What are Tocotrienols?

Tocotrienols are part of the Vitamin E family. Tocotrienols have similar structure to tocopherols (Alpha-Tocopherol is the most common Vitamin E in the market), but contain three double bonds in the carbon side chain of the molecule. The Vitamin E family comprises eight different compounds : alpha, beta, gamma and delta- tocotrienols and tocopherols.

Where do tocotrienols come from?

Tocotrienols are scarce in nature. They are found most abundantly in crude palm oil extracted from palm fruits. Other sources are rice bran, wheat germ, oat and barley.

What are the main areas of research on tocotrienols that have shown positive benefits to humans?

The health benefits (by over 800 research papers in human, animal models and in-vitro) are:

  1. Neuroprotection – Since early 2000, research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has shown tocotrienols work through multiple mechanisms to protect brain cells / neurons from stroke-related injuries. Researchers at the Ohio State University first showed that at extremely low concentration, alpha-tocotrienol but not alpha-tocopherol prevented glutamate-induced toxicity that leads to brain cell death, a physiological phenomenon that occurs in the brain during a stroke. Studies showed tocotrienol prevent these injuries, treatment with tocotrienol effected complete recovery of dying neurons even when tocotrienol was introduced several hours after the glutamate challenge. Follow-on studies continued to establish further unique mechanisms instrumental to the neuroprotective properties of tocotrienols in stroke settings. These studies found tocotrienols exert neuroprotection via key cytosolic targets that are involved in regulating neuronal cell death or survival. NUTRITION (Natural Tocotrienol Against Ischemic Stroke Event) is a human clinical trial designed to evaluate the effects of orally supplemented natural palm mixed tocotrienols on platelet function and blood lipid profile including high-density lipoprotein (HDL), low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and total cholesterol. This study aims to clarify the potential of natural full-spectrum palm tocotrienol complex to mitigate important stroke risks. This clinical trial is still on-going (update Jan 2017). In early 2014, a randomized, double blind and placebo-controlled clinical trial on tocotrienols was published on the prestigious American Heart Association journal STROKE. This clinical trial aimed at studying the effects of tocotrienol supplementation on brain white matter lesion volume. White matter lesions (WMLs) are subclinical brain damage strongly associated with established cardiovascular risk factors and is an independent risk factor for stroke.In this important study conducted at the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences (University of Science Malaysia), 121 volunteers aged 35 and above with cardiovascular risk factors and MRI-confirmed WMLs were randomized to receive 200mg mixed tocotrienols or placebo twice a day for two years. Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare WMLs volume in volunteers.The results of this clinical trial showed regression of WMLs in terms of numbers and size in the brain after one to two years of supplementation and the researchers concluded that “Mixed tocotrienols were found to attenuate the progression of WMLs”.
  2. Cholesterol Maintenance – In a double blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, subjects with high blood lipids who were randomized to receive 300mg/day of mixed tocotrienols for six months showed a significant reduction in total as well as LDL-cholesterol levels. In contrast, subjects in the placebo group had negligible changes in their cholesterol levels compared to baseline.
  3. Arterial Compliance – Decreased arterial compliance or increased arterial stiffness is a predictor of cardiovascular events in both normal and diseased human subjects. A randomized, controlled clinical trial demonstrated oral supplementation of 100 mg and 200 mg palm mixed tocotrienols for two months reduced arterial stiffness in healthy adults.
  4. Carotid Atherosclerosis – Palm mixed tocotrienols complex supplemented at 300mg/day for two years have been shown by the Kenneth Jordan Heart Foundation (US) in a double-blind human study to have the ability to reverse the process of atherosclerosis in carotid stenosis patients. The researchers suggested that the mechanism of action was attributed by tocotrienol’s potent antioxidant function.
  5. Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) – NAFLD is the commonest cause of abnormal liver function in people who consumes little or no alcohol, with prevalence estimated at about 30 percent of the global population.
  6. Superior antioxidant – Tocotrienols, with their unsaturated side chain, allow them to pass through the membrane bi-layer (mainly made up of unsaturated fatty acid) in a more efficient manner and faster rate compared to the all saturated tocopherol.
Were the studies mentioned above carried out with palm based tocotrienols? This is because there is significant difference in ratio of tocotrienols to tocopherol in palm based tocotrienols (3.5:1) compared to rice based tocotrienols (1:1).

Almost all of the in-vitro, animal, human studies published so far, on the health benefits of tocotrienols was carried out with palm based tocotrienols. Palm based tocotrienols have very different chemistry and contents from rice based tocotrienols. The ratio of tocotrienols to tocopherol in palm based tocotrienols is very much higher at 3.5 to 1.0. In rice base tocotrienols, it is approximately 1.0 to 1.0. In addition, palm based tocotrienols contains additional phytonutrients such as phytosterols (which have been shown to prevent absorption of cholesterol in the intestine) and plant squalene (strong antioxidant) that are naturally extracted together with tocotrienols from the fruits of oil palm.

Is there a recommended daily allowance (RDA) for tocotrienol intake?

At the moment, there is no RDA for tocotrienols. It was only in the early 1980s that research scientist all over the world, started to look seriously into this new vitamin E. As the scientific evidence of tocotrienols is relatively new, the US FDA and US Pharmacopeia have not studied and recommended the daily allowances for tocotrienols. All the human and animal studies have been based on milligram of pure tocotrienols per day basis.

What is then the recommended daily dosage for people (normal everyday people) without any therapeutic condition but would like to have the benefits and protection of this new super vitamin E, palm phyto-tocotrienols?

So far, dosages of palm tocotrienols in human studies were for a specific health condition. Individual who are interested in enhancing their antioxidant status as part of a long term nutritional plan should consider a moderate use levels. For these people who want to maintain a healthy level of cholesterol, a healthy heart and cardio vascular condition and breast health, the consensus among tocotrienol research scientists was a dosage of 30-50mg/day. Commercial dietary supplements currently offer daily supplementation of tocotrienols from 20-60mg for healthy adults. Dr Asaf Qureshi (University of Wisconsin – the first research scientist to show that tocotrienols found in barley have the ability to lower total serum cholesterol), in his article titled “The Mutitherapeutic Properties of Palm Oil and its Novel Vitamin E” quoted that daily intake of 34-42.5mg of pure tocotrienols obtained from palm oil will provide enough tocotrienols for all the health benefits associated with them.

Why should anyone take tocotrienols? I’m already taking tocopherol Vitamin E.

Most Vitamin E supplements contain only alpha-tocopherol whereas palm based tocotrienols contain tocotrienols, phytosterols (proven to prevent absorption of cholesterol), squalene (a powerful antioxidant) and carotenoids. A combination of all these phytonutrients in which recent research have suggested may be highly effective in the overall maintenance of health.

What can I expect from taking tocotrienols regularly?
The effect of antioxidants, and likewise tocotrienols, only become apparent in the long term. Supplementing daily with tocotrienols will result in the reduction in cholesterol level and reduce the risk of free-radical degenerative diseases.
How are tocotrienols absorbed in the body?

Tocotrienols are fat soluble. It is absorbed in the same manner as fat, just like other fat-soluble vitamins (A,D and K) and phytonutrients like carotenoids. The absorption of these compounds is dependent on the physiological processes in the stomach and small intestines, induced by food, especially fat intake. Only when sufficient pancreatic juice and bile are secreted to emulsify the fat and fat soluble vitamins do we get satisfactory absorption. Since factors such as foods and fat intake tend to be variable, the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients will also be variable.

Being a vitamin E and since vitamin E is extensively used in cosmetics and personal care products, what proven benefits do tocotrienols have on prevention of skin aging and skin damage by ultra-violet rays?

The idea of using tocotrienols in cosmetic and personal care products is fairly new and recent. Being a more potent vitamin E, research scientists especially at the University of California, Berkeley, have started to investigate the additional benefits of tocotrienols over the alpha tocopherol vitamin E in the prevention of skin aging and skin damage. A study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley showed that diet-derived or topically applied tocotrienols preferentially accumulate at the strata corneum of the skin as a defense against free radicals generated by exposure to environment agents such as sun ray (UV), ozone, chemicals, etc.

Are Tocotrienols safe?

Toxicological and pharmacological studies showed that supplementation with palm based tocotrienols up to 2500mg per day per kilogram of body weight did not produce any significant side effects. Tocotrienols are natural compound found in various food and oils such as palm olein, rice bran oil, wheat germ, barley, etc. They are vitamin E and one may be taking tocotrienols through these normal foods without even realizing it.

Can I get enough of tocotrienols from my normal diet / food?

A: Most of the oils and food contain tocopherols but virtually no tocotrienols. Tocotrienols only occur at very low level (below 800ppm) in nature with the highest concentration found in palm oil. Other sources are rice bran, barley, wheat germ, saw palmetto and certain types of nuts and grains. Due to their low level, it is practically impossible to attain the amount of tocotrienols studies suggest may have a beneficial effect, from diet alone. For example, one has to take a cup of palm oil per day to attain this level.

Can I get tocotrienols simply from using palm oil in cooking?

Refined palm olein (palm cooking oil) have some tocotrienols as well as tocopherols but the levels found are very low, approximately 0.08%. In order to get the amount of tocotrienols (50 mg – 100 mg per day) that medical studies suggest may have a beneficial effect, one would have to consume about 80g – 160g (about one to two tea cup) of palm olein a day. Other cooking oils from corn, soy-bean and sunflower contain virtually no tocotrienols.

Who should take tocotrienols?

People looking for an effective antioxidant should take tocotrienols. It is wise to begin tocotrienols supplementation in young adulthood and continue throughout one’s life.

What should I look for when purchasing tocotrienols?

A: Look for a natural, palm-oil derived tocotrienol product. If minimally processed, it should also contain the other phyto-nutrients found naturally in palm oil. These include phytosterols, squalene and mixed carotenoids, thus offering a “platter” of a natural and wholesome phyto-nutrient complex. Other rice-derived tocotrienols are also available in the market. Some formulas include additional phyto-nutrients, such as soy isoflavones, Ginkgo biloba, or beta sitosterol. You can also look for a natural palm tocotrienol product combined with a phyto-carotenoid complex. In addition to the full range of tocotrienols, such a product may contain carotene, lycopene, natural palm squalene, and phytosterols commonly found in fruits and vegetables. This type of supplement contains a ratio of carotenes that mirror the carotenoid content found in carrots. A good mix!

What about regulatory approval and registration of tocotrienols?

A:Tocotrienols have been approved as a food additive in Japan. In France, finished products with palm based tocotrienols have been approved in the dietary supplement market. Palm Tocotrienol Complex is now Self-Affirmed GRAS according to Title 21 of the Federal Regulation (FDA) for use as an ingredient in a variety of foods. (GRAS – Generally Regarded As Safe.)

Will tocotrienols be The Vitamin E for the New Millennium?

Yes! Many research scientists and nutritionists, backed by extensive published research papers, agree that tocotrienols, being a natural more potent vitamin E and have many additional biological benefits over the normal tocopherols, will be the vitamin E for the 21st century. There are researchers who remarked that instead of focusing on tocopherols, people should start taking tocotrienols as the better vitamin E.

Why is tocotrienols much more expensive than tocopherols?

In nature, the level of tocotrienols is at such a low level (part per million level) that is it takes a huge amount of the raw material to extract out 1kg of tocotrienols. For example, for every 1000kg of soy fatty acid distillate, one can extract out about 70kg of the tocopherols. In comparison, every 1000kg of palm oil, one can only theoretically extract out 0.5kg of tocotrienols. In addition, the process to extract tocotrienols by molecular distillation is an expensive process compared to conventional distillation processes.