Vitamin E is a term used to describe two different groups of molecules: tocopherols and tocotrienols. Both forms of Vitamin E act as powerful antioxidants, but recent studies have shown that the tocotrienol form of the vitamin is actually more potent. Up until 2003, only two major sources of natural tocotrienol existed: palm and rice. Both sources contain a significant amount of alpha-tocopherol, which interferes with the benefits of tocotrienols. It wasn’t until the discovery of the annatto plant by Dr. Barrie Tan that a pure source of vitamin E tocotrienols was known.
Dr. Barrie Tan
Dr. Tan is the world’s foremost leading expert in Vitamin E tocotrienol research. His authority in this field has led to his nickname: “Dr. Tocotrienol”. His venture into vitamin E research actually began as a love affair against his first love, the carotenoid family. In 1984, Hewas invited by a friend to visit a palm oil manufacturer in his native country of Malaysia. Palm is known for having a large amount of carotene, and he noticed that the manufacturing process produced a lot of waste in the form of an orange material confirmed to also be carotenes. Putting that waste to better purpose, he founded Carotech in 1988, which to this day is a major supplier of palm-derived products. During the isolation process, Dr. Tan noticed a colorless portion of the material that seemed to have high antioxidant properties. Running chromatography on the material revealed statistics that were very close to those known for vitamin E tocopherols. Further researched did in fact reveal the colorless material to be vitamin E but of a different sort. What Dr. Tan and company has isolated was tocotrienols.
Not giving his find much thought, Dr. Tan shortly after sold Carotech and returned to full time research and development. Soon after he was invited to a meeting by the Prince of Thailand, who wanted to sponsor research by Dr. Tan dedicated to plant-based nutraceutical discoveries. Because of the poor Asian economy during that time, the company started by the prince did not last long. They did, however, discover that rice was a major source of tocotrienols. Shortly after this, Dr. Tan founded American River Nutrition, Inc., his current company.
Eager to return to carotenoid study, Dr. Tan took a trip to South America to find sun-drenched marigold lutein. This is where he stumbled upon the anatto plant. Two things stuck out to him about this plant. The first was its bright, red colored pods. The second was that the pods were phototrophic, they followed the sun. This made Dr. Tan wonder what was protecting this plant from oxidation from the sun. He took the plant back to his lab, studied it, and discovered that the source of its protection was tocotrienols. Not only that, but it had no detectable source of tocpherols. Almost on accident, Dr. Tan discovered a natural source of pure tocotrienols!
The Annatoo Plant
The second player in our story has to deal with the plant itself. The annatoo plant was first discovered by the Spaniard, Francisco de Orellana, in the 1500s. Upon his discovery, he dubbed it Bixa orellana. In the United states, the annatto was imported as a food colorant about 150 years ago. The annatto contains the two most dominant forms of tocotrienol: delta-tocotrienol at about 90% and gamma-tocotrienol at about 10%. Right now, Dr. Tan’s company holds a patent on the extraction of tocotrienols from this plant.
Other sources of tocotrienol in the diet come from oils, fats, grains, certain frutis, nuts, meat, and eggs. All of these sources, however, contain tocotrienols in quite small proportions. The other major sources of tocotrienol are rice and palm. Rice contains approximately 50% tocotrienol and palm contains about 75%. Both of these sources are a mixed vitamin E, containing both tocotrienol and tocopherol. To this date, no other source of 100% natural tocotrienols is known.