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Special edition: Tocotrienols

Supply: The varied sources of vitamin E tocotrienol

By Stephen Daniells , 08-Nov-2010
Last updated on 08-Nov-2010 at 16:55 GMT2010-11-08T16:55:02Z

In the third part of our series on vitamin E tocotrienols, we look at the supply, and the sources for today’s ingredients, from rice bran oil to palm oil, and the newest entrant – annatto.

The first reports of tocotrienols date to the early 1960s when researchers at the University of Liverpool in England reported the presence of tocopherol-like compounds in rice and palm oil.

“The name 'tocotrienol' was suggested [in 1961] as a trivial name for those members of the tocopherol family with [side chains derived from the compound isoprene],” wrote Pennock, Hemming and Kerr in Biochemical Journal (1966, Volume 100, pp. 138–145).

Palm oil and rice bran oil remain key sources of tocotrienol-rich ingredients, and have been joined in recent years by annatto.

The vitamin E family

Tocotrienols are a form of vitamin E that have traditionally been in the shadow of the more popular vitamin E form – tocopherols.

Overall, there are eight forms of vitamin E: four tocopherols (alpha, beta, gamma, delta) and four tocotrienols (alpha, beta, gamma, delta). Alpha-tocopherol (alpha-Toc) is the main source found in supplements and in the European diet, while gamma-tocopherol (gamma-Toc) is the most common form in the American diet.

Tocotrienols (TCT) are only minor components in plants, although several sources with relatively high levels include palm oil, cereal grains, rice bran, and annatto.

While most research on vitamin E has focused on alpha-Toc, studies into tocotrienols account for less than one per cent of all research into vitamin E.


The commercial extraction of tocotrienols from palm oil began in earnest in the mid 1980s, with much of the science coming out of Malaysia. This is understandable, given Malaysia was the largest palm oil producer until 2009, with about 18 million tonnes per year. The country’s top spot was usurped by Indonesia this year, which produces 21 million tonnes.

In 1990 Carotech was formed and became the first company to have commercial tocotrienols, based on the process patent US 5,157,132 in 1992 by Barrie Tan and Mohammed Saleh. The process allowed for the extraction and separation of carotenoids and tocotrienols from palm oil.

Palm oil, and the ingredients obtained from it, continues to garner attention, with increasing demand leading to sustainability concerns, the clearing of rainforests, and the destruction of habitat for orang-utans.

WH Leong, vice president of Carotech Inc. explained to NutraIngredients-USA that the company sources its palm oil exclusively from Malaysia, not Indonesia. The company is a member of RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). “There is no forest clearance in the Malaysian Peninsula,” said Leong. “It is all crop land, all about 20 years old.”

Carotech is not the only company to offer tocotrienol ingredients sourced from palm oil. Singapore’s Davos Life Sciences also offers ingredients sourced from palm, as does Singapore’s Vance Group with its FortiTrienol, which contains all the tocotrienols forms and alpha-tocopherol.

Rice bran oil

Commercial tocotrienols from rice bran have also been available. This sector is dominated by the Eastman Chemical Company, which offers the NuTriene ingredient. In addition to containing tocotrienols and tocopherols, the ingredient also contains phytosterols, rice bran wax, and squalene.


The most recently discovered source of tocotrienol is annatto, and is commercialised by Massachusetts-based American River Nutrition. The company’s DeltaGold ingredient entered the market in 2003, after being developed and patented by Dr Barrie Tan. The ingredient naturally contains only delta- and gamma-tocotrienol, and is tocopherol-free.

The company’s ingredient recently received the 2010 SupplySide West Scientific Excellence Award. The ingredient is composed of 90 percent delta-tocotrienol and 10 percent gamma-tocotrienol.

Dr Tan told NutraIngredients: “Annatto is actually the best and purest source for natural delta-tocotrienol, along with some gamma-tocotrienol”.

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