What are the richest sources of vitamin E?

Well that’s simple. Just look at a book, or on the Internet, and you will find lists. For example, one book gives almonds, hazelnuts, safflower nuts, sunflower seeds, walnuts, wheat germ and whole-wheat flour, margarine, and apricot, corn, peanut and cottonseed oil.

Problems with some sources

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Unfortunately, as so often in nutrition, the answer isn’t that simple. For a start, I have never seen a safflower nut or apricot oil on sale. Margarines can be hydrogenated, and so a source of harmful trans fats. They can also contain additives that I don’t want in my food. Peanuts contain a mould that is linked with liver cancer. So you don’t want too much of them. Some of the mould can find its way into the oil, and some people may be allergic to peanut oil, depending on how it is processed. Cottonseed oil has to be refined, bleached and deodorised, to remove a harmful toxin. Some oils may have been high in vitamin E, but it may have been removed from the oil, to be sold separately as a supplement, or used as a preservative in other foods. Whole wheat may contain plenty of vitamin E, but the lectin in it affects some people’s digestion and can lead to arthritis later on. If your digestion is affected, you may not absorb all that vitamin E anyway.

Good sources of Vitamin E

The question should not be, “What foods are high in vitamin E?” but rather, “What are good sources of vitamin E?” A good source should be one that contains a lot, and that doesn’t contain other things that are nasty. Let’s look at another book. Yes, it gives polyunsaturated vegetable oils, seeds, nuts and whole grains as high in vitamin E. Yes, the vegetable oils do contain a lot of vitamin E, but the more you eat of them, the more vitamin E you need. Other foods rich in vitamin E are given as asparagus, avocado, berries, green leaves and tomatoes.

Vitamin families

So have we solved the problem? Not really. The next issue is that there is not one chemical called vitamin E, any more than there is one chemical called vitamin B. The Bs are a family of separate compounds, called B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, biotin and folate. They occur in different foods, and have different functions. You and your brother may be in the same family, but you are not the same as him.

The vitamin E family

There are eight E vitamins, d-alpha, d-beta, d-gamma and d-delta tocopherol, and d-alpha, d-beta, d-gamma and d-delta tocotrienol. Alpha, beta, gamma and delta are just the first four letters of the Greek alphabet. The d means that they are the natural forms. The Es are also a family of different compounds, with different sources, and different functions. The main sources of tocotrienols are palm and barley oil, followed by rice bran oil. Wheat germ and oat bran provide smaller amounts.

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Antioxidant vitamins

Oxidation is a necessary process, needed for making energy from food, and for killing nasty organisms. However, it can also be harmful, leading to cancer, heart disease, strokes and aging. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that works in watery situations. The E vitamins are antioxidants that work in fats. We need both. Vitamin E protects cell membranes, as these are made of fat and protein. In particular, it protects the membranes of cells in the nervous system. D-alpha tocopherol is the most powerful antioxidant of the E vitamins. However, E vitamins are not just antioxidants. D-alpha tocotrienol has more activity against tumours than d-alpha tocopherol. People with heart disease tend to be short of d-gamma tocopherol, not d-alpha tocopherol.

People who are at risk of deficiency

People who eat over-processed vegetable oils, those who consume a lot of milk sugar and beet or cane sugar, those who find fat hard to absorb, premature babies, people with sickle cell disease or thalassaemia, and those on dialysis are at increased risk of vitamin E deficiency.

Oxidised cholesterol

Cholesterol is an important substance which the body has to make. It only becomes a problem if it is oxidised. The E vitamins prevent this.

Over-processed oils

In the past, polyunsaturated fats were eaten in nuts, seeds and avocado, together with vitamin E. Removing vitamin E from oils before selling them was a harmful step. Promoting the consumption of these over-processed oils by health professionals is counter-productive.

Supplements

Producing supplements with all eight E vitamins is expensive. One response is just to sell d-alpha tocopherol, one of the eight. Yet d-gamma tocopherol is the main form in food in some countries, and so may be what we are designed to use most. A worse move is to sell a synthetic mixture of a small amount of d-alpha tocopherol with more unnatural l-alpha tocopherol. The unwanted l form competes against the natural form, making the supplement less effective.

Clinical trials

If you want to try out a new railway locomotive, you do not send a bus driver or an airline pilot to drive it. You send a train driver. Unfortunately large studies on supplements are often led by doctors trained in drug medicine, and with little knowledge of nutrition. They often use cheap supplements, and too high doses of one chemical alone. Not surprisingly, the participants in the trials sometimes do badly.

First aid

Vitamin E is a very useful item for first aid. If your throat is sore, chew vitamin E capsules, or put some drops under the tongue. If your skin is sore, rub in a little vitamin E oil. Once a wound has stopped bleeding, apply a small amount of vitamin E. If you have shingles, use vitamin E oil. If you have a fungal skin infection, try putting vitamin E on it. If you have a cold, rub in a little vitamin E under your nose, so the skin doesn’t become sore.

Sources of the E vitamins

The only way to obtain all the eight E vitamins from food is to have a varied diet, perhaps including palm or rice bran oil, nuts, seeds, avocadoes, green leaves, berries, asparagus and tomatoes.

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