Sunday December 16, 2012
A rising star
By FIONA HO
Tocotrienols, the lesser-known siblings of the vitamin E family, are fast emerging as a superior addition to the prevalent and more popularly used tocopherols. Together, they provide a full range of antioxidant properties that are vital for good health.
VITAMIN E was discovered nearly a century ago, and has since risen from scientific obscurity to become a superstar of kitchen cabinet essentials.
Today, the antioxidant is slowly, but surely, becoming known for a myriad of health-enhancing benefits. They include the ability to stave off heart diseases, strokes, dementia, cataracts, respiratory tract infections and various common cancers.
It has also been found to promote healing, and is riding high on its shiny reputation as a skin-and-nails vitamin.
This is because its antioxidant properties protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals (molecules responsible for aging and tissue damage), and exposure to cell-damaging agents like sunlight and radiation. This in turn, helps fight off those pesky wrinkles and premature aging.
Lotions that contain vitamin E may also help prevent sunburn by protecting the skin from harmful ultra-violet rays.
Given its properties, it is no wonder that vitamin E-based products are becoming a popular mainstay in the beauty and cosmetics domain.
Most vitamin E supplements are usually available at pharmacies in either liquid or capsule form.
Capsules can be punctured to release the oil for topical application.
Besides being a beauty booster, topical vitamin E oil can also help soothe cold sores or blisters that typically develop on the lips or at the outer corners of the mouth.
There has also been evidence that the oil helps promote the healing of certain skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema, by shielding cell membranes and providing hydration.
Not all equal
The varied benefits of vitamin E make it an important element in our daily diet, but not all vitamin E are created equal.
The term vitamin E actually encompasses eight natural compounds: four tocopherols and four tocotrienols – each named alpha, beta, delta and gamma.
Most available vitamin E supplements in the market contain only mixed tocopherols, or alpha, beta, delta and gamma tocopherols. However, the tocopherols make up only half of the vitamin E family.
With continuing research, alpha, beta, delta and gamma tocotrienols are fast emerging as the superior siblings in the vitamin E family.
Tocotrienols were actually discovered some 30 years ago, but has only been setting the scientific community abuzz in recent years.
Research on this lesser-known vitamin E compound has surged over the past four years, with an increase of over 50% of peer-reviewed articles since 2008.
However, studies on tocotrienols still pale in comparison to that of tocopherols, accounting for only 1% of all research into vitamin E.
Past research has shown that tocotrienols are able to inhibit the growth of tumour cells in chemically-induced breast cancer in rodents.
Studies on the delta and gamma variety of tocotrienols have also shown their inhibiting qualities on human breast cancer cells by inducing cell death through the initiation of apoptosis (the programmed death of cells).
Meanwhile, the Journal of Biological Chemistry (April 2000) reported that researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, United States, found alpha tocotrienol to be effective in preventing the onset and progression of age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Popular food sources of vitamin E include vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. Tocotrienols are however, most richly found in palm oil fruit. About 75% of vitamin E from palm oil consists of tocotrienols.
Together, both tocopherols and tocotrienols provide the full range of antioxidant properties contained in vitamin E, as both forms can neutralise free radicals.
However, tocotrienols have been proven in various local and overseas studies to be the better antioxidants and neuro-protection supplements, as compared with tocopherol.
Looking to the future
Malaysian plantation giant Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd is taken by the health benefits of tocotrienols, and foresees a profitable future in the vitamin E derivative.
Putting money where its mouth is, the corporation’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Davos Life Science Pte Ltd, is dedicated to the production of tocotrienol products.
Davos was established in 2004 as a manufacturer that isolates and purifies natural tocotrienol to be used in supplements and functional foods, as well as personal care and pharmaceutical formulations.
It recently moved its nutraceutical plant from Singapore to Westport, Port Klang, and is targeting to reach its full capacity of 100 tonnes per year within five years.
According to chief executive officer Arthur Ling, the new plant spans two acres, and is currently in its start-up phase.
He says that despite existing evidence of tocotrienol’s benefits, more work is still required to create market demand, and Davos is aimed at that purpose.
The demand could also help promote palm oil as a beneficial palm derivative, especially in the Western world, he adds.
The main challenge lies in educating the public about the benefits of the vitamin E compound.
“Because tocotrienol was discovered only about three decades ago, its health benefits are still relatively unknown to the general public,” says Ling.
Cognisant of the potential of this vitamin E derivative, the Malaysian Government, through the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), has been pushing for more research on the medical applications of tocotrienols.
The drive to add value to tocotrienols falls under the 8th Entry Point Project of the Palm Oil National Key Economic Area (NKEA), which aims to expedite growth in the food and health-based segments of palm oil.
For Davos, the future lies in further experimentation, using the more purified forms of tocotrienol compounds.
In order to compete with the popular and cheaper soybean oil, tocopherol and tocotrienol producers have to come up with higher-purity products, containing 90% and above tocotrienol content, says Ling.
He adds that more research and development are vital in promoting the benefits of tocotrienol to both local and international markets.
The increase in tocotrienol demand could create a shift from soya sources to palm sources in the vitamin E market.
This, in turn, could spur the local palm oil industry as its fruit is the richest known source of tocotrienols, Ling says.
Davos currently supplies tocotrienol in various forms to the United States, Europe and Asia for high-end health supplements, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products.
“All our customers are foreign because there is no market in Malaysia,” he explains.
The company is also collaborating with the MPOB on tocotrienol research.