Raena Morgan: Doctor Tan, there's certain members of the vitamin E family that are called tocotrienols, did I get that right?
Dr. Barrie Tan: You got that right.
Morgan: Could you explain exactly what tocotrienols are?
Tan: Tocotrienols are part of the vitamin E family, and the more popular one is know as tocopherol and this is the less known cousins. The difference between tocopherol which you can find on a cereal box compared to tocotrienols are two things. They, the structure of vitamin E look like picture of a sperm. It has a head and a tail. A tocopherol will have a bigger head and a longer tail. A tocotrienol will have a smaller head and a shorter tail.
Morgan: That's the molecular difference?
Tan: That's the molecular difference between the two. And the significance and the meaning of this difference is that the head is the part that all of us know makes it a powerful antioxidant.
Morgan: So its an antioxidant, just like the tocopherol is.
Tan: Yeah, both of them are antioxidants. And then the differences lie in the nuances of the size of the head and the shortness of the tail in that of the tocotrienol. In the tocopherol, the antioxidant protection while in the head, because the head is smaller, is not able to move about and be more viable when they land on the biomembranes of the cell. So when people know there is a powerful antioxidant, the reason it's a powerful antioxidant, it protects the membrane of the cell where there are lipids and fat. In every human body, there are 75 trillion cells. That's a lot of cells! And in the tail, like an anchor of a boat, sticks into the biomembrane and holds the head, which is the antioxidant, in place. So people don't spend enough time to explain, how is it an antioxidant? Now in that of a tocotrienol, the tail is shorter, so it doesn't sink into the biomembrane as deep. So it is much more mobile. So I describe to people this way. A tocopherol is like a local policeman, it captures the bad guys in a particular township. But a tocotrienol is like a state trooper, is able to cross the entire boundary for the whole state so it covers a much larger surface area to capture the bad guys.
Morgan: And how recently was this discovered? Because vitamin E has been around for a long time.
Tan: That's right. Vitamin E, as in alpha-tocopherol, was discovered at UC Berkely in 1922. And tocotrienol was actually accidentally discovered some 30 years after in the 50's. And when they first discovered this, in those early days, they looked like dots on a little piece of paper. Almost like shadows of the tocopherol. And in the tocopherol, we have four tocopherol in four greek words, alpha, beta, delta and gamma. And the same with tocotrienol. But before the discovery, they had these four dots, the alpha, beta, delta, gamma tocopherol. And then they had a shadow of dots behind it. And they thought they did something wrong, like you develop a film. And then later they found out that these shadows, were not tocopherol, that they did anything wrong. And that was in about middle of 1950's. Then they found out that they were in fact tocotrienols. And structurally, very similar, but not tocopherols.
Morgan: So these toco's we can call them... they are more powerful as an antioxidant...
Morgan: ... than the original tocopherols.
Tan: And this too, came out from UC Berkeley, from the famous antioxidant professor, Lester Packer. And he found out that because it's able to travel... first he showed that the tocotrienol was about 50 times more potent as an antioxidant.
Morgan: 50 times?
Tan: 50 times.
Morgan: These little shadows...
Tan: These shadows. And obviously when it's 50 times, usually you think of something better, like 50 percent better. So when it's 50 times better, there's got to be an underlying reason, otherwise it would seem not plausible or believable. And he found out that the reason it's 50 times more potent as an antioxidant is because it doesn't stay in the same spot or move about slowly like the tocopherols would. It moves much more rapidly through the entire membrane of the molecule. Think of a cell like a lima bean. See, it's got three dimensional shape. So the lipid membrane is all around the whole cell. Its not flat and it's not a line, but it's actually three dimensional. So if a molecule is able to spin all around to protect as an antioxidant, then it would be more powerful as it would be something that's in the same spot. Now this said, this is not a place to say that alpha tocopherol is not good, it just has a longer tail and less potent as an antioxidant.
Morgan: Less potent, but still good.
Tan: Still good, yes.
Morgan: Thank you doctor Tan.
Dr. Barrie Tan discusses the antioxidant properties of certain parts of vitamin E. He talks about the history of the discovery of tocotrienols as well as the benefits of these substances.
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