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What is a ‘Nutrient’?

This consultation closed on 21 August 2015

The Oxford English Dictionary online defines a nutrient as ‘a nutritious substance’, and ‘nutritious’ as ‘conveying nourishment’ or ‘supplying nutrients in substantial quantity’.Usually the question gets a response listing categories of nutrients: protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals and substances which belong to or are components of those categories. The Codex Alimentarius Commission defines a nutrient as any substance normally consumed as a constituent of food:

  1. which provides energy; or
  2. which is needed for growth, development and maintenance of life; or
  3. a deficit of which will cause characteristic biochemical or physiological changes to occur.

Defining a ‘nutrient’ better fit for purpose in the age of genomics and metabolomics is now a priority. We need a fuller biological description so that we can ask more questions, for example are there are other substances which should be classified as nutrients or is the concept of a ‘daily allowance’ suitable for all nutrients?

BANT therefore proposes that a working definition is as follows:

“A nutrient is a constituent of a diet, natural or designed, that plays a unique (biochemical or structural) role in a function, i.e. it can serve as:

  • an energy yielding substrate; or
  • a precursor for the synthesis of macromolecules or of other components needed for normal cell differentiation, growth, renewal, repair, defence and/or maintenance; or
  • a required signalling molecule, cofactor or determinant of normal molecular structure/function and/or a promoter of cell and organ integrity.”



  • Codex Guidelines on Nutrition Labelling CAC/GL 2-1985 Rev 1 -1993 para 2.5
  • Fenech M (2002) Micronutrients and genomic stability: a new paradigm for recommended dietary allowances (RDAs). Food and Chemical Toxicology 40, 1113-1117.
  • Go VL, Butrum RR & Wong DA (2003) Diet, nutrition, and cancer prevention: the postgenomic era. Journal of Nutrition 133, 3830S-3836S.
  • Sansalone W (1999) What Is a Nutrient? Defining the Food-Drug Continuum. Georgetown University Center for Food and Nutrition Ceres Forum.
  • Young VR (2002) 2001 W.O. Atwater Memorial Lecture and the 2001 ASNS President’s Lecture: Human nutrient requirements: the challenge of the post-genome era. Journal of Nutrition 132, 621-629.