For example, the National Institutes of Health’s Vitamin E Fact Sheet for Health Professionals mentions that the recommended levels “are for alpha-tocopherol alone, the only form maintained in plasma.”
Dr. Tan recently made a presentation on the state of science of vitamin E in a webinar for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. His goal was to ‘set the record straight’ on vitamin E, covering important milestones in research and distinguish between the two main vitamin E sources known today—tocopherols and tocotrienols.
Dr. Tan took some time to chat with NutraIngredients-USA about his presentation, which included a brief history of vitamin E research, recent breakthroughs, and a look to the future.
(The following has been edited for length and style).
When it comes to vitamin E, what do you think dietitians or healthcare practitioners misunderstand the most?
The first is that vitamin E is not alpha-tocopherol alone. But alpha-tocopherol is often referred as ‘the one’ because it was first discovered as vitamin E. Tocotrienol had not been in discussions in the industry a lot, primarily because tocotrienol was discovered in plants 40 years after alpha-tocopherol. Just by virtue of the delay, the literature published simply [lagged].
By the 1980s, a lot of studies on alpha-tocopherols had been done, particularly on its anti-oxidant work, and the tocotrienols barely had research. [In this decade] people may have already known about tocotrienols, but they did not know that it had differentiated properties from tocopherol, and this was when there was the first research about this.
Vitamin E is needed to protect the biomembrane. Tocotrienols, particularly delta- and gamma-tocotrienol, have a shorter tail and a smaller head; alpha-tocopherol has a longer tail and a bigger head. So tocopherols anchor deeply, but they do not move too much in the bio-membrane, so I liken tocopherol to a local policeman, they stay in the town.
But tocotrienols, they’re smaller and they can swim around, they’re like state troopers, they go all over the state. This is the reason why a tocotrienol is 50 times more potent than a tocopherol as an antioxidant.
Natural vs. Synthetic
The second is the difference between natural and synthetic. This distinction currently applies to tocopherols, because all tocotrienols currently on the market are naturally sourced. This is another thing where we need to straighten the record.
When you make synthentic alpha-tocopherols, you are making random carbons, they will never be able to be alike.
Back to the 1980s, when all the vitamin E studies were coming up, they all used synthetic tocopherols. The press picked it up, because at best the studies failed, at worst they may cause cancer—it was very sensational, not very true about alpha-tocopherol, but nevertheless, the alpha-tocopherol market plummeted. The press only picked up that it was alpha-tocopherol, but not that it was synthetic.
What are some recent breakthroughs in vitamin E research in the past years?
Cardiovascular conditions and disease—we were the first to do clinical trials to study cardiovascular disease on tocotrienol only. There were companies and institutions that did clinical studies before us, but they mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols, but we found that, based on all the animal studies, it was best to study just the tocotrienols.
In the past two-to-three years, we were the first to conduct [human] clinical studies on bone health. Most have studies looked at a mix of tocopherol and tocotrienol, but we did it just on tocotrienol.
Because people already popularly take calcium and vitamin D, the participants continued to take those. The ones supplemented with tocotrienols also took calcium and vitamin D, so that when we interpret the data of these two groups, we exclude the confounding possibility that calcium or vitamin D taking would do anything to the tocotrienol.
The proper study was only completed a year ago, it took time to complete the data, and it will be published in the fall. It had positive results, [I] saw it as a poster at Experimental Biology.
Are Americans getting enough vitamin E?
For vitamin E, referring only to alpha-tocopherol, as of next year the recommended daily amount from the US government will move from 12 mg per day to 15 mg. [A study] came to the conclusion that, despite people taking supplements and vitamin E, more than 90% of Americans don’t get enough of the 12 mg per day.
So if that number arbitrarily increases to 15 mg, that 90% will be an even higher number. It could be because people are eating less-and-less of oil and fat, where this vitamin comes from.
Based on a few sketchy published studies and our own studies on tocotrienols, the average American, if they eat vegetables and meat, probably gets 2 to 3 mg of tocotrienol per day. Surprisingly, they will get it from chicken fat and pork fat, because they eat corn meal, and corn has some tocotrienol.
So what food has a significant amount of tocotrienol? You’ll find it in oily nuts like avocado, macadamia, coconut oil, and palm oil.