (unlike the case of chemical compounds) to give minerals names that provide a great deal of information regarding their makeup. Instead, most minerals are simply named after people (usually scientists) or the locale in which they were found.


The physical properties of minerals, including many of the characteristics we have just discussed, have an enormous impact on their usefulness and commercial value. Some minerals, such as diamonds and corundum, are prized for their hardness, while others, ranging from marble to the "mineral" alabaster, are useful precisely because they are soft. Others, among them copper and gold, are not just soft but highly malleable, and this property makes them particularly useful in making products such as electrical wiring.

Diamonds, corundum, and other minerals valued for their hardness belong to a larger class of materials called abrasives. The latter includes sandpaper, which of course is made from one of the leading silicate derivatives, sand. Sandstone and quartz are abrasives, as are numerous variants of corundum, such as sapphire and garnets.

In 1891, American inventor Edward G. Acheson (1856-1931) created silicon carbide, later sold under the trade name Carborundum, by heating a mixture of clay and coke (almost pure carbon). For 50 years, Carborundum was the second-hardest substance known, diamonds being the hardest. Today other synthetic abrasives, made from aluminum oxide, boron carbide, and boron nitride, have supplanted Carborundum in importance.

Corundum, from the oxides class of mineral, can have numerous uses. Extremely hard, corundum, in the form of an unconsolidated rock commonly called emery, has been used as an abrasive since ancient times. Owing to its very high melting pointeven higher than that of ironcorundum also is employed in making alumina, a fireproof product used in furnaces and fireplaces. Though pure corundum is colorless, when combined with trace amounts of certain elements, it can yield brilliant colors: hence, corundum with traces of chromium becomes a red ruby, while traces of iron, titanium, and other elements yield varieties of sapphire in yellow, green, and violet as well as the familiar blue.

This brings up an important point: many of the minerals named here are valued for much more than their abrasive qualities. Many of the 16 minerals used as gemstones, including corundum (source of both rubies and sapphires, as we have noted), garnet, quartz, and of course diamond, happen to be abrasives as well. (See Economic Geology for the full list of precious gems.)


Diamonds, in fact, are so greatly prized for their beauty and their application in jewelry that their role as "working" mineralsnot just decorationsshould be emphasized. The diamonds used in industry look quite different from the ones that appear in jewelry. Industrial diamonds are small, dark, and cloudy in appearance, and though they have the same chemical properties as gem-quality diamonds, they are cut with functionality (rather than beauty) in mind. A diamond is hard, but brittle: in other words, it can be broken, but it is very difficult to scratch or cut a diamondexcept with another diamond.

On the other hand, the cutting of fine diamonds for jewelry is an art, exemplified in the alluring qualities of such famous gems as the jewels in the British Crown or the infamous Hope Diamond in Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution. Such diamondsas well as the diamonds on an engagement ringare cut to refract or bend light rays and to disperse the colors of visible light.

Soft and Ductile Minerals

At the other end of the Mohs scale are an array of minerals valued not for their hardness, but for opposite qualities. Calcite, for example, is often used in cleansers because, unlike an abrasive (also used for cleaning in some situations), it will not scratch a surface to which it is applied. Calcite takes another significant form, that of marble, which is used in sculpture, flooring, and ornamentation because of its softness and ease in carvingnot to mention its great beauty.

Gypsum, used in plaster of paris and wall-board, is another soft mineral with applications in building. Though, obviously, soft minerals are not much value as structural materials, when stud walls of wood provide the structural stability for gypsum sheet wall coverings, the softness of the latter can be an advantage. Gypsum wall-board makes it easy to put in tacks or nails for pictures and other decorations, or to cut out a hole for a new door, yet it is plenty sturdy if bumped. Furthermore, it is much less expensive than most materials, such as wood paneling, that might be used to cover interior walls.


Quite different sorts of minerals are valued not only for their softness but also their ductility or malleability. There is gold, for instance, the most ductile of all metals. A single troy ounce (31.1 g) can be hammered into a sheet just 0.00025 in. (0.00064 cm) thick, covering 68 sq. ft. (6.3 sq m), while a piece of gold weighing about as much as a raisin (0.0022 lb., or 1 g) can be pulled into the shape of a wire 1.5 mi. (2.4 km) long. This, along with its qualities as a conductor of heat and electricity, would give it a number of other applications, were it not for the high cost of gold.

Therefore, gold, if it were a person, would have to be content with being only the most prized and admired of all metallic minerals, an element for which men and whole armies have fought and sometimes died. Gold is one of the few metals that is not silver, gray, or white in appearance, and its beautifully distinctive color caught the eyes of metalsmiths and royalty from the beginning of civilization. Hence it was one of the first widely used metals.

Records from India dating back to 5000 b.c. suggest a familiarity with gold, and jewelry found in Egyptian tombs indicates the use of sophisticated techniques among the goldsmiths of Egypt as early as 2600 b.c. Likewise, the Bible mentions gold in several passages, and the Romans called it aurum ("shining dawn"), which explains its chemical symbol, Au.


Copper, gold, and silver are together known as coinage metals. They have all been used for making coins, a reflection not only of their attractiveness and malleability, but also of their resistance to oxidation. (Oxygen has a highly corrosive influence on metals, causing rust, tarnishing, and other effects normally associated with aging but in fact resulting from the reaction of metal and oxygen.) Of the three coinage metals, copper is by far the most versatile, widely used for electrical wiring and in making cookware. Due to the high conductivity of copper, a heated copper pan has a uniform temperature, but copper pots must be coated with tin because too much copper in food is toxic.

Its resistance to corrosion makes copper ideal for plumbing. Likewise, its use in making coins resulted from its anticorrosive qualities, combined with its beauty. These qualities led to the use of copper in decorative applications for which gold would have been much too expensive: many old buildings used copper roofs, and the Statue of Liberty is covered in 300 thick copper plates. As for why the statue and many old copper roofs are green rather than copper-colored, the reason is that copper does eventually corrode when exposed to air for long periods of time. It develops a thin layer of black copper oxide, and as the years pass, the reaction with carbon dioxide in the air leads to the formation of copper carbonate, which imparts a greenish color.

Unlike silver and gold, copper is still used as a coinage metal, though it, too, has been increasingly taken off the market for this purpose due to the high expense involved. Ironically, though most people think of pennies as containing copper, in fact the penny is the only American coin that contains no copper alloys. Because the amount of copper necessary to make a penny today costs more than one cent, a penny is actually made of zinc with a thin copper coating.

Insulation and Other Applications

Whereas copper is useful because it conducts heat and electricity well, other minerals (e.g., kyanite, and alusite, muscovite, and silimanite) are valuable for their ability not to conduct heat or electricity. Muscovite is often used for insulation in electrical devices, though its many qualities make it a mineral prized for a number of reasons.

Its cleavage and lustrous appearance, combined with its transparency and almost complete lack of color, made it useful for glass in the windowpanes of homes owned by noblemen and other wealthy Europeans of the Middle Ages. Today, muscovite is the material in furnace and stove doors: like ordinary glass, it makes it possible for one to look inside without opening the door, but unlike glass, it is an excellent insulator. The glass-like quality of muscovite also makes it a popular material in wallpaper, where ground muscovite provides a glassy sheen.

In the same vein, asbestoswhich may be made of chrysotile, crocidolite, or other mineralshas been prized for a number of qualities, including its flexibility and fiber-like cleavage. These factors, combined with its great heat resistance and its resistance to flame, have made it useful for fireproofing applications, as for instance in roofing materials, insulation for heating and electrical devices, brake linings, and suits for fire-fighters and others who must work around flames and great heat. However, information linking asbestos and certain forms of cancer, which began to circulate in the 1970s, led to a sharp decline in the asbestos industry.


All sorts of other properties give minerals value. Halite, or table salt, is an importantperhaps too important!part of the American diet. Nor is it the only consumable mineral; people also take minerals in dietary supplements, which is appropriate since the human body itself contains numerous minerals. In addition to a very high proportion of carbon, the body also contains a significant amount of iron, a critical component in red blood cells, as well as smaller amounts of minerals such as zinc. Additionally, there are trace minerals, so called because only traces of them are present in the body, that include cobalt, copper, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, silicon, and vanadium.

One mineral that does not belong in the human body is lead, which has been linked with a number of health risks. The human body can only excrete very small quantities of lead a day, and this is particularly true of children. Even in small concentrations, lead can cause elevation of blood pressure, and higher concentrations can effect the central nervous system, resulting in decreased mental functioning, hearing damage, coma, and possibly even death.

The ancient Romans, however, did not know this, and used what they called plumbum in making water pipes. (The Latin word is the root of our own term plumber. ) Many historians believe that plumbum in the Romans' water supply was one of the reasons behind the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Even in the early twentieth century, people did not know about the hazards associated with lead, and therefore it was applied as an ingredient in paint. In addition, it was used in water pipes, and as an antiknock agent in gasolines. Increased awareness of the health hazards involved have led to a discontinuation of these practices.


Pencil "lead," on the other hand, is actually a mixture of clay with graphite, a form of carbon that is also useful as a dry lubricant because of its unusual cleavage. It is slippery because it is actually a series of atomic sheets, rather like a big, thick stack of carbon paper: if the stack is heavy, the sheets are likely to slide against one another.

Actually, people born after about 1980 may have little experience with carbon paper, which was gradually phased out as photocopiers became cheaper and more readily available. Today, carbon paper is most often encountered when signing a credit-card receipt: the signaturegoes through the graphite-based backing of thereceipt onto a customer copy.

In such a situation, one might notice that thecopied image of the signature looks as though itwere signed in pencil, which of course is fitting due to the application of graphite in pencil "lead." In ancient times, people did indeed useleadwhich is part of the "carbon family" of elements, along with carbon and siliconfor writing, because it left gray marks on a surface. Eventoday, people still use the word "lead" in reference to pencils, much as they still refer to a galvanized steel roof with a zinc coating as a "tin roof."

(For more about minerals, see Rocks. The economic applications of both minerals and rocks are discussed in Economic Geology. In addition, Paleontology contains a discussion of fossilization, a process in which minerals eventually replace organic material in long-dead organisms.)


Atlas of Rocks, Minerals, and Textures (Web site). <>.

Hurlbut, Cornelius, W. Edwin Sharp, and Edward Salisbury Dana. Dana's Minerals and How to Study Them. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

The Mineral and Gemstone Kingdom: Minerals A-Z (Web site). <>.

Minerals and Metals: A World to Discover. Natural Resources Canada (Web site). <>.

Minerals by Name (Web site). <>.

Pough, Frederick H. A Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Roberts, Willard Lincoln, Thomas J. Campbell, and George Robert Rapp. Encyclopedia of Minerals. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.

Sorrell, Charles A., and George F. Sandström. A Field Guide and Introduction to the Geology and Chemistry of Rocks and Minerals. New York: St. Martin's, 2001.

Symes, R. F. Rocks and Minerals. Illus. Colin Keates and Andreas Einsiedel. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

"USGS Minerals Statistics and Information." United States Geological Survey (Web site). <>.



A mixture of two or more metals.


The negative ion that results when an atom or group of atoms gains one or more electrons.


The smallest particle of an element, consisting of protons, neutrons, and electrons. An atom can exist either alone or in combination with other atoms in a molecule.


The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom. Since this number is different for each element, elements are listed on the periodic table in order of atomic number.


The positive ion that results when an atom or group of atoms loses one or more electrons.


The joining, through electromagnetic forces, of atoms representing different elements. The principal methods of combining are through covalent and ionic bonding, though few bonds are purely one or the other.


A term referring to the characteristic patterns by which a mineral breaks and specifically to the planes across which breaking occurs.


A substance made up of atoms of more than one element, chemically bonded to one another.


A type of chemical bonding in which two atoms share valence electrons.


The uppermost division of the solid earth, representing less than 1% of its volume and varying in depth from 3 mi. to 37 mi. (5-60 km).


A type of solid in which the constituent parts have a simple and definite geometric arrangement that is repeated in all directions.


A negatively charged particle in an atom, which spins around the nucleus.


The relative ability of an atom to attract valence electrons.


A substance made up of only one kind of atom. Unlike compounds, elements cannot be broken chemically into other substances.


In mineralogy, the ability of one mineral to scratch another. This is measured by the Mohs scale.


Any chemical compound whose molecules are made up of nothing but carbon and hydrogen atoms.


An atom or group of atoms that has lost or gained one or more electrons and thus has a net electric charge. Positively charged ions are called cations, and negatively charged ones are called anions.


A form of chemical bonding that results from attractions between ions with opposite electric charges.


The appearance of a mineral when light reflects off its surface. Among the terms used in identifying luster aremetallic, vitreous (glassy), and dull.


A naturally occurring, typically inorganic substance with a specific chemical composition and a crystalline structure. Unknown minerals usually can be identified in terms of specific parameters, such as hardness or luster.


The study of minerals, which includes a number of smaller sub-disciplines, such as crystallography.


A substance with a variable composition, meaning that it is composed of molecules or atoms of differing types and in variable proportions.


A scale, introduced in 1812 by the German mineralogist Friedrich Mohs (1773-1839), that rates the hardness of minerals from 1 to 10. Ten is equivalent to the hardness of a diamond and 1 that of talc, an extremely soft mineral.


Small, individual subunits that join together to form polymers.


The center of an atom, a region where protons and neutrons are located and around which electrons spin.


A rock or mineral possessing economic value.


At one time, chemists used the term organic only in reference to living things. Now the word is applied to most compounds containing carbon and hydrogen, thus excluding carbonates (which are minerals) and oxides such as carbon dioxide.


A chart that shows the elements arranged in order of atomic number, along with the chemical symbol and the average atomic mass for that particular element.


Large, typically chainlike molecules composed of numerous smaller, repeating units known as monomers.


A positively charged particle in an atom.


A substance, whether an element or compound, that has the same chemical composition throughout. Compare with mixture.


A term referring to the ability of one element to bond with others. The higher the reactivity (and, hence, the electro negativity value), the greater the tendency to bond.


An aggregate of minerals.


The ratio between the density of a particular substance and that of water.


The color of the powder produced when one mineral is scratched byanother, harder one.


Electrons that occupy the highest principal energy level in an atom. These are the electrons involved in chemical bonding.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Minerals." Science of Everyday Things. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Minerals." Science of Everyday Things. . (December 12, 2017).

"Minerals." Science of Everyday Things. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from



MINERALS. Living organisms appear to selectively concentrate certain elements from the environment while rejecting others. The adult human body contains approximately thirty-five elements. Four of these (hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen) constitute 99 percent of the atoms in the body. As a comparison, the most abundant elements in the Earth's crust are oxygen (67 percent), silicon (28 percent), and aluminum (8 percent). The remaining 1 percent of the elements in the human body (with the exception of sulfur) are the inorganic or mineral constituents of the body and thus form the ash when the body is "burned." Seven of the remaining elements, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur, and chloride, together represent about 0.9 percent of the body's weight. The seventeen others make up the remaining 0.1 percent, some of which, but not all, are considered nutritionally essential. These elements appear in the body at measurable concentrations but may not perform an essential biological function. Cadmium is one such example. The newborn infant is virtually free of this element, but gradually accumulates cadmium by ingestion and inhalation, such that over a lifetime an average person living in an industrial society accumulates milligrams of this element. Not only does cadmium appear to serve no essential function in the body, it is also likely to be undesirable and potentially detrimental.

Most experts agree that thirteen mineral elements are nutritionally essential. These are minerals that when deficient consistently result in an impairment of a function that is prevented or cured by supplementation. There still is some question about seven others (Table 1).

The functions of mineral elements are structural, osmotic, catalytic, and signaling. Calcium plays the most obvious role as structural component of bone but also participates in many examples of cell signaling. Sodium, chloride, and potassium constitute the majority of minerals whose function is to maintain osmotic and water balance and membrane electrical potentials. The micro-mineral elements listed in Table 1 have historically been classified as "trace" elements primarily because they occurred at levels below past methods for detection. In general, these minerals function as biocatalysts. Iron is the most prominent example because a deficiency of iron is probably the most common nutritional deficiency on earth (anemia afflicts more than 15 percent of the world's population). Copper and zinc are the prototypical biocatalysts because virtually all of their known functions involve either catalytic or structural roles in many different enzymes. Copper is unique in that all of the known deficiency symptoms in experimental animal models can be explained on the basis of failure of known enzymes. Zinc deficiency, on the other hand, presents symptoms that are not directly attributable to any of the fifty or more enzymes in which it is found. Selenium, manganese, and molybdenum are also constituents of enzymes. Deficiency symptoms for selenium and manganese have been well characterized but a nutritional deficiency of molybdenum has not been satisfactorily demonstrated. The most compelling reason to include molybdenum among the thirteen nutritionally essential elements is because of its presence (and thus function) in several important enzymes. Some microminerals serve a very narrow range of biological functions. Iodine and cobalt are exclusively constituents of thyroid hormones and vitamin B12, respectively. No other role has been identified for these elements.

Known nutritionally essential minerals
Element Amount in 70-kg Human (g) Function
Calcium 1,200 Component of bones; signal transduction in hormonal action, muscle contraction, blood clotting; and structural role in proteins
Phosphorus 700 Component of bone Necessary for activation of high energy intermediates
Potassium 240 Osmotic, electrolyte, and water balance
Chloride 120 Osmotic, electrolyte, and water balance
Sodium 120 Osmotic, electrolyte, and water balance
Magnesium 35 Activation of ATPases, kinases, and other enzymes
Iron 4.0 Catalytic redox reactions, oxygenation, and O2-carrying proteins
Zinc 2.0 Catalytic as a Lewis acid and structural function for some metalloenzymes
Copper 0.1 Catalytic in redox reactions some involving iron
Selenium 0.020 Structural and catalytic component of peroxidases, especially glutathione peroxidase. Provides antioxidant protection
Iodine 0.015 Component of thyroid hormones
Molybdenuma 0.012 Structural component of enzymes, especially xanthine oxidase and sulfite oxidase
Manganese 0.015 Catalytic role in enzymes involved in cartilage formation
Cob 0.001 Structural component of vitamin B12
Abbreviations: ATPase, adenosine triphosphatase.
aBiochemical evidence only that it is essential.
bEssential only as a component of vitamin B12.

The remaining mineral elements are those that occur in significant concentrations in the human body and most probably serve an important biological function. However, consistent findings regarding deficiency symptoms and specific biochemical functions have not been reported. Fluorine is a unique example of a mineral that currently has no definitive biological function but because it appears beneficial to dental health, it is a recommended nutrient.

Calcium and Phosphorus

Approximately 99 and 85 percent of the total calcium and phosphorus, respectively, in the human body are found in bone. Both ions leave the bone and are deposited back each day representing normal metabolic activity or "turnover" of bone. The remaining 1 percent of calcium is found in both extracellular and intracellular pools and is absolutely critical for normal body function such as muscle contraction and nerve activity. Although very rare, a sudden drop in extracellular concentrations of calcium (<50 percent) can lead to an emergency situation such as tetany or convulsions. Nerve cells bathed in hypocalcemic fluid spontaneously "fire," leading to uncontrolled nerve activation and muscle spasm. The majority of the extracellular calcium is in chemical equilibrium with bone. Approximately 30 percent is under hormonal control by several hormones, parathyroid hormone, vitamin D, and thyrocalcitonin. As a result, the concentration of extracellular calcium is remarkably constant. Blood levels of phosphorus fluctuate much more and appear to be determined in large part by urinary excretion.

The absorption of calcium from the diet is dependent on a number of dietary and physiological factors. Vitamin D is synthesized in skin when exposed to ultra-violet irradiation [290 to 315 nanometers of ultraviolet (UV) light]. Sunscreen lotions [Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 8] can reduce this synthesis as much as 90 percent. Inadequate sunlight exposure was most likely the cause of calcium deficiency rickets observed at the turn of the century in countries at northern latitudes. A change in dietary calcium absorption in humans appears to take several weeks to accomplish but accounts for the ability of humans to tolerate diets that provide relatively little calcium (200 to 400 mg/day). This activation process becomes less potent with age and may account in part for the increased calcium requirements with age.

Dietary factors affecting the absorption of calcium are well known. They include chelating organic acids such as oxalic and phytic acid. The former is the most potent and is responsible for the markedly diminished "availability" of calcium found in spinach.The amount of calcium contained by a food is only an approximation of the amount of calcium that is ultimately "available." Estimated fractional absorption (percent of intake absorbed into the body) of calcium from these foods ranges from 5 percent for spinach to 61 percent for broccoli. Vegetables of the Brassica family such as broccoli and cabbage appear to contain little oxalate and thus contain calcium that exhibits higher bioavailability than dairy products. Milk and dairy products have relatively high calcium content as well as relatively high fractional absorption (30 percent), resulting in the highest amount of calcium per serving. Lactose in milk enhances the absorption of calcium in infants but its effect in adults is less clear. Other dietary factors affect the retention of dietary calcium but have little impact on its absorption. For example, high intakes of either sodium or protein are thought to result in increased urinary losses of calcium. Protein increases renal calcium loss by increasing acid load while sodium increases losses via shared renal transporters. Both of these conditions may affect calcium balance and ultimately the requirements for this nutrient. The bone loss associated with chronic calcium losses or negative calcium balance may ultimately lead to weakened bones or osteoporosis. Calcium supplements may adversely affect the bioavailability of iron.

Calcium deficiency occurs primarily as rickets or osteomalacia in young children. Bones are deformed (bowed legs) and weak due to inadequate calcification of the protein matrix of bone. This deficiency can arise as a result of too little dietary calcium (relatively rare) or inadequate vitamin D synthesis. Historically, the latter has been the major cause brought about primarily because of reduced exposure to sunlight. It is conceivable, however, that dietary factors such as oxalates and cultural customs (clothing) may interact to play a role in the development of rickets especially since recent cases have been reported in areas of the world near the equator where sunlight should not be limiting. Calcium deficiency does not appear to be a primary cause of osteoporosis. This condition is characterized not by inadequate bone mineralization but by a loss of total bone both protein matrix and mineral. Bones weaken and become susceptible to fracture.

Sodium and Chloride

Total body sodium is approximately one-tenth of that of calcium. One-third of body sodium is found in bone but its metabolic significance is unknown. Sodium and chloride constitute the major cation and anion, respectively, in the extracellular fluid of humans. Sodium is the primary determinant of the osmotic pressure of the extracellular fluid and as such is the main determinant of extracellular fluid volume. The sodium ion concentration changes less than 3 percent day in and day out despite dramatic fluctuations in sodium intake. This is a reflection of a very tightly controlled and highly regulated system to maintain constant osmotic pressure. Through most of human evolution, the availability of dietary salt has been very highly restricted. Much of dietary sodium (and chloride) were derived from sources such as meat and vegetables, which contain very low levels. Consequently, humans and other mammals have evolved physiological mechanisms that permit sodium conservation under extreme conditions. This physiological conservation system comprised of pressure receptors, renal renin, lung angiotensinogen, adrenal aldosterone, and vassopression all makes dietary requirements extremely difficult to assess. For example, the Yanomamo Indians in Northern Brazil have been found to excrete as little as 1 mEq/day of sodium (Na) per day. This reflects a dietary consumption of approximately 60 mg salt per day (over 100 times less than that which is normally consumed in Western populations). At the other extreme are the northern Japanese, who consume nearly 26 grams of salt each day. These regions of Japan have unusually high incidences of cerebral hemorrhage, most likely related to the high incidence of hypertension. Other areas of the world such as Northern Europe and the United States consume approximately 10 g/day or less of salt. The sodium and potassium contents of some selected foods are shown in Figure 1. It is apparent that many "unprocessed" foods contain very little sodium. Estimates of sodium intake suggest that over 85 percent of the sodium consumed in Western diets is sodium added during processing. This is clearly illustrated by the progressively higher sodium content of peas (fresh, frozen, and canned) and perhaps more important, the dramatic reduction in potassium content. The net result is a reversal of the naturally low sodium to potassium ratio found in all fresh plants.

A deficiency of sodium normally does not occur even in areas where salt is scarce. The abnormal loss of sodium and other electrolytes, however, could occur under conditions of extreme sweat loss, chronic diarrhea and vomiting, or renal disease, all of which produce an inability to retain sodium. Acute episodes of diarrhea or vomiting resulting in a loss of 5 percent of body weight could lead to shock. The most important therapy under these circumstances is to restore sodium and water or circulatory volume. Chloride deficiency has been reported in infants consuming low-sodium chloride formulas. They show signs of metabolic alkalosis, dehydration, anorexia, and growth failure. Potassium depletion most notably affects cardiac function where either elevations or reductions in serum potassium can cause arrythmias.


Magnesium is an important intracellular ion involved in many enzymatic reactions of food oxidation and cell constituent synthesis. Approximately 60 percent of total body magnesium is found in bone, where approximately half can be released during bone resorption. Magnesium food sources are widely distributed in plant and animal products with the highest content found in whole grains and green (high chlorophyll) leafy vegetables. Refining wheat with the removal of the germ and outer layers may remove nearly 80 percent of the magnesium from wheat. Meats and most fruits and vegetables are poor sources of magnesium. The absorption of magnesium appears to be unrelated to the absorption of calcium (that is, is independent of vitamin D) and is relatively unaffected by food constituents. Phytate and phosphates, however, may adversely affect magnesium availability by forming insoluble products although their practical significance is unclear. Experimental magnesium deficiency has been produced in humans. Urinary magnesium drops virtually to zero while plasma levels are relatively well preserved. The change in urinary excretion reflects a "urinary threshold" for magnesium. After continued deficiency, however, neuromuscular activity is affected, ultimately leading to tremors and convulsions. Serum and urinary calcium levels are profoundly reduced and not restored by parathyroid hormone administration. It was concluded that magnesium is essential for the mobilization of calcium from bone. A deficiency of magnesium under normal conditions is unlikely but may occur with the presence of other illnesses such as alcoholism or renal disease.


Over 65 percent of body iron is found in hemoglobin, the respiratory pigment used to transport oxygen within and between tissues. One-third of body iron is a "storage" form that can be mobilized during times of need. The amount of "storage" iron may vary greatly with age and gender. Food sources of iron are complicated by numerous factors that affect the bioavailability of dietary iron. Non-heme sources of iron are found in plant and vegetable products and the absorption from these sources (versus heme found in meat products) is generally lower and influenced to a greater extent by total diet composition. Vitamin C is probably the most signficant enhancer of non-heme iron absorption, while plant phenolics such as tannins found in teas and phytates found in cereals are some of the most potent inhibitors. None of these factors, however, affect the absorption of heme iron found in meats. Iron status can markedly affect the amount of iron absorbed from a meallow status increases iron absorption. The effect is most pronounced for non-heme iron, changing over fourfold compared to 50 percent for heme iron. Although iron status can influence absorption, the most important determinant of iron availability is the composition of the diet. It is clear that non-heme iron absorption is markedly affected by the characteristics of the food with which it is eaten and that there are clear differences in the nature of absorption of heme and non-heme iron. Iron deficiency is seldom related to iron intake per se. Major causes of anemia (too little hemoglobin) include blood loss and/or diets containing either no enhancers (such as meat or ascorbic acid) or high levels of inhibitors. Infection can also change iron metabolism significantly such that much of the anemia in the world is due to chronic infection. The losses for iron for both men and women are known precisely but the amount of dietary iron requirement depends on the overall diet.


Zinc is present in all tissues and performs both structural and catalytic functions in many different enzymes. Unfortunately, changes in the activities of these enzymes are not sufficient to explain the pathological effects of experimental zinc deficiency. Experimental animals refuse to eat experimental diets that are very low in zinc. Human zinc deficiency was demonstrated nearly two decades ago in the United States. Young children from 6 months to 5 years of age showed low amounts of zinc in the hair relative to other groups. Hair zinc and taste acuity were restored after three to five months of zinc supplementation. Earlier studies also revealed zinc deficiency in regions of Iran and Egypt. It is very difficult to assess zinc status in humans. Serum zinc is not adequate to assess nutritional status. In experimental situations, serum zinc falls remarkably (<50 percent) following a low zinc intake without immediate (or apparent) ill effects. In 1974, a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 15 mg/day was established for zinc. (It was not until 1974 that we had enough information to estimate an RDA for zinc, at which time the value was established at 15 mg. The RDA presented in 1989 gives 15 mg per day for adults. The 2001 Institute of Medicine value is 11 mg per day.) Approximately 70 percent of zinc consumed by most people is derived from animal products. Cereals contain appreciable zinc but the availability varies considerably. Several plant compounds interfere with the absorption of zinc. The most prominent of these is phytates (inositol hexa-and pentaphosphate). These inhibitors most likely contribute to the natural incidence of dietary zinc deficiency observed in humans.


Although the importance of copper deficiency in animals has been recognized since the 1930s, it is still not possible to establish an RDA for copper in humans because of the uncertainty regarding the quantitative requirements. There is no doubt that copper is an essential nutrient for humans. Current estimates of the minimum copper requirement are between 0.4 and 0.8 mg/day. Copper is critical for the function of several enzymes, especially blood ceruloplasmin. The activity of this enzyme in blood falls dramatically in experimental animals soon after giving copper-deficient diets and is thought to be a good indicator of copper depletion even in humans. Ceruloplasmin is essential for iron absorption (it catylizes the oxidation of Fe2× to Fe3× required for binding of iron to the blood transport protein, transferrin) and explains the anemia observed in copper deficiency. In contrast to zinc, all of the symptoms of a copper defeciency under experimental conditions can be explained by changes in various enzymes that require copper. Two inherited diseases associated with abnormal copper metabolism have been observedone (Menkes' disease) is associated with copper deficiency, while the other (Wilson's disease) is a disease of excessive copper accumulation. Excessive intake of zinc can precipitate a copper deficiency. An example of zinc-induced copper deficiency has been reported in humans and is attributed to a reduction in the absorption of copper. Excessive zinc may induce intestinal proteins that bind copper and thereby prevent its transfer from the intestine into the body.


Approximately 80 percent of total body iodine (20 milligrams) is found in the thyroid gland. All of the iodine that leaves this gland does so as a component of the thyroid hormonesthyroxine and triiodothyronine. In fact, all of the functional significance of iodine is as a component of these hormones. Iodine deficiency represents the most common cause of preventable mental deficits in the world's population. Since most of the world's iodine is found in the oceans, coastal areas are not deficient. However, mountainous areas such as the Himalayas, European Alps, and the mountains of China, as well as the flooded river valleys of Asia, areas where leaching of iodine from soils has occurred for eons, produce iodine-deficient crops and plants. Iodine deficiency during pregnancy causes cretinism, a diet-related birth defect that is characterized by permanent mental retardation and severe growth stunting. In young children and adults, iodine deficiency results in enlarged thyroid glands or goiter. Although various foods such as cassava, cabbage, and turnips contain goitrogens, substances that interfer with iodine metabolism, their practical signficance is not clear. Cassava, the dietary staple in regions of Africa and other areas, may be the exception, especially when not well cooked. The cyanide released by the ingestion of this plant is transformed and ulitmately leads to an inhibition of the uptake of iodine by the thyroid. Goiter was once common in areas of the United States near the Great Lakes and westward to Washington State, but the introduction of iodized salt almost competely eliminated goiter in these areas by the 1950s. The minimum requirement for iodine to prevent goiter is approximately 1 μg/kg/day whereas the recommended intake is nearly twice this amount.


Although selenium was first recognized as a toxic trace element for livestock, it is now clear that selenium is an essential nutrient for all animals. During the 1930s, livestock grazing in parts of the Great Plains of North America were found to contract a disease characterized by hair loss, lameness, and death by starvation. The cause of this disease was excess selenium obtained from the plants grown in soils containing high selenium concentration. In fact, selenium, more than any other essential trace element, varies greatly in its concentration in soils throughout the world. Plants accumulate selenium from soils but are not thought to require selenium for growth. Although human toxicity was not observed in affected regions in the United States, endemic selenium poisoning has been observed in high-selenium regions of China where the symptoms included loss of hair and nails. China also possesses regions of very low selenium where, in fact, humans have been diagnosed with selenium deficiencyKeshan disease (cardiomyopathy) and KeshanBeck disease (degenerative joint disease). Although other factors may be involved, selenium deficiency is clearly a predisposing factor. Selenium functions as part of several important enzymes. The most prominent is a soluble enzyme, glutathione peroxidase, whose function is to reduce hydrogen peroxide and organic (lipid) peroxides, thus preventing the oxidative destruction of cell membranes. Selenium is incorporated into the enzyme as the amino acid selenocysteine by reactions that are unique to selenium. Together with vitamin E, selenium, as a structural component of glutathione peroxidase, forms an antioxidant defense against oxidative stress. The requirement for selenium has been estimated by various methods. On the basis of intakes in regions of China with and without deficiency disease, approximately 20 μg/day is considered an adequate amount to prevent deficiency. The estimated safe and adequate selenium intake suggested by the U.S. National Research Council ranged from 50 to 200 μg/day in 1980. An amount to maintain the highest serum glutathione peroxidase activity appears to be 70 and 55 μg/day for an average man or woman, respectively, which became the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) in 1989. In 1996, the World Health Organization recommended 40 and 30 μg/day for men and women, respectively. Intakes greater that 400 μg/day are considered to be the maximum safe level. Selenium is thus an example of a nutrient that possesses a relatively narrow range of intakes that are safe and that meet requirements.


Normal body content of manganese is very lowapproximately 15 milligrams or very similar to iodine. In contrast to iodine, manganese deficiency has not been observed in humans but has occurred naturally in chickens and experimentally in many other species. Manganese is required by several enzymes, which may or may not be inolved in the symptoms of a manganese deficiency. Symptoms include impaired growth, skeletal abnormalities, and defects in lipid and carbohydrate metabolism. The role of manganese in the synthesis of the mucopolysaccharide component of bone and cartilage is the most crucial whereas mineralization of bone appears to be independent of manganese. Excessive manganese will interfere with iron absorption. Under conditions of iron deficiency, manganese absorption is increased. Both iron and manganese appear to share a common site for absorption. The recommendations for manganese intake are based on estimates of normal dietary intakes of 2 to 5 mg/day. This amount is thought to be sufficient to replace the 50 percent of body manganese that is lost every 3 to 10 weeks.


Chromium is one of the most intriguing and potentially important trace elements because it appears to influence the action of a critical hormone, insulin. Unfortunately, the definitive role of chromium in this regard awaits further study. Decreased sensitivity of peripheral tissues to insulin appears to be the primary biochemical lesion in experimental chromium deficiency. Impaired glucose tolerance has been attributed to chromium deficiency in several experimental models. Also, several patients receiving total parenteral nutrition have responded to chromium supplementation in the predicted manner, that is, improved glucose tolerance. These findings have established chromium as an essential nutrient for humans but the specific deficiency symptoms in those who receive enteral feeding have not emerged. Overt chromium deficiency is very unlikely under normal conditions due to the small amounts of chromium needed. Moreover, a marginal deficiency is very difficult to identify due to the lack of reliable markers for diagnoses concerning chromium. Currently, there is little or no evidence that chromium supplements are either warranted or effective. Even the recommended intakes for adults (50 to 200 μg/day) are uncertain due to the lack of reliable methods for assessment.


Fluoride is not generally considered to be an essential element for humans. It is, however, considered beneficial in that normal intakes appear to reduce the incidence of dental caries. The mechanism of this benefit is thought to be due to incorporation of fluoride into the mineral matrix of tooth enamel, thus producing a more resistant mineral apatite crystal. Over 99 percent of the fluoride found in the body is found in bones and teeth as a component of this mineral apatite crystal. An unusually high intake of fluoride causes permanently discolored or mottled teeth, a condition identified in children drinking water with 2 to 3 parts of fluoride per million. The level of fluoride commonly maintained in municipal water supplies is 1 part per million.

Silicon and Nickel

Silicon is the most abundant mineral in the Earth's crust. It is thus surprising that a need for silicon in biological systems has not been more prominent. Limited research conducted since 1974 has indicated a role for silicon in the development of mature bones in chickens and rats. A human requirement has not been established but estimates in the range of 10 to 20 mg/day have been suggested. Most likely intakes of this magnitude occur under normal conditions. Nickel deficiency has been experimentally produced in several species. Growth depression and changes in iron metabolism have been described. Nickel has been discovered in the enzyme urease from bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae, plants, and invertebrates. Many other enzymes exist for which nickel is apparently a component. Thus, it is likely that nickel plays an essential functional role in higher organisms, including humans.


Molybdenum is an essential component of at least three important enzymes found in animals and humans. A deficiency of one of these enzymes, sulfite oxidase, can have severe consequencesseizures and severe mental retardation in infancy. This deficiency has arisen in patients with genetic mutations in cofactor synthesis but not as a primary molybdenum deficiency. The dietary requirements of molybdenum cannot be given, or even approximated, for any animal species including humans. A deficiency of molybdenum has not been observed under natural conditions for any species. Despite this, the biochemical role of molybdenum as a component of several enzymes establishes it as an essential nutrient for humans.

See also Assessment of Nutritional Status; Calcium; Dietary Assessment; Dietary Guidelines; Fluoride; Food, Composition of; Fruit; Iodine; Iron; Malnutrition; Nutrients; Nutrition; Sodium; Trace Elements; Vegetables; Vitamins.


Brody, Tom. Nutritional Biochemistry. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1994.

da Silva, J. J. R. Frausto, and R. J. P. Williams. The Biological Chemistry of the Elements. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Gillooly, M., T. H. Bothwell, J. D. Torrance, P. MacPhail, D. P. Derman, W. R. Bezwoda, W. Mills, and R. W. Charlton. "The Effects of Organic Acids, Phytates and Polyphenols on the Absorption of Iron from Vegetables." British Journal of Nutrition 49 (1983): 331342.

Groff, James L., Sareen S. Gropper, and Sara M. Hunt. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.: West, 1995.

Hallberg, L., L. Hulten, and E. Gramatkovski. "Iron Absorption from the Whole Diet in Men: How Effective Is the Regulation of Iron Absorption?" American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 66 (1997): 347356.

Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes. Washington D.C., National Academy Press, 2001.

Layrisse, M., C. Martinez-Torres, J. D. Cook, R. Walker, and C. A. Finch. "Iron Fortification of Food: Its Measurement by the Extrinsic Tag Method." Blood 41 (1973): 333352.

Linder, Maria C., ed. Nutritional Biochemistry and Metabolism. New York: Elsevier, 1985.

MacGregor, Graham A., and Hugh E. de Wardner. Salt, Diet and Health. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Odell, Boyd L., and R. A. Sunde, eds. Handbook of Nutritionally Essential Mineral Elements. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1997.

Schrauzer, Gerhard N. "The Discovery of the Essential Trace Elements: An Outline of the History of Biological Trace Element Research." In Biochemistry of the Essential Ultra-trace Elements, edited by Earl Frieden, pp. 1731. New York: Plenum, 1984.

Shils, Maurice E., James A. Olson, Moshe Shike, and A. Catherine Ross, eds. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, 9th ed. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1999.

Stipanuk, M. H., ed. Biochemical and Physiological Aspects of Human Nutrition. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 2000.

Underwood, E. J., ed. Trace Elements in Human and Animal Nutrition, 4th ed. New York: Academic Press, 1977.

Weaver, C. M., and R. P. Heaney. "Calcium." In Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease., 9th ed., edited by M. E. Shils, J. A. Olson, M. Shike, and A. C. Ross, pp. 141156. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins. 1999.

Ziegler, Ekhard E., and L. J. Filer, Jr., eds. Present Knowledge in Nutrition, 7th. ed. Washington, D.C.: ILSI, 1996.

Charles Chipley W. McCormick

Calcium and Osteoporosis

The relationship between dietary calcium and osteoporosis has been studied for many years. Early indications suggested that dietary calcium intake was not correlated with bone density (a indicator of bone strength) or the bone loss that naturally occurs with aging. The complexity of the issue is illustrated by observations that many people consume relatively low calcium diets and yet show little evidence of osteoporosis. The genetic contribution to bone density is well established. Studies of identical twins demonstrate that a considerable proportion of the variation in bone density is attributable to inheritance. Mothers with osteoporosis have daughters (thirty years of age) who possess bone density that is significantly less than agematched controls. Dietary intervention with calcium has been attempted in many different studies. Those in the past decade suggest that some changes may be effected by increased calcium intake but they are relatively minor and perhaps short-lived. For example, calcium supplements of 500 mg/day over three years were found to affect bone density of some bones significantly only in older women whose habitual calcium intakes were relatively low (>400 mg/day). Supplements had no effect in older women who had higher habitual calcium intakes. This study seemed to indicate that there might be a subset of elderly women who may benefit from increased calcium intake. Because vitamin D has such a critical role in the absorption of calcium, some workers have examined both vitamin D status and calcium supplementation. Overall, the results not surprisingly support the idea that vitamin D may be a limiting factor in the absorption of dietary calcium. Many other dietary variables may also be important in optimizing the effectiveness of dietary calcium. Dietary acidity, which is promoted by protein intake and ameliorated by the consumption of fruits and vegetables, may contribute. Alkaline diets rich in potassium appear to reduce the loss of body calcium and thus preserve bones. Elevated sodium intake also appears to increase urinary calcium losses. Therefore, the development of osteoporosis is unlikely to be a simple matter of too little dietary calcium consumption, especially in the later years of life, but more of an effect of total dietary conditions superimposed on a particular genetic background.

Sodium and Potassium

In the early 1950s, scientists found that experimental animals could be selected genetically to be susceptible to dietary salt-induced hypertension. Lewis K. Dahl and colleagues established a genetic strain of rat that was sensitive to high dietary salt. These rats showed remarkably elevated blood pressure when dietary salt was increased approximately ten times above normal. The rats' kidneys appeared to have a genetically programmed sensitivity to salt-induced hypertension. However, in the absence of high dietary salt, these animals were normal. Dietary potassium was also recognized as an important factor since high concentrations could ameliorate the effect of sodium chloride. Establishing a direct link between high dietary salt intake and hypertension in humans has been difficult to prove. The problem has been that not all individuals within a population are equally sensitive. Much evidence has come from studies of populations with widely differing salt intake. Populations whose sodium intake is low (less than 100 milligrams of salt) do not appear to develop elevated blood pressure with age. Those whose intake is relatively high do show increased blood pressure with age and evidence of increased incidence of essential hypertension. Recent studies with nonhuman primates have clearly shown that changes in salt intake alone are sufficient to induce changes in blood pressure. Many other studies suggest that lower potassium intake may also be important in the etiology of elevated blood pressure. Certain individuals may be more susceptible or sensitive to sodium-induced changes in blood pressure (similar to experimental animals). All of the known mutations resulting in a phenotype of hypertension involve some aspect of sodium renal excretion and/or retention. It is likely, then, that genetic sodium sensitivity will be a prerequisite to an environmentally induced development of hypertension.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Minerals." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Minerals." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . (December 12, 2017).

"Minerals." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from



Minerals are inorganic elements that originate in the earth and cannot be made in the body. They play important roles in various bodily functions and are necessary to sustain life and maintain optimal health, and thus are essential nutrients . Most of the minerals in the human diet come directly from plants and water, or indirectly from animal foods. However, the mineral content of water and plant foods varies geographically because of variations in the mineral content of soil from region to region.

The amount of minerals present in the body, and their metabolic roles, varies considerably. Minerals provide structure to bones and teeth and participate in energy production, the building of protein , blood formation, and several other metabolic processes. Minerals are categorized into major and trace minerals, depending on the amount needed per day. Major minerals are those that are required in the amounts of 100 mg (milligrams) or more, while trace minerals are required in amounts less than 100 mg per day. The terms major and trace, however, do not reflect the importance of a mineral in maintaining health, as a deficiency of either can be harmful.

Some body processes require several minerals to work together. For example, calcium , magnesium, and phosphorus are all important for the formation and maintenance of healthy bones. Some minerals compete with each other for absorption , and they interact with other nutrients as well, which can affect their bioavailability .

Mineral Bioavailability

The degree to which the amount of an ingested nutrient is absorbed and available to the body is called bioavailability. Mineral bioavailability depends on several factors. Higher absorption occurs among individuals who are deficient in a mineral, while some elements in the diet (e.g., oxalic acid or oxalate in spinach) can decrease mineral availability by chemically binding to the mineral. In addition, excess intake of one mineral can influence the absorption and metabolism of other minerals. For example, the presence of a large amount of zinc in the diet decreases the absorption of iron and copper. On the other hand, the presence of vitamins in a meal enhances the absorption of minerals in the meal. For example, vitamin C improves iron absorption, and vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium.

In general, minerals from animal sources are absorbed better than those from plant sources as minerals are present in forms that are readily absorbed and binders that inhibit absorption, such as phytates , are absent. Vegans (those who restrict their diets to plant foods) need to be aware of the factors affecting mineral bioavailability. Careful meal planning is necessary to include foods rich in minerals and absorption-enhancing factors.


It is generally recommended that people eat a well-balanced diet to meet their mineral requirements, while avoiding deficiencies and chemical excesses or imbalances. However, supplements may be useful to meet dietary requirements for some minerals when dietary patterns fall short of Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) or Adequate Intakes (AIs) for normal healthy people.

The Food and Nutrition Board currently recommends that supplements or fortified foods be used to obtain desirable amounts of some nutrients, such as calcium and iron. The recommendations for calcium are higher than the average intake in the United States. Women, who generally consume lower energy diets than men, and individuals who do not consume dairy products can particularly benefit from calcium supplements. Because of the increased need for iron in women of childbearing age, as well as the many negative consequences of iron-deficiency anemia , iron supplementation is recommended for vulnerable groups in the United States, as well as in developing countries.

Mineral supplementation may also be appropriate for people with prolonged illnesses or extensive injuries, for those undergoing surgery, or for those being treated for alcoholism. However, extra caution must be taken to avoid intakes greater than the RDA or AI for specific nutrients because of problems related to nutrient excesses, imbalances, or adverse interactions with medical treatments. Although toxic symptoms or adverse effects from excess supplementation have been reported for various minerals (e.g., calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, and selenium) and tolerable upper limits set, the amounts of nutrients in supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Therefore, supplement users must be aware of the potential adverse effects and choose supplements with moderate amounts of nutrients.

Major Minerals

The major minerals present in the body include sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and sulfur.


The fluid balance in the body, vital for all life processes, is maintained largely by sodium, potassium, and chloride. Fluid balance is regulated by charged sodium and chloride ions in the extracellular fluid (outside the cell) and potassium in the intracellular fluid (inside the cell), and by some other electrolytes across cell membranes. Tight control is critical for normal muscle contraction, nerve impulse transmission, heart function, and blood pressure . Sodium plays an important role in the absorption of other nutrients, such as glucose , amino acids , and water. Chloride is a component of hydrochloric acid, an important part of gastric juice (an acidic liquid secreted by glands in the stomach lining) and aids in food digestion. Potassium and sodium act as cofactors for certain enzymes .

Calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus are known for their structural roles, as they are essential for the development and maintenance of bones and teeth. They are also needed for maintaining cell membranes and connective tissue. Several enzymes, hormones , and proteins that regulate energy and fat metabolism require calcium, magnesium and/or phosphorus to become active. Calcium also aids in blood clotting . Sulfur is a key component of various proteins and vitamins and participates in drug-detoxifying pathways in the body.

Disease prevention and treatment.

Sodium, chloride, and potassium are linked to high blood pressure (hypertension ) due to their role in the body's fluid balance. High salt or sodium chloride intake has been linked to cardiovascular disease as well. High potassium intakes, on the other hand, have been associated with a lower risk of stroke , particularly in people with hypertension. Research also suggests a preventive role for magnesium in hypertension and cardiovascular disease, as well as a beneficial effect in the treatment of diabetes , osteoporosis , and migraine headaches.

Osteoporosis is a bone disorder in which bone strength is compromised, leading to an increased risk of fracture. Along with other lifestyle factors, intake of calcium and vitamin D plays an important role in the maintenance of bone health and the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. Good calcium nutrition, along with low salt and high potassium intake, has been linked to prevention of hypertension and kidney stones .


Dietary deficiency is unlikely for most major minerals, except in starving people or those with protein-energy malnutrition in developing countries, or people on poor diets for an extended period, such as those suffering from alcoholism, anorexia nervosa , or bulimia . Most people in the world consume a lot of salt, and it is recommended that they moderate their intake to prevent chronic diseases (high salt intake has been associated with an increased risk of death from stroke and cardiovascular disease). However, certain conditions, such as severe or prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, the use of diuretics , and some forms of kidney disease, lead to an increased loss of minerals, particularly sodium, chloride, potassium, and magnesium. Calcium intakes tend to be lower in women and vegans who do not consume dairy products. Elderly people with suboptimal diets are also at risk of mineral deficiencies because of decreased absorption and increased excretion of minerals in the urine.


Toxicity from excessive dietary intake of major minerals rarely occurs in healthy individuals. Kidneys that are functioning normally can regulate mineral concentrations in the body by excreting the excess amounts in urine. Toxicity symptoms from excess intakes are more likely to appear with acute or chronic kidney failure.

Sodium and chloride toxicity can develop due to low intake or excess loss of water. Accumulation of excess potassium in plasma may result from the use of potassium-sparing diuretics (medications used to treat high blood pressure, which increase urine production, excreting sodium but not potassium), insufficient aldosterone secretion (a hormone that acts on the kidney to decrease sodium secretion and increase potassium secretion), or tissue damage (e.g., from severe burns). Magnesium intake from foods has no adverse effects, but a high intake from supplements when kidney function is limited increases the risk of toxicity. The most serious complication of potassium or magnesium toxicity is cardiac arrest. Adverse effects from excess calcium have been reported only with consumption of large quantities of supplements. Phosphate toxicity can occur due to absorption from phosphate salts taken by mouth or in enemas .

Trace Minerals

Trace minerals are present (and required) in very small amounts in the body. An understanding of the important roles and requirements of trace minerals in the human body is fairly recent, and research is still ongoing. The most important trace minerals are iron, zinc, copper, chromium, fluoride, iodine, selenium, manganese, and molybdenum. Some others, such as arsenic, boron, cobalt, nickel, silicon, and vanadium, are recognized as essential for some animals, while others, such as barium, bromine, cadmium, gold, silver, and aluminum, are found in the body, though little is known about their role in health.


Trace minerals have specific biological functions. They are essential in the absorption and utilization of many nutrients and aid enzymes and hormones in activities that are vital to life. Iron plays a major role in oxygen transport and storage and is a component of hemoglobin in red blood cells and myoglobin in muscle cells. Cellular energy production requires many trace minerals, including iron, copper, and zinc, which act as enzyme cofactors in the synthesis of many proteins, hormones, neurotransmitters , and genetic material.

Iron and zinc support immune function, while chromium and zinc aid insulin action. Zinc is also essential for many other bodily functions, such as growth, development of sexual organs, and reproduction. Zinc, copper and selenium prevent oxidative damage to cells. Fluoride stabilizes bone mineral and hardens tooth enamel, thus increasing resistance to tooth decay. Iodine is essential for normal thyroid function, which is critical for many aspects of growth and development, particularly brain development. Thus, trace minerals contribute to physical growth and mental development.

Role in disease prevention and treatment.

In addition to clinical deficiency diseases such as anemia and goiter, research indicates that trace minerals play a role in the development, prevention, and treatment of chronic diseases. A marginal status of several trace minerals has been found to be associated with infectious diseases , disorders of the stomach, intestine, bone, heart, and liver, and cancer , although further research is necessary in many cases to understand the effect of supplementation. Iron, zinc, copper, and selenium have been associated with immune response conditions. Copper, chromium and selenium have been linked to the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Excess iron in the body, on the other hand, can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, liver and colorectal cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. Chromium supplementation has been found to be beneficial in many studies of impaired glucose tolerance, a metabolic state between normal glucose regulation and diabetes. Fluoride has been known to prevent dental caries and osteoporosis, while potassium iodide supplements taken immediately before or after exposure to radiation can decrease the risk of radiation-induced thyroid cancer.


With the exception of iron, dietary deficiencies are rare in the United States and other developed nations. However, malnutrition in developing countries increases the risk for trace-mineral deficiencies among children and other vulnerable groups. In overzealous supplement users, interactions among nutrients can inhibit absorption of some minerals leading to deficiencies. Patients on intravenous feedings without mineral supplements are at risk of developing deficiencies as well.

Although severe deficiencies of better-understood trace minerals are easy to recognize, diagnosis is difficult for less-understood minerals and for mild deficiencies. Even mild deficiencies of trace minerals however, can result in poor growth and development in children.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide, including in the United States. Iron-deficiency anemia affects hundreds of millions of people, with highest prevalence in developing countries. Infants, young children, adolescents, and pregnant and lactating women are especially vulnerable due to their high demand for iron. Menstruating women are also vulnerable due to blood loss. Vegetarians are another vulnerable group, as iron from plant foods is less bioavailable than that from animal sources.

Zinc deficiency, marked by severe growth retardation and arrested sexual development, was first reported in children and adolescent boys in Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. Diets in Middle Eastern countries are typically high in fiber and phytates, which inhibit zinc absorption. Mild zinc deficiency has been found in vulnerable groups in the United States. Copper deficiency is rare, but can be caused by excess zinc from supplementation.

Deficiencies of fluoride, iodine, and selenium mainly occur due to a low mineral content in either the water or soil in some areas of the world. Fluoride deficiency is marked by a high prevalence of dental caries and is common in geographic regions with low water-fluoride concentration, which has led to the fluoridation of water in the United States and many other parts of the world. Goiter and cretinism (a condition in which body growth and mental development are stunted) have been eliminated by iodization of salt in the United States, but still occur in parts of the world where salt manufacture and distribution are not regulated. Selenium deficiency due to low levels of the mineral in soil is found in northeast China, and it has been associated with Keshan disease, a heart disorder prevalent among people of that area.


Trace minerals can be toxic at higher intakes, especially for those minerals whose absorption is not regulated in the body (e.g., selenium and iodine). Thus, it is important not to habitually exceed the recommended intake levels. Although toxicity from dietary sources is unlikely, certain genetic disorders can make people vulnerable to overloads from food or supplements. One such disorder, hereditary hemochromatosis, is characterized by iron deposition in the liver and other tissues due to increased intestinal iron absorption over many years.

Chronic exposure to trace minerals through cooking or storage containers can result in overloads of iron, zinc, and copper. Fluorosis, a discoloration of the teeth, has been reported in regions where the natural content of fluoride in drinking water is high. Inhalation of manganese dust over long periods of time has been found to cause brain damage among miners and steelworkers in many parts of the world.

In summary, minerals, both major and trace, play vital roles in human health, and care must be taken to obtain adequate intakes from a wide variety of whole foods. The most common result of deficiencies is poor growth and development in children. Minerals interact with each other and with other nutrients, and caution is required when using supplements, as excess intake of one mineral can lead to the deficiency of another nutrient.

see also Anemia; Bioavailability; Calcium; Dietary Supplements; Osteoporosis; Vitamins, Fat-Soluble; Vitamins, Water-Soluble.

Sunitha Jasti


Wardlaw, Gordon M. (1999). Perspectives in Nutrition, 4th edition. Boston: WCB McGraw-Hill.

Whitney, Eleanor N., and Rolfes, Sharon R. (1996). Understanding Nutrition, 7th edition. New York: West Publishing.

Internet Resources

The American Dietetic Association (2002). "Position of The American Dietetic Association: Food Fortification and Dietary Supplements." Available from <>

The Linus Pauling Institute. "Minerals." Available from <>

United States Department of Agriculture (2002). "Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) and Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA)." Available from <>

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Minerals." Nutrition and Well-Being A to Z. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Minerals." Nutrition and Well-Being A to Z. . (December 12, 2017).

"Minerals." Nutrition and Well-Being A to Z. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from



Minerals are the building blocks of rocks. A mineral may be defined as any naturally occurring inorganic solid that has a definite chemical composition (that can vary only within specified limits) and possesses a crystalline structure. The study of minerals is known as mineralogy, which dates back to prehistory. The use of minerals in the construction of primitive weapons and as suppliers of color for ancient artists makes mineralogy one of the oldest of the human arts.

Minerals may be characterized by the fundamental patterns of their crystal structures. A crystal structure is commonly identified by its fundamental repeating unit, which upon protraction into three dimensions generates a macroscopic crystal. Crystal structures can be divided into crystal systems, which can be further subdivided into crystal classesa total of thirty-two crystal classes, which are sometimes referred to as point classes.

More commonly, minerals are described or classified on the basis of their chemical composition. Although some minerals, such as graphite or diamond, consist primarily of a single element (in this instance, carbon), most minerals occur as ionic compounds that consist of orderly arrangements of cations and anions and have a specific crystalline structure determined by the sizes and charges of the individual ions. Cations (positively charged ions) are formed by the loss of negatively charged electrons from atoms. Anions consist of a single element, the atoms of which have become negatively charged via the acquisition of electrons, or they consist of several elements, the atoms bound together by covalent bonds and bearing an overall negative charge. Pyrite (FeS2) is a mineral that contains a sulfide ion as its anion. Gypsum [CaSO42(H2O)] contains the polyatomic anion known as sulfate (SO42) as well as two waters of hydration (water molecules that are part of the crystalline structure).

It has been noted that the chemical composition of minerals could vary within specified limits. This phenomenon is known as solid solution. For example, the chemical composition of the mineral dolomite is commonly designated as CaMg (CO3)2, or as (Ca, Mg)CO3. This does not mean that dolomite has calcium and magnesium existing in a one-to-one ratio. It signifies that dolomite is a carbonate mineral that has significant amounts of

both cations (calcium and magnesium ions) in an infinite variety of proportions. When minerals form, ions of similar size and charge, such as calcium and magnesium ions, can substitute for each other and will be found in the mineral in amounts that depend on the proportions that were present in solution, or in the melt (liquid magma) from which the mineral formed. Thus, many minerals can exist in solid solution. When solid solutions exist, names are often given to the end-members. In the case of the calcium and magnesium carbonates, one end-member, CaCO3 is named calcite or aragonite, depending on the crystalline symmetry, whereas the other end-member, MgCO3, is referred to as magnesite.

Because minerals are naturally occurring substances, the abundance of minerals tends to reflect the abundance of elements as they are found in Earth's crust. Although about 4,000 minerals have been named, there are forty minerals that are commonly found and these are referred to as the rock-forming minerals.

The most abundant element in Earth's crust is oxygen, which makes up about 45 percent of the crust by mass. The second most abundant element is silicon, which accounts for another 27 percent by mass. The next six most abundant elements, in order of abundance, are aluminum, iron, calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium, which collectively comprise about 26 percent, leaving only about 2 percent for all other elements. If one classifies minerals according to the commonly accepted system that is based on their anions, it is not surprising that silicates (having anions that are polyatomic combinations of oxygen and silicon) are the most common mineral group.


In order to understand the chemical structures and formulas of the silicate minerals, one must begin with the basic building block of all silicates: the silica tetrahedron. A silica tetrahedron is an anionic species, which consists of a silicon atom covalently bound to four oxygen atoms. The silicon atom is in the geometric center of the tetrahedron and at each of the four points of the

tetrahedron is an oxygen atom. The structure has an overall charge of negative four and is represented as SiO44. The mineral olivine, a green-colored mineral as the name suggests, has the formula (Mg, Fe)2SiO4. When olivine is a gem-quality crystal it is referred to as peridot. As the formula suggests, olivine is really a group of minerals that vary in composition, from almost pure end-member forsterite (Mg2SiO4) to almost pure fayalite (Fe2SiO4).

All of the silicate minerals arise from various combinations of silica tetrahedra and a sense of their variety may be gleaned from the understanding that the oxygen atoms at the tetrahedral vertices may be shared by adjacent tetrahedra in such a way as to generate larger structures, such as single chains, double chains, sheets, or three-dimensional networks of tetrahedra. Various cations occurring within solid solutions neutralize the negative charges on the silicate backbone. The variation in geometric arrangements generates a dazzling array of silicate minerals, which includes many common gemstones.

The pyroxene group and the amphibole group, respectively, are representatives of silicate minerals having single-chain and double-chain tetrahedral networks. Pyroxenes are believed to be significant components of Earth's mantle, whereas amphiboles are dark-colored minerals commonly found in continental rocks.

Clays have sheet structures, generated by the repetitious sharing of three of the four oxygen atoms of each silica tetrahedron. The fourth oxygen atom of the silica tetrahedron is important as it has a capacity for cation exchange. Clays are thus commonly used as natural ion-exchange resins in water purification and desalination. Clays can be used to remove sodium ions from seawater, as well as to remove calcium and magnesium ions in the process of water softening. Because the bonds between adjacent sheets of silicon tetrahedra are weak, the layers tend to slip past one another rather easily, which contributes to the slippery texture of clays.

Clays also tend to absorb (or release) water. This absorption or release of water significantly changes clay volume. Consequently, soils that contain significant amounts of water-absorbing clays are not suitable as building construction sites.

Clays are actually secondary mineralsmeaning that they are formed chiefly by the weathering of primary minerals. Primary minerals are those that form directly by precipitation from solution or magma, or by deposition from the vapor phase . In the case of clays their primary or parent minerals are feldspars, the mineral group with the greatest abundance in Earth's crust. Feldspars and clays are actually aluminosilicates. The formation of an aluminosilicate involves the replacement of a significant portion of the silicon in the tetrahedral backbone by aluminum.

The feldspar minerals have internal arrangements that correspond to a three-dimensional array of silica tetrahedra that arises from the sharing of all four oxygen atoms at the tetrahedral vertices, and are sometimes referred to as framework silicates. Feldspars, rich in potassium, typically have a pink color and are responsible for the pinkish color of many of the feldspar-rich granites that are used in building construction. The feldspathoid minerals are similar in structure to feldspars but contain a lesser abundance of silica. Lapis lazuli, now used primarily in jewelry, is a mixture of the feldspathoid lazurite and other silicates, and was formerly used in granulate form as the paint pigment ultramarine.

Zeolites are another group of framework silicates similar in structure to the feldspars. Like clays they have the ability to absorb or release water. Zeolites have long been used as molecular sieves, due to their ability to absorb molecules selectively according to molecular size.

One of the most well-known silicate minerals is quartz (SiO2), which consists of a continuous three-dimensional network of silica and oxygen without any atomic substitutions. It is the second most abundant continental mineral, feldspars being most abundant. The network of covalent bonds (between silicon and oxygen) is responsible for the well-known hardness of quartz and its resistance to weathering. Although pure quartz is clear and without color, the presence of small amounts of impurities may result in the formation of gemstones such as amethyst.

Nonsilicate Minerals

Although minerals of other classes are relatively scarce in comparison to the silicate minerals, many have interesting uses and are important economically. Because of the great abundance of oxygen in Earth's crust, the oxides are the most common minerals after the silicates. Litharge, for example, is a yellow-colored oxide of lead (PbO) and is used by artists as a pigment. Hematite (Fe2O3), a reddish-brown ore, is an iron oxide and is also used as a pigment. Other important classes of nonsilicate minerals include sulfides, sulfates, carbonates, halides, phosphates, and hydroxides. Some minerals in these groups are listed in Table 1.

Although minerals are often identified by the use of sophisticated optical instruments such as the polarizing microscope or the x-ray diffractometer, most can be identified using much simpler and less expensive methods. Color can be very helpful in identifying minerals (although it can also be misleading). A very pure sample of the mineral carborundum (Al2O3) is colorless but the presence of small amounts of impurities in carborundum may yield the deep red gemstone ruby or the blue gemstone sapphire. The streak

source: Tarbuck, Edward J., and Lutgens, Frederick K. (1999). Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology, 6th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Mineral Formula Economic Use
Pyrite FeS2 sulfuric acid production
Anhydrite CaSO4 plaster
Calcite CaCO3 lime
Halite NaCl table salt
Turquoise CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8 gemstone
Bauxite Al(OH)3.nH2O aluminum ore
Rutile TiO2 jewelry, semiconductor

of a mineral (the color of the powdered form) is actually much more useful in identifying a mineral than is the color of the entire specimen, as it is less affected by impurities. The streak of a mineral is obtained by simply rubbing the sample across a streak plate (a piece of unglazed porcelain), and the color of the powder is then observed. Virtually all mineral indexes used to identify minerals, such as those found in Dana's Manual of Mineralogy, list streaks of individual minerals.

Streak is used along with other rather easily determined mineral properties, such as hardness, specific gravity, cleavage, double refraction, the ability to react with common chemicals, and the overall appearance, to pinpoint the identity of an unknown mineral. Mineral hardness is determined by the ability of the sample to scratch or be scratched by readily available objects (a knife blade, a fingernail, a glass plate) or minerals of known hardness. Hardness is graded on the Moh's scale of hardness, which ranges from a value of one (softest) to ten (hardest). The mineral talc (used in talcum powder) has a hardness of one, whereas diamond has a hardness of ten. A fingernail has a hardness of 2.5; therefore quartz, which has a hardness of seven, would be able to scratch talc or a fingernail, but quartz could not scratch diamond or topaz, which has a hardness of eight. Conversely, topaz or diamond would be able to scratch quartz. Specific gravity is the ratio of the weight of a mineral to the weight of an equal volume of water and is thus in concept similar to density. The cleavage of a mineral is its tendency to break along smooth parallel planes of weakness and is dependent on the internal structure of the mineral. A mineral may exhibit double refraction. That is, the double image of an object will be seen if one attempts to view that object through a transparent block of the mineral in question. Calcite is a mineral that exhibits double refraction. Some minerals react spontaneously with common chemicals. If a few drops of hydrochloric acid are placed on a freshly broken surface of calcite, the calcite will react vigorously. Effervescence , caused by reaction of the calcite with hydrochloric acid to form the gas carbon dioxide, is observed. In contrast, dolomite will effervesce in hydrochloric acid only upon the first scratching the surface of the dolomite.

Minerals are a part of our daily lives. They comprise the major part of most soils and provide essential nutrients for plant growth. They are the basic building blocks of the rocks that compose the surface layer of our planet. They are used in many types of commercial operations, and the mining of minerals is a huge worldwide commercial operation. They are also used in water purification and for water softening. Finally, minerals are perhaps most valued for their great beauty.

see also Gemstones; Inorganic Chemistry; Materials Science; Zeolites.

Mary L. Sohn


Dana, James D.; revised by Cornelius S. Hulburt Jr. (1959). Dana's Manual of Mineralogy, 17th edition. New York: Wiley.

Dietrich, Richard V., and Skinner, Brian J. (1979). Rocks and Rock Minerals. New York: Wiley.

Tarbuck, Edward J., and Lutgens, Frederick K. (1999). Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology, 6th edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Minerals." Chemistry: Foundations and Applications. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Minerals." Chemistry: Foundations and Applications. . (December 12, 2017).

"Minerals." Chemistry: Foundations and Applications. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from




The minerals (inorganic nutrients) that are relevant to human nutrition include water, sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, phosphate, sulfate, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc, manganese, iodine, selenium, and molybdenum. Cobalt is a required mineral for human health, but it is supplied by vitamin B12. Cobalt appears to have no other function, aside from being part of this vitamin. There is some evidence that chromium, boron, and other inorganic elements play some part in human nutrition, but the evidence is indirect and not yet convincing. Fluoride seems not to be required for human life, but its presence in the diet contributes to long term dental health. Some of the minerals do not occur as single atoms, but occur as molecules. These include water, phosphate, sulfate, and selenite (a form of selenium). Sulfate contains an atom of sulfur. We do not need to eat sulfate, since the body can acquire all the sulfate it needs from protein.

The statement that various minerals, or inorganic nutrients, are required for life means that their continued supply in the diet is needed for growth, maintenance of body weight in adulthood, and for reproduction. The amount of each mineral that is needed to support growth during infancy and childhood, to maintain body weight and health, and to facilitate pregnancy and lactation, are listed in a table called the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA). This table was compiled by the Food and Nutrition Board, a committee that serves the United States government. All of the values listed in the RDA indicate the daily amounts that are expected to maintain health throughout most of the general population. The actual levels of each inorganic nutrient required by any given individual is likely to be less than that stated by the RDA. The RDAs are all based on studies that provided the exact, minimal requirement of each mineral needed to maintain health. However, the RDA values are actually greater than the minimal requirement, as determined by studies on small groups of healthy human subjects, in order to accomodate the variability expected among the general population.

The RDAs for adult males are 800 mg of calcium, 800 mg of phosphorus, 350 mg of magnesium, 10 mg of iron, 15 mg of zinc, 0.15 mg of iodine, and 0.07 mg of selenium. The RDA for sodium is expressed as a range (0.5-2.4 g/day). The minimal requirement for chloride is about 0.75 g/day, and the minimal requirement for potassium is 1.6-2.0 g/day, though RDA values have not been set for these nutrients. The RDAs for several other minerals has not been determined, and here the estimated safe and adequate daily dietary intake has been listed by the Food and Nutrition Board. These values are listed for copper (1.5-3.0 mg), manganese (2-5 mg), fluoride (1.5-4.0 mg), molybdenum (0.075-0.25 mg), and chromium (0.05-0.2 mg). In noting the appearance of chromium in this list, one should note that the function of chromium is essentially unknown, and evidence for its necessity exists only for animals, and not for human beings. In considering the amount of any mineral used for treating mineral deficiency, one should compare the recommended level with the RDA for that mineral. Treatment at a level that is one tenth of the RDA might not be expected to be adequate, while treatment at levels ranging from 10-1,000 times the RDA might be expected to exert a toxic effect, depending on the mineral. In this way, one can judge whether any claim of action, for a specific mineral treatment, is likely to be adequate or appropriate.


People are treated with minerals for several reasons. The primary reason is to relieve a mineral deficiency, when a deficiency has been detected. Chemical tests suitable for the detection of all mineral deficiencies are available. The diagnosis of the deficiency is often aided by tests that do not involve chemical reactions, such as the hematocrit test for the red blood cell content in blood for iron deficiency, the visual examination of the neck for iodine deficiency, or the examination of bones by densitometry for calcium deficiency. Mineral treatment is conducted after a test and diagnosis for iron-deficiency anemia, in the case of iron, and after a test and diagnosis for hypomagnesemia, in the case of magnesium, to give two examples.

A second general reason for mineral treatment is to prevent the development of a possible or expected deficiency. Here, minerals are administered when tests for possible mineral deficiency are not given. Examples include the practice of giving young infants iron supplements, and of the food industry's practice of supplementing infant formulas with iron. The purpose here is to reduce the risk for iron deficiency anemia. Another example is the practice of many women of taking calcium supplements, with the hope of reducing the risk of osteoporosis.

Most minerals are commercially available at supermarkets, drug stores, and specialty stores. There is reason to believe that the purchase and consumption of most of these minerals is beneficial to health for some, but not all, of the minerals. Potassium supplements are useful for reducing blood pressure, in cases of persons with high blood pressure. The effect of potassium varies from person to person. The consumption of calcium supplements is likely to have some effect on reducing the risk for osteoporosis. The consumption of selenium supplements is expected to be of value only for residents of Keshan Province, China, because of the established association of selenium deficiency in this region with "Keshan disease."


During emergency treatment of sodium deficiency (hyponatremia ), potassium deficiency (hypokalemia ), and calcium deficiency (hypocalcemia ) with intravenous injections, extreme caution must be taken to avoid producing toxic levels of each of these minerals (hypernatremia, hyperkalemia, and hypercalcemia ), as mineral toxicity can be life-threatening in some instances. The latter three conditions can be life threatening. Selenium is distinguished among most of the nutrients in that dietary intakes at levels only ten times that of the RDA can be toxic. Hence, one must guard against any overdose of selenium. Calcium and zinc supplements, when taken orally, are distinguished among most of the other minerals in that their toxicity is relatively uncommon.


Minerals are used in treatments by three methods, namely, by replacing a poor diet with a diet that supplies the RDA, by consuming oral supplements, or by injections or infusions. Injections are especially useful for infants, for mentally disabled persons, or where the physician wants to be totally sure of compliance. Infusions, as well as injections, are essential for medical emergencies, as during mineral deficiency situations like hyponatremia, hypokalemia, hypocalcemia, and hypomagnesemia. Oral mineral supplements are especially useful for mentally alert persons who otherwise cannot or will not consume food that is a good mineral source, such as meat. For example, a vegetarian who will not consume meat may be encouraged to consume oral supplements of iron, as well as supplements of vitamin B12.

Iron treatment is used for young infants, given as supplements of 7 mg of iron per day to prevent anemia. Iron is also supplied to infants via the food industry's practice of including iron at 12 mg/L in cow milk-based infant formulas, as well as adding powdered iron at levels of 50 mg iron per 100 g dry infant cereal.

Calcium supplements, along with estrogen and calcitonin therapy, are commonly used in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. Estrogen and calcitonin are naturally occurring hormones. Bone loss occurs with diets supplying under 400 mg Ca/day. Bone loss can be minimized with the consumption of the RDA for calcium. There is some thought that all postmenopausal women should consume 1,000-1,500 mg of calcium per day. These levels are higher than the RDA. There is some evidence that such supplementation can reduce bone losses in some bones, such as the elbow (ulna), but not in other bones. Calcium absorption by the intestines decreases with aging, especially after the age of 70. The regulatory mechanisms of the intestines that allow absorption of adequate calcium (500 mg Ca/day or less) may be impaired in the elderly. Because of these changes, there is much interest in increasing the RDA for calcium for older women.

Fluoride has been proven to reduce the rate of tooth decay. When fluoride occurs in the diet, it is incorporated into the structure of the teeth, and other bones. The optimal range of fluoride in drinking water is 0.7-1.2 mg/L. This level results in a reduction in the rate of tooth decay by about 50%. The American Dental Association recommends that persons living in areas lacking fluoridated water take fluoride supplements. The recommendation is 0.25 mg F/day from the ages of 0-2 years, 0.5 mg F/day for 2-3 years, and 1.0 mg F/day for ages 3-13 years.

Magnesium is often used to treat a dangerous condition, called eclampsia, that occasionally occurs during pregnancy. In this case, magnesium is used as a drug, and not to relieve a deficiency. High blood pressure is a fairly common disorder during pregnancy, affecting 1-5% of pregnant mothers. Hypertension during pregnancy can result in increased release of protein in the urine. In pregnancy, the combination of hypertension with increased urinary protein is called preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is a concern during pregnancies as it may lead to eclampsia. Eclampsia involves convulsions and possibly death to the mother. Magnesium sulfate is the drug of choice for preventing the convulsions of eclampsia.

Treatment with cobalt, in the form of vitamin B12, is used for relieving the symptoms of pernicious anemia. Pernicious anemia is a relatively common disease which tends to occur in persons older than 40 years. Free cobalt is never used for the treatment of any disease.


Evaluation of a patient's mineral levels requires a blood sample, and the preparation of plasma or serum from the blood sample. An overnight fast is usually recommended as preparation prior to drawing the blood and chemical analysis. The reason for this is that any mineral present in the food consumed at breakfast may artificially boost the plasma mineral content beyond the normal fasting level, and thereby mask a mineral deficiency. In some cases, red blood cells are used for the mineral status assay.


The healthcare provider assesses the patient's response to mineral treatment. A positive response confirms that the diagnosis was correct. Lack of response indicates that the diagnosis was incorrect, that the patient had failed to take the mineral supplement, or that a higher dose of mineral was needed. The response to mineral treatment can be monitored by chemical tests, by an examination of red blood cells or white blood cells, or by physiological tests, depending on the exact mineral deficiency.


There are few risks associated with mineral treatment. In treating emergency cases of hyponatremia, hypokalemia, or hypocalcemia by intravenous injections, there exists a very real risk that giving too much sodium, potassium, or calcium, can result in hypernatremia, hyperkalemia, or hypercalcemia, respectively. Risk for toxicity is rare where treatment is by dietary means. This is because the intestines act as a barrier, and absorption of any mineral supplement is gradual. The gradual passage of any mineral through the intestines, especially when the mineral supplement is taken with food, allows the various organs of the body to acquire the mineral. Gradual passage of the mineral into the bloodstream also allows the kidneys to excrete the mineral in the urine, should levels of the mineral rise to toxic levels in the blood.



Brody, Tom. Nutritional Biochemistry. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Minerals." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Minerals." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . (December 12, 2017).

"Minerals." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from




Minerals are inorganic nutrients. That is, they are materials found in foods that are essential for growth and health and do not contain the element carbon. The minerals that are relevant to human nutrition are water, sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, phosphate, sulfate, magnesium, iron, copper, zinc, manganese, iodine, selenium, and molybdenum. Cobalt is a required mineral for human health, but it is supplied by vitamin B12. There is some evidence that chromium, boron, and other inorganic elements play some part in human nutrition, but their role has not been proven.


Minerals should be provided by a normal, healthy diet. In special cases, additional mineral supplements may be called for. Preterm (low birth weight) infants have special needs for calcium, phosphorus, and sodium, as well as extra needs for vitamin D. Iron supplements may also be recommended.

The amount of each mineral that is needed to support growth during infancy and childhood, to maintain body weight and health, and to facilitate pregnancy and lactation , are listed in a table called the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA). This table was compiled by the Food and Nutrition Board, a committee that serves the United States government. The values listed in the RDA indicate the daily amounts that are expected to maintain health throughout most of the general population. The actual levels of each inorganic nutrient required by any given individual is likely to be less than that stated by the RDA. The RDAs are all based on studies that provided the exact, minimal requirement of each mineral needed to maintain health. However, the RDA values are actually greater than the minimal requirement, as determined by studies on small groups of healthy human subjects, in order to accommodate the variability expected among the general population.

Because of differences in individual diets and individual needs, the decision regarding any child's need for supplements should be made by the parents after discussion with the pediatrician and, where appropriate, a nutritionist. Children on a well-balanced diet do not require supplements, while those who are picky eaters or who routinely eat a poor diet may benefit from supplementation.

Girls should get their calcium from foods, particularly dairy products, rather than supplements. Dairy products were associated with higher bone mineral density in the spine, while calcium supplements had no such benefit.

General use

The following discussion describes the role of the major minerals in human nutrition.

Iron is essential for the formation of hemoglobin, the chemical in the blood that carries oxygen to the cells. Low levels of iron cause anemia. In severe cases, the children become flabby, and they fail to grow normally. Milder cases of iron deficiency may not produce any physical symptoms, but children may learn at a slower pace than children with a proper amount of iron in their diet. The combination of rice, beans, and meat consumed with fresh citrus fruit provides an excellent source of absorbable iron. Iron supplements are suggested for children who cannot or will not follow a proper diet through the first two years of life.

Calcium is required for proper development of bones and teeth. It is also needed for proper muscle activity and blood clotting. Lack of calcium can cause rickets, a condition in which the bones are soft and develop in abnormal shapes. Calcium must be accompanied by vitamin D in order to have the proper effects. Foods rich in calcium include almonds, swiss cheese, collards, sardines and salmon with bones, spinach, ice cream, kale, beet greens, cheddar cheese, molasses, oysters, milk, and broccoli.

Zinc deficiency has been associated with reduced growth and mental retardation . The best foods for zinc are lamb, beef, leafy grains, root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots, shellfish, and organ meats such as liver or kidneys. While a high fiber diet is important for health, too much fiber can reduce the absorption of zinc and lead to a zinc deficiency.

Iodine is needed in the diet for proper thyroid function. The best source of iodine is fish, but table salt normally has iodine added to it, and even modest amounts of salt will meet the daily iodine requirements.

Fluoride is needed for strong teeth. In many areas, drinking water contains fluoride that meets all normal needs, but for children who do not drink water or drink filtered or bottled water, fluoride supplements may be useful. Fluoride supplements may be useful for infants and then may be discontinued as the child gets older and starts drinking water.

Magnesium is found in so many parts of the body that it is almost impossible to describe the effects of low magnesium levels. The most common problems are twitching, and, because of the need for magnesium in the parathyroid gland, soft bones even when calcium and vitamin D are adequate. Because magnesium is found in most foods, deficiency is usually associated with absorption problems and requires medical attention.

Copper is required for blood and nerve fiber development. It is found in liver, nuts, and seafood.

Phosporus is needed for energy production, metabolism, and healthy bone development. The best sources are milk, cheese, meats, whole grains, eggs, peas, and beans.

Potassium is needed for muscle contractions and nerve function. Good sources of potassium are orange juice, milk, cheese, whole grains, and vegetables.

Selenium is needed for proper thyroid function. It has also been associated with prevention of some types of cancer in adults. Selenium supplements are not normally required except in children with phenylketonuria receiving a low-protein diet, although it may sometimes be associated with thyroid problems. In these cases, medical care is required.


Although the greatest nutritional concern is with inadequate levels of minerals, it is possible to take too much, particularly when people already eating a normally healthy diet take supplements. The daily intake of minerals should be reviewed to prevent adverse effects.

Excess calcium may lead to constipation and kidney problems. Too much zinc may lead to diarrhea , vomiting , and kidney and heart problems. Excess iron may cause problems of the stomach and digestive tract, liver problems, an increased risk of diabetes, and male sexual problems.

Side effects

When minerals are taken properly, they have no side effects.


Minerals can interact with drugs and in excess with each other. Iron and calcium are known to bind to drugs of the tetracycline family and inactivate the antibiotic. The compound of calcium and tetracycline may also be absorbed into a child's teeth, causing discoloration.

Too much calcium in the diet may inhibit absorption of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. Excess iron may reduce the absorption of zinc.

Parental concerns

Following a proper balanced diet is the best prevention of both mineral deficiency and mineral overdose. Since many children and adolescents cannot or will not eat a balanced diet, the possible need for supplements should be discussed with an appropriate professional.

Many children fail to follow a proper diet. This may be because of excess intake of fast foods and snack foods of low nutritional value. It is important for parents to teach children the benefits of proper nutrition and the importance of maintaining a healthful diet.

At the same time, adolescents, particularly those who engage in sports , may feel that they will do better with increased levels of nutrients. Because of the risk of toxic reactions to minerals and some vitamins , children should be discouraged from taking vitamin supplements unless there is clear evidence of increased need.


Inorganic Pertaining to chemical compounds that are not hydrocarbons or their derivatives.

Parathyroid gland A pair of glands adjacent to the thyroid gland that primarily regulate blood calcium levels.

Phenylketonuria (PKU) A rare, inherited, metabolic disorder in which the enzyme necessary to break down and use phenylalanine, an amino acid necessary for normal growth and development, is lacking. As a result, phenylalanine builds up in the body causing mental retardation and other neurological problems.

Rickets A condition caused by the dietary deficiency of vitamin D, calcium, and usually phosphorus, seen primarily in infancy and childhood, and characterized by abnormal bone formation.



Siberry, George K., and Robert Iannone, eds. The Harriett Lane Handbook, 15th ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 2000.


Chanoine, J. P. "Selenium and thyroid function in infants, children, and adolescents." Biofactors 19 (2003): 13743.

Matkovic, V., et al. "Nutrition influences skeletal development from childhood to adulthood: a study of hip, spine, and forearm in adolescent females." Journal of Nutrition 134 (March 2004): 701S5S.


American Dietetic Association. 120 South Riverside Plaza, Suite 2000, Chicago, IL 606066995. Web site: <>.

Tom Brody, PhD Samuel Uretsky, PharmD

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Minerals." Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy through Adolescence. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Minerals." Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy through Adolescence. . (December 12, 2017).

"Minerals." Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy through Adolescence. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from



The term mineral is often used to denote any material that occurs naturally in the ground, including oil and natural gas . However, mineralogists and geologists restrict its use to naturally occurring solids having specific chemical compositions. For example, all solid forms of pure silica (SiO2) are minerals, including natural glass and quartz , but coal is not a mineral because it has no definite and universal chemical composition.

Solids produced by living thingsbones, shells, pearls, and the likeare a special case. Scientists usually consider these objects non-minerals even when they have definite a chemical composition, as do the calcium carbonate (CaCO3) shells of marine animals. The distinction is more professional than physical; mineralogists study minerals, but biologists study shells and bones, so shells and bones must not be minerals. However, biological solids that have been completely rearranged at the atomic level are officially regarded as minerals. For example, graphite and diamond formed by metamorphosis of coal are minerals.

Because solidity is part of the definition of a mineral, substances may change from mineral to non-mineral or vice versa by melting or solidifying. Liquid water has a definite chemical composition (H2O) but is not considered a mineral because it is not solid; ice , however, is a mineral. Magma or molten lava are not minerals because they have no definite, universal composition and are liquids; solidified, they become mixtures of specific minerals.

The atoms making up a mineral may be arranged either randomly, like mixed marbles in a bag, or in an orderly pattern, like squares on a chessboard. If a mineral's atoms show long-range organization, the mineral is termed crystalline. The objects commonly called crystals are crystalline minerals of relatively large size that happen to have developed smooth faces. Many crystals, however, are too small to see with the naked eye, and most have imperfectly developed faces or none at all. Most rocks consist of chunks of several crystalline minerals fused together. In some rocks, such as granite , these individual pieces are large enough to see, while in others, such as slate , they are too small.

If a mineral's atoms are randomly arranged it is termed an amorphous mineral or a mineraloid. The most common amorphous mineral is glassthe solid formed by cooling magma or molten lava so quickly that its atoms do not have time to organize into crystals. Molten lava quenched in air or water, or intrusive magma cooled rapidly by contact with rock form glasses. All glasses are metastable; that is, they tend to lapse into crystalline form, much as water molecules in cold vapor organize themselves into snowflakes. In the case of glasses, this spontaneous crystallization process is termed devitrification. The processes of devitrification causes glasses to be rare in proportion to their age. Most natural glasses date from the last 60 or 70 million years, a mere tenth of the time since the beginning of the Cambrian Period . The remainder have devitrified.

Because oxygen, silicon , and other elements may be present in any ratio in a glass, depending on the composition of the original melt, some mineralogists do not consider glasses minerals and restrict the term mineral to naturally occurring crystals. For the remainder of this article, the term mineral will be used in this restricted sense.

Earth's crust and mantle consist almost entirely of minerals, yet the number of known minerals is less than 3,000. Two factors limit the number of possible and actual minerals. First, a crystal's atoms must be arranged in some periodically repeating, three-dimensional pattern, but only a finite number of such patterns exists. Second, there are only a few score naturally occurring elements, many of which are rare and eight of whichoxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron , calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium, in order of decreasing commonnesscomprise

98.5% of Earth's crust by weight. Oxygen alone makes up approximately 47% of the crust by weight (over 90% by volume), and silicon makes up approximately another 27%. The number of minerals that can form is therefore finite, and many of those that could theoretically form do so rarely.

The atoms of the two most common elements on earth, silicon and oxygen, readily arrange themselves into tetrahedra (four-sided pyramids) having a silicon atom at the center and an oxygen atom at each point. This unit is the silicate radical, (SiO4)4. Silicate radicals can link into sheets, chains, or three-dimensional frameworks by sharing oxygen atoms. If every oxygen atom participates in two tetrahedra, then the overall ratio of silicon to oxygen is 1:2, and the resulting chemical formula is that of silica, SiO2. Minerals built mostly of silica are termed silicate minerals. The mineral quartz is pure crystalline silica; other silicate minerals result when atoms of elements other than silicon are introduced at regular intervals. For example, some of the tetrahedra in the silicate framework may be centered on aluminum atoms rather than silicon atoms. In this case, atoms of other elements (usually calcium, potassium, or barium) must be present to balance the ionic charges in the framework. The silicate minerals having this particular structure are the feldspars, which make up approximately 60% of the earth's crust by volume.

When atoms of elements other than silicon unite with oxygen to form the basic building block of a mineral, nonsilicate minerals result: carbonates from carbon (e.g., calcite [CaCO3]), sulfates from sulfur (e.g., anhydrite [CaSO4]), phosphates from phosphorus (e.g., apatite [Ca5(PO4)3F]), and the oxide minerals, in which O2 alternates with positively charged ions (e.g., spinel [MgAl2O4]). Other mineral groups do not involve oxygen at all, including the halides (e.g., salt [NaCl]), the sulfides (e.g., pyrite [FeS2]), and the native elements (pure sulfur, carbon, gold, etc.).

Although for simplicity's sake chemical formulas have been identified with mineral species in the preceding paragraph, the identity and properties of a mineral depend not only on what kinds of atoms compose it but on the arrangement of these atoms in space . Diamond and graphite, for instance, both consist entirely of carbon atoms and so have the same chemical formula (C), but differ in structure. A mineral's structure, in turn, depends partly on its chemical formula and partly on its history, that is, on the changes in pressure, temperature , and chemical context through which it has passed in reaching its present state. A simple example of a mineral structure recording process is the production of glass by rapid cooling of molten silica. To hold a piece of glass is to know a small, specific piece of history; this silica must have cooled rapidly. The dependence of mineral formation on time and temperature is exactly analogous to cookery. Indeed, geologists routinely speak of how the formation of minerals in large bodies of cooling magma is influenced by the "baking" of the magma. Minerals are therefore studied not only for their directly useful properties but for what their very existence reveals about the history of the earth.

See also Crystals and crystallography; Minerology; Obsidian

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Minerals." World of Earth Science. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Minerals." World of Earth Science. . (December 12, 2017).

"Minerals." World of Earth Science. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from



Minerals are the natural, inorganic (nonliving) materials that compose rocks. Examples are gems and metals. Minerals have a fixed chemical makeup and a definite crystal structure (its atoms are arranged in orderly patterns). Therefore, a sample of a particular mineral will have essentially the same composition no matter where it is fromEarth, the Moon, or beyond. Properties such as crystal shape, color, hardness, density, and luster distinguish minerals from each other. The study of the distribution, identification, and properties of minerals is called mineralogy.

Almost 4,000 different minerals are known, with several dozen new minerals identified each year. However, only 20 or so minerals compose the bulk of Earth's crust, the part of Earth extending from the surface downward to a maximum depth of about 25 miles (40 kilometers). These minerals are often called the rock-forming minerals.

Mineralogists group minerals according to the chemical elements they contain. Elements are substances that are composed of just one type of atom. Over 100 of these are known, of which 88 occur naturally. Only ten elements account for nearly 99 percent of the weight of Earth's crust. Oxygen is the most plentiful element, accounting for almost 50 percent of that weight. The remaining elements are (in descending order) silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, magnesium, hydrogen, and titanium.

Words to Know

Compound: A substance consisting of two or more elements in specific proportions.

Crystal: Naturally occurring solid composed of atoms or molecules arranged in an orderly pattern that repeats at regular intervals.

Element: Pure substance composed of just one type of atom that cannot be broken down chemically into simpler substances.

Metallurgy: Science and technology of extracting metals from their ores and refining them for use.

Ore: Mineral compound that is mined for one of the elements it contains, usually a metal element.

Rock: Naturally occurring solid mixture of minerals.

Silicate: Mineral containing the elements silicon and oxygen, and usually other elements as well.

Most minerals are compounds, meaning they contain two or more elements. Since oxygen and silicon together make up almost three-quarters of the mass of Earth's crust, the most abundant minerals are silicate mineralscompounds of silicon and oxygen. The major component of nearly every kind of rock, silicate compounds generally contain one or more metals, such as calcium, magnesium, aluminum, and iron.

Only a few minerals, known as native elements, contain atoms of just a single element. These include the so-called native metals: platinum, gold, silver, copper, and iron. Diamond and graphite are both naturally occurring forms of pure carbon, but their atoms are arranged differently. Sulfur, a yellow nonmetal, is sometimes found pure in underground deposits formed by hot springs.

Physical traits and mineral identification

A mineral's physical traits are a direct result of its chemical composition and crystal form. Therefore, if enough physical traits are recognized, any mineral can be identified. These traits include hardness, color, streak, luster, cleavage or fracture, and specific gravity.

Hardness. A mineral's hardness is defined as its ability to scratch another mineral. This is usually measured using a comparative scale devised in 1822 by German mineralogist Friedrich Mohs. The Mohs hardness scale lists 10 common minerals, assigning to each a hardness from 1 (talc) to 10 (diamond). A mineral can scratch all those minerals having a lower Mohs hardness number. For example, calcite (hardness 3) can scratch gypsum (hardness 2) and talc (hardness 1), but it cannot scratch fluorite (hardness 4).

Color and streak. Although some minerals can be identified by their color, this can be misleading since mineral color is often affected by traces of impurities. Streak, however, is a very reliable identifying feature. Streak refers to the color of the powder produced when a mineral is scraped across an unglazed porcelain tile called a streak plate. Fluorite, for example, comes in a great range of colors, yet its streak is always white.

Luster. Luster refers to a mineral's appearance when light reflects off its surface. There are various kinds of luster, all having descriptive names. Thus, metals have a metallic luster, quartz has a vitreous or glassy luster, and chalk has a dull or earthy luster.

Cleavage and fracture. Some minerals, when struck with force, will cleanly break along smooth planes that are parallel to each other. This breakage is called cleavage and is determined by the way a mineral's atoms are arranged. Muscovite cleaves in one direction only, producing thin flat sheets. Halite cleaves in three directions, all perpendicular to each other, forming cubes.

However, most minerals fracture rather than cleave. Fracture is breakage that does not follow a flat surface. Some fracture surfaces are rough and uneven. Those that break along smooth, curved surfaces like a shell are called conchoidal fractures. Breaks along fibers are called fibrous fractures.

Specific gravity. The specific gravity of a mineral is the ratio of its weight to that of an equal volume of water. Water has a specific gravity

of 1.0. When pure, each mineral has a predictable specific gravity. Most range between 2.2 and 3.2. (This means that most are 2.2 to 3.2 times as heavy as an equal volume of water.) Quartz has a specific gravity of 2.65, while the specific gravity of gold is 19.3.

Mineral resources

Everything that humankind consumes, uses, or produces has its origin in minerals. Minerals are the building materials of our technological

civilization, from microprocessors made of silicon to skyscrapers made of steel.

Gems or gemstones are minerals that are especially beautiful and rare. The beauty of a gem depends on its luster, color, and hardness. The so-called precious stones are diamond, ruby, sapphire, and emerald. Some semiprecious stones are amethyst, topaz, garnet, opal, turquoise, and jade. The weight of gems are measured in carats: one carat equals 200 milligrams (0.007 ounces).

Precious metals have also acquired great value because of their beauty, rarity, and durability. Platinum, gold, and silver are the world's precious metals. Other metals, although not considered precious, are commercially valuable. Examples include copper, lead, aluminum, zinc, iron, mercury, nickel, and chromium.

A mineral compound that is mined for a metal element it contains is called an ore. Metallurgy is the science and technology of extracting metals from their ores and refining them for use. Iron, which alone accounts for over 90 percent of all metals mined, is found in the ores magnetite and hematite. These ores contain 15 to 60 percent iron. Other ores, however, contain very little metal. One ton of copper ore may yield only about eight pounds of copper (one metric ton may yield only four kilograms). The remaining material is considered waste.

[See also Crystal; Industrial minerals; Mining; Precious metals; Rocks ]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Minerals." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Minerals." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . (December 12, 2017).

"Minerals." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from


minerals Minerals are specifically inorganic compounds occuring naturally in the Earth's crust or lithosphere. They consist of a metal element in the form of a salt or oxide and are often crystalline in nature and usually highly insoluble, the more soluble salts having been washed from the land into the rivers and seas. Consider, for example, three calcium minerals; the fluoride, the phosphate, and the carbonate. The first, calcium fluoride or fluorspar, exists as beautiful crystals, often seen in caves, and is highly insoluble. However, in regions where it is found sufficient fluoride enters the drinking water to prevent dental caries, making fluoridation unnecessary. The second, calcium phosphate is modestly soluble, and may originate from the decayed teeth, bones, and sea shells of living creatures accumulated over aeons of time. It, together with calcium carbonate, or the chalk of limestone deposits, is what makes water ‘hard’ and furs up the kettle. Thus through the drinking water, even in those who do not consume dairy products (the major dietary source), the intake of calcium can be assured. Only in special circumstances is supplementation of calcium intake required, as in pregnancy. However, there is recent evidence that for the avoidance of osteoporosis in later life it is important for school-age girls to increase their calcium intake above the usual norm.

All the essential elements that are needed by the body in inorganic form have minerals as their source of origin, although many will be derived through the intermediacy of plant or animal material in the diet. For example, our small but essential need for manganese is satisfied through leafy vegetables, such as spinach. Where the mineral intake is inadequate we seem to know, adding that extra sprinkle of salt on our meals. Trace elements such as copper, molybdenum, and iodine, and even the somewhat larger requirement for iron, may be satisfied through the drinking water, but this has a geographic dependency, requiring that the water passes over appropriate minerals before entering the domestic supply. The thyroid gland needs iodine to make the hormone thyroxine. If the iodide content of the blood is too low the gland in the neck swells to produce a goitre. In the county of Derbyshire in England the local rocks are such that the iodide content of the drinking water is very low indeed, so that goitre was common in the region, where it was known as Derbyshire Neck. Goitre has now disappeared, as most table salt is iodized, either because sodium iodide is added to the sodium chloride in the preparation of table salt, or more generally because salt deposits containing traces of sodium iodide are used without attempting to remove the iodide.

A more likely source of minerals other than drinking water is provided by the food we eat, in which plants and animals have already accumulated what is necessary. Thus a healthy diet is one which contains all our needs, and we have presumably evolved so that all our mineral requirements are met in this way. Strict vegetarians and vegans are probably more aware of these requirements as, for example, it is difficult on a purely vegetable diet to maintain an adequate intake of vitamin B12, with its essential cobolt mineral component. In this instance supplementation of the diet with cobalt salts does not help, as man cannot make the vitamin: it has to be supplied in the diet.

Our intake of iron is essential for maintaining red blood cell formation. Women have a higher requirement than men because of the monthly blood loss through menstruation. Many animal foods, such as liver, are a rich souce of iron, although iron supplementation in the aged and those who are slightly anaemic can be achieved with the mineral itself, in the form of iron sulphate tablets. Until the 1950s, and into the 1960s, iron tonics were popular over-the-counter products bought in chemists shops. One called ‘Dr Parrish's Chemical Food’ was particularly popular. The way it was made is of interest. Pure iron wire was weighed out and the calculated amount of phosphoric acid added, just sufficient to dissolve the wire. The resulting fluid was then mixed with syrup, and red colouring added to produce the tonic. In the eyes of the public it clearly contained real iron and would certainly give them strength. It was as if some believed that the wire was reconstituted in the body, adding some sort of steely structure to the human frame.

Today, in the developed world, it is difficult to be mineral deficient while eating a normal, balanced diet. However, in Victorian times it was common among the wealthier classes to visit health-giving spas in order to ‘take the waters’, which meant drinking quanties of water directly welling up out of the earth. The spas were often associated with hot water springs where the visitors would immerse themselves in pools. Some spas are of great antiquity, such as those started by the Romans all over Europe. The waters were often sulphurous and smelt rather badly of rotten eggs. The benefits of visiting spas probably owed more to a placebo effect than for any other reason. Even today many no longer drink tap water; bottled mineral water is the fashion. The labels on the bottles give long lists of the mineral contents. One well known brand of mineral water used to include on its label the amount of ‘radioactivite’. Often hot spring waters come from great depths and are in contact with radioactive minerals, which impart traces to the water. In recent times the amount of ‘radioactivite’, which was in any event miniscule, has disappeared from the label. The reason that mineral water is popular today is less because of its mineral content but rather to avoid contaminants in tap water. The contaminants are usually the result of the use of agrochemicals, fertilizers, and sprays used to increase crop yields, which then get washed into rivers and reservoirs and hence into drinking water. The most common culprit is inorganic nitrate. Those who feel they are mineral deficient can avail themselves of numerous products in health shops, where tablets containing all the needed minerals in the correct ratios can be found.

Alan W. Cuthbert

See also composition of the body; metals in the body; salt.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"minerals." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"minerals." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . (December 12, 2017).

"minerals." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from



Minerals have played many important roles in the world of forensic science , from forensic geology used in criminal identification and crime scene investigations, to forensic toxicology and the study of poisons.

Historically, metal-based mineral poisons were commonly used as murder weapons, with arsenic a favorite. In fact, arsenic was often referred to as "inheritance powder" for its efficacy in hastening the demise of wealthy relatives. In the eighteenth century, the Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave (16681738) was the first expert witness to use basic forensic toxicological methods as the basis for testimony at a murder trial. In this case, Mary Blandy was encouraged by her fiancé to use a powdered preparation in order to get the money from her father's estate (he was very much alive at the time). She dutifully put the white substance into her father's food; he became ill. The servants became suspicious. One of the servants found the white powder and took it to a local apothecary for examination, where the hypothesis was arsenic. The servant relayed her concerns to her employer, who dismissed them, and not long after, was dead. Mary was tried for murder, and four medical toxicologists served as expert witnesses . They noted that the appearance of Mr. Blandy's organs at autopsy was suggestive of arsenic poisoning. Boerhaave reported that he had taken some of the white powder saved by the servant, treated it with a hot iron and smelled it (not a safe test for poisons, by any means). The smell was that of arsenic. Equally important was the testimony of the servant, who was able to describe the white powder that she had observed Mary putting into her father's food. Mary Blandy was found guilty of murder, sentenced to death, and hanged shortly thereafter. This trial set the stage for development of forensic toxicological methods for detection of metal-based (and other) poisons.

In 1911, a forensic method for determining the quantity of metal-based poisons in internal organs was developed by the English physician William Willcox, who was particularly interested in arsenic poisoning. He ran several tests for arsenic, and then used this method to determine how much arsenic was in each of the internal organs of Elizabeth Barrow, a victim of murder by poisoning. His method was used as the basis for far more sophisticated toxicological testing, which can now determine the amount of arsenic down to the microgram (one one-millionth of a gram) in both the human body and in soil.

After the middle of the twentieth century, thallium, a new metal-based poison, was popular for use in rat poison. Although it was banned from commercial use in 1984, it remained readily available in rat poison for at least another decade. In August 1991, Robert Curley developed a barrage of confusing symptoms and was repeatedly hospitalized. The cluster of symptoms included uncontrollable vomiting, abrupt hair loss, numbness of the extremities, general weakness, and burning skin. Shortly before his death in September 1991, he became combative, agitated, and aggressive; at that point, heavy metal exposure was hypothesized. A battery of tests revealed markedly increased thallium levels in his system.

Curley worked in a chemistry laboratory at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Five bottles of thallium salts were found in a stockroom there, although none of his coworkers became ill or evidenced any signs of accidental thallium exposure. Upon Curley's death, an autopsy was performed; it revealed extremely high thallium levels, confirming intentional poisoning, and leading to a ruling of homicide. During the investigation, the Curley home was examined, and several thermoses tested positive for thallium. Curley's widow reported that her husband brought iced tea to work in the thermoses daily. Curley's widow and her daughter by a previous marriage were found to have slightly elevated thallium levels, but they were well below the toxic range. Curley's widow sued the university for wrongful death. Upon further investigation, it was found that she had collected more than one million dollars from a car accident involving her first husband, and had also gained nearly three hundred thousand dollars in life insurance proceeds after Curley's death. At that point, she became a suspect, and the local criminal authorities requested exhumation of the body in order to perform more sophisticated testing.

Frederic Reiders, of National Medical Services, agreed to run forensic toxicology tests on Curley's hair shafts, toenails, fingernails, and skin. From the length of the victim's hair, Reiders was able to create a timeline extending 329 days before Curley's death. He used atomic absorption spectrophotometry to record thallium levels at different times. The surprising conclusion was that Robert Curley had been systematically exposed to thallium, through ingestion, for a period of nine months before his death. There was a sharp spike several days before his death, indicating intentional poisoning. Hair from other parts of his body, as well as the skin, fingernail, and toenail samples, all supported the conclusions reached by Reiders after testing the head hair. It was further determined that the valleys, corresponding to drops in thallium level, occurred whenever Curley was away from home (or in the hospital). When confronted with conclusive evidence , Curley's widow plea-bargained and confessed to poisoning her husband in an effort to gain his life insurance proceeds.

As testing for metal-based poisons has become progressively more conclusively detectable, the criminal use of these substances as a "murder weapon" has dramatically decreased in favor of plant-based toxins .

see also Chemical and biological detection technologies; Energy dispersive spectroscopy; Food poisoning; Gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Minerals." World of Forensic Science. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Minerals." World of Forensic Science. . (December 12, 2017).

"Minerals." World of Forensic Science. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from

Murray, Raymond C

Murray, Raymond C.


Over the course of his career, Raymond C. Murray turned his knowledge of geology into a critical tool for crime investigators. He worked for several years as a geology professor before also becoming a forensic geologist, aiding law enforcement officers and testifying in criminal cases. Murray has written numerous books on the subject, including Forensic Geology, the first textbook of its kind.

Murray had an early interest in geology. He attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, earning a master's degree in geology in 1952 and a doctorate in geology in 1955. After graduation, he was hired by Shell Development Company in Houston, Texas, to work as a manager of geology research, a position he held for the next eleven years. But ultimately, Murray decided to move into academia, taking an associate professor position at the University of New Mexico in 1966.

In 1967, Murray was offered a job at Rutgers University, and became the chairman of the geology department there. It was at Rutgers where Murray first became involved in forensic geology. A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agent had come to Murray with soil involved in a crime investigation, and asked Murray for help. From that point forward, Murray continued his work as a professor, but also expanded his knowledge and expertise into the world of forensic geology. In 1975, along with fellow Rutgers professor John Tedrow, Murray published Forensic Geology: Earth Sciences and Criminal Investigation. It was the first textbook written on the science. A revised edition was published in 1991.

Murray left Rutgers in 1977 to take a position at the University of Montana. There he continued his work in forensic geology, often testifying as an expert witness and lecturing at crime laboratories around the world. He retired from the University of Montana in 1996, devoting more time and attention to his private forensic geology practice. In 2004, Murray wrote and published his latest book on the subject, Evidence from the Earth: Forensic Geology and Criminal Investigation. In this text he details the many ways geologists have been able to analyze forensic data and reveal soil and rock evidence .

see also Careers in forensic science; Soils.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Murray, Raymond C." World of Forensic Science. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Murray, Raymond C." World of Forensic Science. . (December 12, 2017).

"Murray, Raymond C." World of Forensic Science. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from