Have you ever read a nutrition report or food label and stumbled over the meaning of a chemical name or scientific term? Let this alphabetical list of nutrition terms be your guide!

Ascorbic acid is simply the chemical name for vitamin C. It is sometimes added to processed food products as a natural preservative.

Amino acids are individual chemicals that combine to make up different types of protein. There are two types of amino acids: essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids are those you must get from your diet, while non-essential amino acids are those your body can make on its own.

Antioxidant is a substance that protects other substances from oxidation or destruction, by allowing itself to be destroyed instead.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a mathematical formula, or height/weight ratio, that can help determine if you are underweight, healthy weight, overweight, or obese. Normal BMI for adults falls within the range of 18.5 and 24.9. Lower results may signify underweight and higher results may mean a person is overweight or obese.

Calorie is not a “thing,” or a substance in food; in simple terms, it is a measurement of the energy provided by a food. The word “calorie” is used to compare the energy value of one food to another or to measure a food’s energy contribution in the context of a daily diet.

Cholesterol is a sterol, or fat-like compound, found only in animal foods, that the body uses to build cell membranes and make hormones and vitamin D. Humans produce their own cholesterol and also use cholesterol from food. The term cholesterol is also used to indicate cholesterol levels in the blood which, when elevated, can indicate deposits of cholesterol in artery walls, leading to heart disease or stroke.

Daily Values (DVs) are nutritional standards established by the government to be used on food labels. These values allow food manufacturers to help consumers understand the levels of nutrients in a given amount of a particular food as compared to the daily requirement for those nutrients. For instance, when you look at the DV for calcium on the Nutrition Facts label on a container of milk, it might say 30%, indicating that a serving (1 cup) of milk provides 30 percent of your calcium requirement for the day.

Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions in your body. For instance, different types of digestive enzymes in your stomach break down different food components so they can be digested and absorbed into your body; some enzymes break fats down into fatty acids and other enzymes break complex carbohydrates down into simple sugars.

Fatty acids are individual chemicals that combine to make triglycerides, which are the main types of fats. Some individual fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, are known to have their own specific functions in the body.

Fiber is a component of plants foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains, that is essential for good digestion and intestinal health and can play a role in lowering cholesterol and maintaining blood sugar levels. The category of fiber also includes pectins and gums which are used as thickeners in the food industry and which you may see listed on food labels. Although human enzymes cannot digest any form of fiber, some can be digested by bacteria that occurs naturally in your digestive tract.

Flavonoids, which may be referred to as flavones, flavonols, and bioflavonoids, are a group of phytochemicals found in plant foods that act as antioxidants in the human body and, as such, can help fight heart disease, cancer and other diseases. More than 4,000 types of flavonoids have been identified; some of the more notable sources include berries, cherries, citrus fruit, red pepper, tomato skin, green and black tea, and red wine.

Folate, also known as folic acid or folacin, depending on the form, is a B vitamin more specifically known as vitamin B9. It is notable because a deficiency can increase the risk of a variety of medical conditions, including heart disease, cancer and neural tube birth defects.

Glycemic Index (GI) or Glycemic Load (GL) are ranking systems that measure how carbohydrate-containing foods affect blood sugar and insulin when absorbed into the body. Though important, GI and GL can be confusing, and not of much practical use to consumers, because the GI and GL of individual foods change, depending on how they are prepared and the types of foods they are served with.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener made from cornstarch that is often used by food manufacturers in place of sugar because it is less expensive. It is a common ingredient in sodas and other sweet beverages. Although it has not been proven to be more harmful than regular sugar, the sheer amount of HFCS in the food supply has long been a concern of many health experts and consumers.

Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas and released into your blood whenever you eat to help your body cells absorb sugar. Insulin can be thought of as the “key” that opens the door of each cell to allow in sugar that is necessary to produce energy.

Lipids are a family of substances that include triglycerides (fats and oils) and sterols, such as cholesterol.

Minerals are elements found in food and elsewhere; at least 16 minerals are essential in small amounts in human nutrition. Iron, calcium, zinc, sodium, potassium, magnesium and selenium are among the minerals that play important roles in the body, such as maintaining proper fluid balance and building healthy bones and teeth.

Niacin is a B vitamin that is sometimes prescribed in supplement form by doctors for people with high cholesterol, high triglycerides, or coronary artery disease.

Oxidation is a chemical term that describes the breakdown of a substance exposed to oxygen. This can be a good thing when, for instance, body fats are oxidized and used for energy. But it can also be a bad thing when it damages healthy cells.

Phytochemicals are plant substances, such as pigments that give fruits and vegetables their colors, that also have antioxidant, anti-bacterial, hormonal and other activity in the body. Some important phytochemicals include phytophenols such as resveratrol, found in grape products such as juice and wine. Reserveratrol has anti-inflammatory properties and may protect against heart disease and some forms of cancer.

Plant sterols and stanols are phytochemicals that help lower blood cholesterol levels by blocking the absorption of cholesterol in the intestine. Since plant sterols/stanols are considered safe to eat, some food manufacturers have added plant sterols/stanols to products such as margarine.

Probiotics are friendly bacteria found in some fermented foods such as fresh sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt and kefir, and also in supplement form. Probiotics replenish the beneficial bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract that is sometimes depleted by the use of medications such as antibiotics and other environmental factors. Although probiotics are sometimes recommended for other health conditions, their effectiveness beyond the digestive tract, if any, is not fully understood. The term “prebiotics” refers to fibers and other carbohydrates that provide food for probiotics. Sometimes friendly bacteria and the food they need to thrive exist in one product, such as yogurt or kefir.

Polyphenols are an important class of antioxidant phytochemicals found in many plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, teas, cereal grains, and chocolate.

Sugar alcohols are low-calorie sweeteners that are neither alcohol nor sugar, though they are often synthesized from different types of sugar. Sugar alcohols such as xylitol, sorbitol, erythritol, maltitol, and mannitol. are used in commercial food products as an alternative to regular sugar. They do contain some calories, and can be converted to glucose, which can cause spikes in blood sugar.

Tocopherol is a form of vitamin E that is sometimes added to food products as a natural preservative.

Trans fats are formed during a chemical process when liquid vegetable oil is hardened to create a more solid fat. Because the process involves the addition of hydrogen, trans fats are also known as hydrogenated fats. If you see the term “partially hydrogenated oil” on a food label, that food most likely contains trans fats. Trans fats can raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower your HDL (good) cholesterol and therefore they are considered unsafe for consumption. Trans fats have traditionally been found in commercially prepared baked goods, fried foods, crackers and butter substitutes. Due to health concerns, many companies have changed their formulas to cut trans fat and replace it with healthier forms of fat.

Triglycerides are fats that come from your diet and can also be synthesized in your body. High triglyceride levels in your blood raise your risk of developing coronary artery disease that can lead to a heart attack. Your body also makes triglycerides from sugar that comes from excess carbohydrates in your diet.

Vitamins are micronutrients, meaning that, like minerals, they are necessary for good health but only in relatively small amounts. Almost every food contains naturally occurring vitamins (and minerals) and in an ideal world, we would get as much of these nutrients as we need from a balanced diet. Vitamin supplements are available to fill in nutritional gaps your diet but are not recommended in higher-than-needed doses without consultation with your healthcare provider.

Zinc is an important mineral because it works with more than 100 enzymes to support many different body functions, especially in the eyes, bone, muscle tissue, and various glands and organs. The best sources of zinc are high protein foods, such as meat, shellfish, legumes, yogurt, and whole grains. Since zinc supplements can be toxic at high levels, speak to your healthcare provider before taking individual or high-dose supplements.

Alison Massey MS, RD, LDN, CDE reviewed this article.


Alison Massey, MD, RD, LDN, CDE. E-mail to author October 13, 2015.

Whitney E and Rolfes SR. Understanding Nutrition. 13th ed. Belmont, CA. Wadsworth; 2012.