What are Trace Elements?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

By definition, trace elements are chemical components that naturally occur in soil, plant, and wildlife in minute concentrations. Also known as trace minerals, they are necessary for the optimal development and metabolic functioning of all living things. For people, proper cell metabolism, effective immune function, and healthy reproduction are dependent on a total of 72 of these elements. Unfortunately, even though the agricultural industry takes measures to ensure adequate nutrients exist in soil, the concentration of trace elements in some crops has somewhat diminished. In fact, the only natural food source that still represents all of these essential minerals is seafood.

A person can ensure that they are getting most of their needed trace elements by eating a balanced diet.
A person can ensure that they are getting most of their needed trace elements by eating a balanced diet.

Since trace elements provide nutritional value, they are sometimes referred to as micronutrients. It may come as a surprise to some people, however, that certain heavy metals are included as a sub-class of this family. This includes materials such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and even arsenic, which can be found in vitamin supplements manufactured for human consumption. While these are, in fact, necessary for proper nutrition in nearly microscopic amounts, too much can be toxic. This is why there is so much concern over the danger posed by environmental pollutants being introduced into waterways and accumulating in the fatty tissue of marine life.

Iron is one of the many trace elements that a body needs to function properly.
Iron is one of the many trace elements that a body needs to function properly.

The health-giving properties of trace minerals vary greatly, and some are not even understood as yet. Some seem to play a role in the prevention of certain diseases and other health-related conditions. For instance, chromium is involved in the regulation of metabolism of glucose and lipid fats, and it is the primary constituent of glucose tolerance factor (GTF) and is necessary to deter insulin resistance associated with diabetes. Chromium is also thought to be an aid to weight loss since it promotes the burning of fat for energy rather than its storage.

Legumes are a good source of micronutrients.
Legumes are a good source of micronutrients.

Several trace elements are essential for energy production, hormone regulation, and neurotransmissions in the brain. These include copper, iodine, and iron. Others, like selenium and magnesium, are required to for the body to use nutrients such as calcium and vitamin C. Zinc, in particular, may be considered the workhorse of the essential trace elements since it is involved in more than 200 enzymatic functions in the body. A less familiar member of this group, molybdenum, has been linked to the body’s ability to eliminate toxins.

Generally speaking, eating a balanced diet sufficiently assures that a person is getting enough of these minerals without the need for dietary supplements. Foods that are rich in these micronutrients include milk, organ meats, beef, poultry, legumes, green leafy vegetables, nuts, fruits, and whole grains. The exceptions are fluorine and iodine, which are typically taken in from drinking fluoridated water and iodized salt.

Trace amounts of iodine are important to healthy thyroid function.
Trace amounts of iodine are important to healthy thyroid function.
Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Contributing articles to wiseGEEK is just one of Karyn’s many professional endeavors. She is also a magazine writer and columnist, mainly for health-related publications, as well as the author of four books. Karyn lives in New York’s Catskill Mountain region and specializes in topics about green living and botanical medicine.

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Discussion Comments


It makes me so sad to think that we have sacrificed our own health and protection from toxic trace elements with the sole intention of creating a more industrialized society. I also wonder how much of the advancement actually made its way down to the people that have to live in these industrialized parts of the world. Have they seen the benefits from the work and contamination or do they only get sicker as the problems and toxic waste gets nastier?

I have read about places and towns in China that have become dumping grounds and recycling centers for old car batteries. The lead is harvested out of these old devices because its value is high enough to sacrifice ones body and health to dig out the lead.

These once profitable recycling efforts are now destroying villages as the lead toxins leech into the ground water and reserves. Trace elements of lead, mercury and other toxic chemicals and elements are hurting the health of the population so much that many of the towns do not have local and drinkable water supplies.

These towns now must have the water they consume brought in on trucks and delivered at much higher expense.


Another sad but true example of the horrors that trace element contamination can bring is the devastation of certain Polish industrial areas.

These environmental disasters are the result of a nation that struggled to afford the industrial revolution and was eventually taken over by the Russians and abused even more.

Throughout this past century and a half, many sacrifices to our environment have been made with the excuse of technological advancement and a better way of life the populous. Unfortunately the high cost of health hazards and clean up have now come to the surface along with the sickening toxic substances.


@IceCarver is right when he states that trace elements can also be dangerous and not good for human consumption or ingestion. This goes beyond the realm of digestion as well.

One example of trace element contamination is at dialysis clinics. Part of the process that these facilities administer mean passing human fluids through different types of tools and machines. This can lead to the equipment adding trace elements to the fluids that are not suitable to be put back into a human.

Aluminum contamination is a specific example that dialysis clinics much watch for. There are many types of trace elements that can be harmful and metals are one of them. The harm is very dependent on the amount and type of exposure that someone is subjected to and acceptable levels have been set by the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.


I think a critical observation that the author has failed to make is the acknowledgment that there are harmful trace elements that occur both naturally as well as by human intervention.

The most problematic of these trace elements is the existence of toxic substances in our food and water supplies.

Monitoring these substances and their minute levels is critical for the health and sanitation of our society. The Environmental Protection Agency has setup strict guidelines for what kind and how much of certain trace elements can be found in public drinking water.

The use of chemicals is often found to control such trace elements and other refinement processes are also popular.

Bottled water is a good example of this. Often reverse osmosis or ultraviolet energy is used to clean water to a safe and drinkable condition. Sometimes companies even add trace elements and minerals to add a specific flavor to the water that they offer for sale.

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