The Problem With Vitamin E Supplements (tocopherols) for People Who Are Sensitive to Soy

This is a glimpse of some of the information that will be discussed in my next book.  Please be aware that the details of this text are subject to change in the final version when the book is published.  This post is for informational purposes only, and should not be considered to be medical advice.  While this information is thought to be correct, some of it may be incomplete, and at this point it may not be verified by published medical research data.


Vitamin E can be found listed on labels in various forms, including d-alpha tocopherol, dl-tocopherol, alpha tocopherol acetate, mixed tocotrienols, tocopheryl acetate, and vitamin E succinate. Most of these (other than the first two) are very ambiguous terms. The topic of the safety of vitamin E for anyone who is sensitive to soy comes up often.

Natural vitamin E (in food) occurs in eight different chemical forms, called isomers:

alpha tocopherol
beta tocopherol
delta tocopherol
gamma tocopherol
alpha tocotrienol
beta tocotrienol
delta tocotrienol
gamma tocotrienol

Note that the first 4 are tocopherols, while the other 4 are tocotrienols. It was initially thought that only alpha tocopherol is needed for human nutrition. So supplements that contain natural vitamin E typically only contain alpha tocopherol, and this is designated on labels as d-alpha-tocopherol. Unfortunately most of those supplements are derived form soy oil because of its relatively low price.

But about 99 % of the vitamin E supplements that are available, use synthetic alpha-tocopherol, designated as dl-alpha-tocopherol. Research shows that most synthetic vitamin E supplements are very poorly absorbed, so most health advocates shy away from synthetic vitamin E supplements. Synthetic forms of vitamin E are only about half as effective as natural forms of vitamin E. And unfortunately, virtually all vitamin E supplements (whether natural or synthetic) contain only a single isomer of vitamin E (based on alpha tocopherol).

But research shows that gamma tocopherol is actually the most common isomer found in food. In fact, roughly 70 % of the vitamin E found naturally in food is in the form of gamma tocopherol. That predominance in itself suggests that totally ignoring this isomer in vitamin E supplements is probably counterproductive. It’s certainly counterintuitive at the very least. Why is this important? Because when only alpha tocopherol is supplemented, this tends to significantly deplete gamma tocopherol levels in the body because gamma tocopherol is needed by the body in order to reduce inflammation and regulate certain factors that protect against certain diseases (including certain cancers) (Moyad, Brumfield, &Pienta, 1999, Jiang, Christen, Shigenaga, & Ames, 2001).1, 2 Gamma tocopherol is also known to activate genes that protect against Alzheimer’s disease.

So clearly, virtually all vitamin E supplements (whether natural or synthetic) are contraindicated for the prevention of certain diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s, simply because they exclude gamma tocopherol, and because of that shortcoming, they tend to deplete existing supplies of gamma tocopherol in the body. The obvious goal should be to try to get vitamin E from food, not from supplements, and not from processed foods that are enriched with vitamin E in the form of various tocopherols.

Vitamin E is available in various foods, including almonds, sunflower seeds and oil, safflower oil, olive oil, spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, squash, shellfish, many fish, avocados, and certain fruits and berries. Most people who have MC can tolerate many of those foods, so it shouldn’t be necessary to use any vitamin E supplements. And of course vitamin E is also available in peanuts and soybean oil, and in tomatoes, but most of us find it necessary to avoid those foods.

But most people who have MC are not concerned so much with getting enough vitamin E from food — they’re much more concerned about accidentally ingesting a form of tocopherol derived from soy. As far as processed foods in general are concerned, far too many of them are “enriched” with some form of vitamin E, and the trick is to figure out which form of vitamin E is used, to determine whether or not it’s safe to use. A “Soy-Free” banner on the label of the product cannot be relied upon, because most label designers do not recognize natural forms of tocopherols as a derivative of soy.

When natural forms of vitamin E are used (d-tocopherol), unless the source of the ingredient is otherwise specified, it’s safest and usually most accurate to assume that the source is soy (because that’s what it’s usually made from). When the type of vitamin E is listed on the label as dl-alpha-tocopherol, or as synthetic vitamin E, then it does not contain any soy derivatives.

Any ingredient “extracts” should also be viewed with suspicion because in many cases the extraction medium used is soy oil. A good example of this is the rosemary extract found in most processed turkeys these days. Pure rosemary should be safe for most people who have MC, but rosemary extract may cause problems for anyone who is sensitive to soy.

Here are references 1 and 2 for this post:

1. Moyad, M. A., Brumfield, S. K., &Pienta, K. J. (1999). Vitamin E, alpha- and gamma-tocopherol, and prostate cancer. Seminars in Urologic Oncology. 17(2), 85–90. Retrieved from

2. Jiang, Q., Christen, S., Shigenaga, M. K., & Ames, B. N. (2001). Gamma-Tocopherol, the major form of vitamin E in the US diet, deserves more attention. American Journal of Clininical Nutrition, 74(6) 714–722. Retrieved from

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