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Delta Tocotrienols: The Other Side of the Vitamin E Story Exclusive Swanson® Interview with Dr. Barrie Tan

Barrie Tan, Ph.D., President, American River Nutrition

Barrie Tan, Ph.D.

Dr. Barrie Tan is one of the pioneering researchers responsible for the classification of tocotrienols as a distinct class of nutrients that differ from their tocopherol “cousins.” His work led to the discovery of the major sources of tocotrienols (palm, rice and annatto) and the commercialization of tocotrienol ingredients for dietary supplements. He has been called “The Tocotrienol King” and Dr. Richard Passwater has dubbed him “Dr. Tocotrienol.” We recently spoke with Dr. Tan about the importance of delta tocotrienols, how they relate to the more commonly recognized vitamin E compounds, the tocopherols, and why he believes annatto is the superior source for natural delta tocotrienols.

SWANSON: Dr. Tan, thank you so much for your work and for helping to introduce tocotrienols to our Swanson customers. Let’s start by describing the difference between tocopherols and tocotrienols.

Dr. Tan: Certainly, it is my pleasure. Vitamin E is a collective term for molecules of a certain structure. In the 1950s, when the tocopherols were identified, the molecules we now know as tocotrienols were erroneously named as tocopherols. They share the same basic structure, but differ in a very important manner that has great influence on their activity. Tocotrienols, for instance, have up to 50 times the antioxidant potential of tocopherols. They have a shorter tail with double bonds that renders them more flexible, more able to interact with cellular membranes. Like tocopherols, there are various tocotrienols identified as alpha, beta, gamma and delta, but the latest research appears to point to the delta-fractions as being the most beneficial.

SWANSON: You’ve been instrumental in the development of natural, isolated delta tocotrienols first with rice, then palm, and now annatto. Why is annatto a superior source, and for those who are unfamiliar with it, what is annatto?

Dr. Tan: Well, most people are not familiar with annatto, but it is a plant (Bixa orellana) that I first stumbled on while exploring in South America. It has beautiful, bright red pods and seeds that are the source of coloring agents used for hundreds of years. What makes annatto such an attractive source of tocotrienols is that it is the only natural plant known that contains only tocotrienols. Plus, the tocotrienols it contains are entirely gamma- and delta-fractions, at about 10 percent and 90 percent respectively—the latest research suggests that the delta-fraction is the most potent and beneficial tocotrienol isomer, particularly for cholesterol health.

SWANSON: You’ve said that delta tocotrienols may have 50 times the antioxidant potential of tocopherols. Is this the primary basis for delta tocotrienol supplementation?

Dr. Tan: The antioxidant potential of delta tocotrienols is certainly greater, but beyond that, tocotrienols exhibit greater beneficial properties relative to supporting healthy cholesterol and triglycerides and cellular health as well, just to name two exciting areas of research. The science suggests that these properties are exclusive to delta tocotrienols and not shared by tocopherols. This also may help explain why some of the empirical evidence of the benefits of vitamin E consumption through foods has not carried over in research that focused only on tocopherols, primarily alpha-tocopherol or what is commonly called “Vitamin E.” It appears that the tocotrienols may, in fact, be the most important components of the vitamin E spectrum.

SWANSON: I’ve reviewed the research on delta tocotrienols and I’m absolutely convinced that this is an important class of nutrients previously overlooked. It’s also a huge topic we can’t even begin to cover in such a brief interview. How can people learn more about tocotrienols?

Dr. Tan: I’m glad you asked, because there is a lot of information available. First, our website has over a dozen articles and papers available, including a very detailed discussion with Dr. Passwater. Also, I recently was interviewed for, so your customers can find me there as well.