Zinc: an essential but elusive nutrient

Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Aug;94(2):679S-84S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.005744. Epub 2011 Jun 29.


Zinc is essential for multiple aspects of metabolism. Physiologic signs of zinc depletion are linked with diverse biochemical functions rather than with a specific function, which makes it difficult to identify biomarkers of zinc nutrition. Nutrients, such as zinc, that are required for general metabolism are called type 2 nutrients. Protein and magnesium are examples of other type 2 nutrients. Type 1 nutrients are required for one or more specific functions: examples include iron, vitamin A, iodine, folate, and copper. When dietary zinc is insufficient, a marked reduction in endogenous zinc loss occurs immediately to conserve the nutrient. If zinc balance is not reestablished, other metabolic adjustments occur to mobilize zinc from small body pools. The location of those pools is not known, but all cells probably have a small zinc reserve that includes zinc bound to metallothionein or zinc stored in the Golgi or in other organelles. Plasma zinc is also part of this small zinc pool that is vulnerable to insufficient intakes. Plasma zinc concentrations decline rapidly with severe deficiencies and more moderately with marginal depletion. Unfortunately, plasma zinc concentrations also decrease with a number of conditions (eg, infection, trauma, stress, steroid use, after a meal) due to a metabolic redistribution of zinc from the plasma to the tissues. This redistribution confounds the interpretation of low plasma zinc concentrations. Biomarkers of metabolic zinc redistribution are needed to determine whether this redistribution is the cause of a low plasma zinc rather than poor nutrition. Measures of metallothionein or cellular zinc transporters may fulfill that role.

Publication types

  • Consensus Development Conference

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Metallothionein / metabolism
  • Nutritional Status
  • Zinc / blood*
  • Zinc / physiology


  • Biomarkers
  • Metallothionein
  • Zinc