Trace Elements: Definition & Explanations

Spurenelemente: Definition & Erklärungen

The human body is like a large building block and only when all parts are present is it complete and functioning properly. As the name suggests, trace elements are not present in large amounts in our body, but only in small amounts.

However, you should not underestimate them, we only say: small amount but big effect! Because one of the trace elements is missing, then our organism no longer functions as a unit. In our article about trace elements we want to explain what counts as a trace element, what they are contained in and why they are so important for our body.

the essentials in brief

  • Trace elements are present in our body, but it cannot produce them sufficiently itself. So we have to get them through food. This is important so that the vital functions can function properly.
  • Trace elements are assigned to the upper group of minerals. Since there are many trace elements, they are divided into essential and non-essential trace elements.
  • The daily requirement of each trace element is less than 50 mg/kg body mass. This is a very small amount that is required and can therefore normally be adequately covered by a balanced diet.

Glossary entry: The term trace element explained in detail

In order to provide a comprehensive overview of what exactly a trace element is and what it can do, we have compiled the questions that arise most frequently on this topic. In the following paragraphs, we want to answer these questions as best we can.

What are trace elements?

Trace elements are chemical elements that are only present in the body in small amounts. One finds these in the solar system, in the earth's crust, in the water or in the human body. Trace elements belong to the minerals and are important for the metabolism in the body.

trace elements

Trace elements are inorganic nutrients in our body that are responsible for metabolic functions. They can be found in many proteins. (Image source: pixabay / Elchinator)

In the human body, trace elements are divided into essential and non-essential trace elements. The essential trace elements are vital for the human organism.

The need for trace elements in the body is usually below 50 mg/kg body mass. Although iron is present in the body at around 60 mg/kg, it is classified as a trace element due to its effects. (1)

What is the function of trace elements in the body?

Although the quantitative requirement for trace elements in the human organism is relatively small, they are nevertheless significantly involved in vital processes. These are for example:

  • blood formation and oxygen transport
  • metabolism
  • immune defense
  • bone formation
  • Regulation of blood sugar balance
  • energy input

Without trace elements, the body cannot carry out or continue the vital metabolic functions. This also shows how important they are to us. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to a balanced diet to prevent possible deficiencies. It is also important to ensure a regular supply of the substances.

In order to get an overview of what each element is responsible for, we have summarized the most important trace elements and their function.

  • Chromium: Is important for carbohydrate metabolism.
  • Iron: As an important component of the red blood pigment, it ensures blood formation and oxygen transport in the blood. It ensures that the enzymes and metabolic processes are working properly. It is also indispensable in the brain development of children and adolescents.
  • Fluorine: Contributes to bone stability and tooth strengthening.
  • Iodine: Is responsible for activating the energy metabolism. It also serves to stimulate heat production and is involved in cell division and growth promotion.
  • Copper: Is involved in iron metabolism and is necessary for many enzymes in our body to function at all.
  • Manganese: As a trace element, it is responsible for building and maintaining cartilage and bones.
  • Selenium: This is responsible for strengthening the immune system in our body, as well as building thyroid hormones and, as an antioxidant, it protects against cell-damaging substances.
  • Zinc: Is almost an all-rounder in the body and takes on many tasks. For example as a component or activator of enzymes in carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism, in insulin storage and in activating the immune system. In addition, zinc acts as an antioxidant. (4)

It quickly becomes apparent here that trace elements definitely play an important role in our body. Although they are not available in large quantities, they are essential for us to function.

What are the most important trace elements and what do they contain?

The most important trace elements include chromium, iron, iodine and many others. To get an overview of how many elements are essential and in which foods they can be found, we have summarized the nine most important ones in a table (4).

element Happen
chrome Fish, Meat, Liver, Eggs, Whole Grain Cereals, Nuts, Yeast, Tomatoes, Mushrooms, Lettuce, Cocoa
iron Meat and sausage, grain product, spinach, peas, legumes, mushrooms
fluorine Saltwater Fish, Black Tea, Drinking Water
iodine Saltwater fish and seafood, seaweed, iodized table salt
copper Offals, fish, green vegetables, nuts, coffee, tea, cocoa
manganese Tea, spinach, leeks, strawberries, oatmeal
molybdenum Liver, kidneys, dried legumes, cereal products, milk
selenium Meat, fish, eggs, lentils, asparagus, grain products
zinc Meat, eggs, milk, dairy products, whole grains, legumes, oysters

Most trace elements are found in meat and fish, as well as grain products and legumes. With a balanced mixed diet, the need for trace elements is relatively easy to cover, since these products are part of the daily diet.

balanced and wholesome nutrition

With a balanced and wholesome diet, we consume enough trace elements to support all important functions. (Image source: unsplash / Louis Hansel)

But there are also non-essential trace elements. We do not notice their effect on the organism, which is why they are not detailed here. These non-essential trace elements are arsenic, silicon, boron, tin, nickel, lithium, lead and vanadium.

What causes a lack of trace elements?

Normally, a healthy adult's needs are met by eating and drinking. However, it can happen that certain circumstances or illnesses lead to a deficiency symptom. The following causes can lead to an undersupply:

  • metabolic disease
  • diarrheal disease
  • eating habits
  • regional circumstances

Deficiency symptoms often occur when we suffer from stress, insomnia or an unbalanced diet. Environmental factors can also quickly throw our nutrient balance out of balance.

Studies show that in Germany both young people and adults suffer from an iodine deficiency. (2)

Iron in particular is often present in the body in insufficient quantities. In most cases, girls and women as well as people with a vegetarian or vegan diet fall short of the quantity required.

For women, particular care should be taken to ensure that they consume enough iron. Because almost 60% do not reach the prescribed daily requirement. (3) It is therefore important to pay attention to a wholesome diet.

It depends on the quality, because falling below the prescribed recommendation does not mean that there is a defect. We have listed in the following table how undersupply manifests itself (5).

trace element deficiency symptoms
chrome Disturbance of how sugar is processed in the body
iron Anemia, tiredness, exhaustion, lack of concentration
fluorine tooth decay
iodine Thyroid disease, growth failure
copper weakening of the immune system, muscle problem (both very rare)
manganese depression, feeling weak (both very rare)
zinc Growth disorders, skin problems, weak immune system

In this article, we have primarily shown the most common, possible side effects of an undersupply of trace elements. However, there can also be an excess of trace elements, for example if you indiscriminately take dietary supplements in the form of tablets.

Therefore, before looking for the way to the pharmacy, a doctor should be consulted and a test should be carried out to determine whether there is an undersupply.

What is the correct dosage for trace elements?

As a healthy adult, you do not need the mass of trace elements and the need is usually covered by a healthy, balanced diet. The daily requirement per trace element is less than 50 mg/kg. Below we have created a table with the specified amounts per day (4).

trace element Recommended daily intake for adults (25 - 51 years)
chrome 30-100mcg
iron Men: 10 mg Females: 15 mg
fluorine Men: 3.8 mg Females: 3.1 mg
iodine 200mcg
copper 1-1.5mg
manganese 2-5 mg
molybdenum 50-100mcg
selenium Men: 70 mcg Females: 60mcg
zinc Men: 11/14/16 mg Females: 7/8/10 mg (depending on the phytate content whether low / medium / high intake is necessary)

The information provided here is an estimate or guideline and may change again over time. It should also be noted that falling below is not the same as a defect. In order to determine this, a medical opinion should be consulted in any case.

What should be considered in vegan nutrition with regard to trace elements?

With regard to vegan nutrition, there are various discussions about the pros and cons of this form of nutrition. For example, American studies have claimed that there are no health disadvantages with a vegan diet. On the contrary, it is even claimed that a vegan diet minimizes certain risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. (6)

However, studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans are exposed to an undersupply of trace elements. In this specific case, the lack of iodine and selenium was examined. (7)

vegetables and fruit

Especially for vegans it is important to pay attention to a wholesome diet. That means putting lots of green vegetables, nuts and legumes on your plate. (Image source: pixabay / silviarita)

Especially with a vegan diet, it is important to deal with the topic of food so that the body can get all the trace elements it needs. That is why we have listed which trace elements are sufficiently available.

  • Iron : Whole grains and cereal flakes, legumes, oil seeds, nuts, vegetables such as fennel, lamb's lettuce, rocket and spinach, dried fruit
  • Zinc : Whole grains, legumes, oil seeds and nuts
  • Iodine : Season food with salt containing iodine and occasionally eat (nori) seaweed
  • Fluorine : walnuts, soybeans, mineral water and black tea
  • Selenium : Brazil nuts, porcini mushrooms, legumes, Brussels sprouts, cereals. Good selenium suppliers are also sesame and lentils (8)

Other essential trace elements such as chromium, manganese, molybdenum and copper are usually easily covered with a conscious diet and there are hardly any deficiency symptoms. (8) Even with a vegan diet, it is possible to consume all the necessary trace elements.


We should not underestimate the effect of trace elements. They are important for our body to function properly. Although it is a little more important to pay attention to this with a purely plant-based diet, we usually consume enough trace elements.

It is important to pay attention to a wholesome and balanced diet. Vegans should include a lot of legumes, green vegetables and nuts in their diet. In addition, you should not indiscriminately resort to dietary supplements, but consult a doctor beforehand to determine whether there is a possible additional need.


  1. Heinrich Kasper: Nutritional Medicine and Dietetics. 11th edition. Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-437-42012-2.
  2. Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, iodine supply in Germany: results of iodine monitoring, created on: August 17, 2019, accessed on: October 14, 2020
  3., Eisen: Quality not quantity is the question, created on: January 10, 2020, accessed on: October 14, 2020
  4., vitamins-minerals-trace elements, created on: 2019 accessed on: October 14, 2020
  5., Lisa Balzer, MA, trace elements, created on: December 5, 2015, updated on: February 14, 2019 accessed on: October 14, 2020
  6. Key, Timothy & Appleby, Paul & Rosell, Magdalena. (2006). Health effects of vegetarian and vegan diets. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 65. 35-41. 10.1079/PNS2005481.
  7. Hildbrand T., 2014, Validity of the assessment of iodine and selenium intake using a food frequency table and the supply of these two trace elements determined by the ioduria and plasma selenium levels in omnivorous, lacto-vegetarian and vegan people
  8., Sandra Stöckl-Bayerlein, trace elements in vegan nutrition, created on: November 27, 2015 accessed on: October 14, 2020
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