Niacin is a blanket term for a family of compounds with vitamin B3 activity. The terms “niacin” and “vitamin B3” can be used interchangeably, and whenever you find either term on our website, we are referring to the same group of compounds. Basic types of vitamin B3 include nicotinamide, nicotinic acid, and several active enzymatic forms, each of which can be obtained from food. In research studies, nicotinamide is used as a standard of measurement for calculating the vitamin B3-activity associated with each forms of niacin, prompting researchers to use the term “NE” when referring to B3 measurements. “NE” in this situation stands for “niacin equivalents.” Many public health organizations make B3 recommendations in terms of “milligrams of NEs” per day. When you see this type of reference, it simply means that all forms of B3 found in whole foods count as good ways to meet your daily B3 needs.
Consumption of enriched wheat flour, however, is by no means required for adequate niacin intake. Your diet is likely to have the recommended daily amount of B3 if you have multiple daily servings of whole, natural foods across a wide variety of food groups.
Like the other B complex vitamins, niacin is important in energy production. Two unique forms of vitamin B3 (called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD, and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate, or NADP) are essential for conversion of dietary proteins, fats, and carbohydrates into usable energy. Niacin is also used to synthesize starch that can be stored in muscles and liver for eventual use as an energy source.
The same niacin-containing enzymes that are involved in energy metabolism, NAD and NADP, work by quenching free radicals. This process is not only important in energy production, but in protecting your body against excessive tissue damage. While most lay person nutrition sources omit niacin from the list of dietary antioxidants, researchers are aware of this connection, and have studied it extensively, particularly in people with diabetes.