Substance that an organism must obtain from its surroundings for growth and the sustainment of life. So-called nonessential nutrients are those that can be synthesized by the cell if they are absent from the food. Essential nutrients cannot be synthesized within the cell and must be present in the food. In most living organisms nutrients provide not only the energy necessary for certain vital processes but also the various materials from which all structural and functional components can be assembled.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica 2002