“Let thy food be thy medicine, and thy medicine be thy food.” Even in the fourth century BCE, Hippocrates clearly knew the important role our diets play in preserving health. But what if we are wrong about which foods are actually healthy?
In the last four decades, dietary fats—especially saturated fat—have gained a bad reputation because they are viewed as the main reason for weight gain and cardiovascular disease. Advised to cut saturated fats entirely out of their food, people chose to substitute with partially hydrogenated fat and refined carbohydrates, not knowing that these were the real culprits for the ensuing health issues.
Fats are an essential energy source for our bodies. The type of fat that we need to avoid altogether, however, is partially hydrogenated fat—also known as trans fat. Research has shown that trans fat (soft oils partially solidified through hydrogenation) raises LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels while reducing HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) levels in our body. Polyunsaturated fats (common grain- and seed-based vegetable oils) are unstable when heated and tend to denature, forming harmful compounds when subjected to high temperatures. Furthermore, many beneficial vitamins and nutrients are fat soluble and are either carried by fat or need fat available in the digestive tract to be absorbed.
Therefore, it is important to look for a dietary fat with a balanced fatty-acid profile that is non-atherogenic (i.e., won’t contribute to the formation of arterial plaque), stable in high heat, and known to deliver health-supporting nutrients. Malaysian red palm oil is one such fat that ticks all these boxes.
The Treasures of Red Palm Oil
The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) originates from West Africa where it grows in the wild and was later developed into an agricultural crop. Red palm oil stands out from other choices because it is one of the very few edible commodity oils that has not been genetically modified (non-GMO). It is sustainably grown in Peninsula Malaysia. Look for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) trademark.
When palm fruits are harvested, they are transported to the mill to separate the flesh from the seeds. Red palm oil is pressed (mechanically) from the flesh, and this quality oil contains highly valuable phytonutrients—tocotrienols, carotenoids, phytosterols, coenzyme Q10, and squalene. These are the jewels of red palm oil. No other edible oil has such a unique bouquet of phytonutrients.
The Crown Jewel
Without the existence of tocotrienols and mixed carotenoids, the nutritional profile of red palm oil would be like any other cooking oil. Among these red-palm phytonutrients, research studies reveal tocotrienols have unique and powerful healthpromoting benefits not shown by the rest.
Tocotrienols and tocopherols are members of the vitamin E family. Although very similar in structure, tocotrienols differ in that they have an unsaturated side chain (tail). The side chain in tocopherols—the form most often found in vitamin supplements, which is derived from soybeans—has a saturated side chain. Due to its unsaturated tail, tocotrienols exhibit numerous biological activities that are not shown by tocopherols. Due to these unique health benefits, tocotrienols have been touted as the “super vitamin E.” (The figure on the following page shows the difference between molecular structures of tocopherols and tocotrienols.)
Tocotrienols are present (albeit in low levels) in some foods besides red palm oil. Natural sources include rice bran oil, barley, and rye. Compared with these sources, red palm oil has the highest concentration of tocotrienols (up to 800 ppm), as well as the most complete tocotrienol profile, comprising all four isoforms in high concentration (alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocotrienols).
Vitamin E research focused first on alphatocopherols, but in recent years tocotrienols have received significant attention. Newly published studies and research have revealed various health benefits that are unique to tocotrienols. In vitro, animal, and human studies have shown tocotrienols to possess protective effects for the brain, heart, liver, and skin.
Full-Spectrum Vitamin E
A full-spectrum tocotrienol/tocopherol complex may be concentrated from virgin red palm oil. Maximum preservation of heat-sensitive phytonutrients throughout the process of pressing and distillation allows the fruit’s naturally present plant squalene, phytosterols, coenzyme Q10, and mixed carotenoids to be extracted together with tocotrienols.
Research has shown that tocotrienols are better absorbed with a meal than when taken on an empty stomach. Furthermore, even higher rates of uptake have been observed using a self-emulsifying formulation (2 to 4 times the rate of non-emulsified tocotrienols) and those improvements were seen whether or not the supplement was taken with a meal.
A novel delivery system based on a self-emulsifying formula, EVNol SupraBio by ExcelVite, has been used in several published clinical studies on healthy human volunteers. These studies have recorded increases of up to 300 percent (average of 250 percent) for the rate of absorption and total absorption of each individual tocotrienol. A human tissue distribution study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), published in a 2012 edition of the Journal of Nutrition, provided the first scientific evidence that oral supplementation of tocotrienols with EVNol SupraBio demonstrates bioavailability and bioefficiency, reaching vital human organs and tissues such as brain, heart, liver, skin, and adipose (body fat) in measurable levels.
Brain Health (Neuroprotection and Cognitive Improvement)
More than a decade of US NIH-funded in vitro and in vivo research has led to the discovery of tocotrienol’s unique neuroprotective effect and elucidation of its mechanism in reducing damages from toxicity- and stroke-induced brain injuries.
Research at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center showed that tocotrienols at very low concentration (10-9, nanomolar level) cross the blood-brain barrier to reach the brain and exert protective effects against stroke-induced injuries. A large animal-model trial in canines showed that 10 weeks of 200 mg, twice-daily supplementation of self-emulsifying tocotrienols resulted in significantly smaller stroke-induced lesion volume, prevented loss of whitematter fiber tract, and arteriogenesis was triggered to increase blood flow to the ischemic area. This group of researchers, led by professor Chandan Sen, PhD, is now conducting a phase II human clinical trial.
Meanwhile, a recent human clinical trial published in the American Heart Association’s journal, Stroke, reported that palm-derived tocotrienol supplementation for two years at 200 mg twice daily slows down the development of white matter lesions (WMLs) in the human brain. WMLs are closely related to vascular events of the brain and are indications of fragile brain vascular network, as well as an independent prognostic measure of future stroke risk and other cognitive health illness. This study involved 121 participants—the largest human clinical study ever conducted for tocotrienols to date.
A group of European researchers at Perugia University of Italy and Karolinska Institute in Sweden has recently published studies showing that a fullspectrum vitamin E (mixed tocopherols and mixed tocotrienols) plays a more important role than tocopherols alone in mitigating mild cognitive impairment, which may subsequently lower Alzheimer’s disease (AD) risk. These four studies with more than 600 elderly participants, published in peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurobiology of Aging, revealed that high blood-plasma levels of full-spectrum vitamin E (alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocotrienols plus alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherols) are associated with improved cognitive function in very old people.
Participants who developed cognitive impairment were found to have lower serum levels of alpha- and gammatocopherols, total tocopherols, total tocotrienols, and total vitamin E, with statistically significant association with gamma-tocotrienols. Specifically, they had significantly lower levels of gammatocopherols and gamma-tocotrienols than controls did. On the other hand, risk of cognitive impairment was lower in participants with higher levels of gammatocopherols, beta-tocotrienols, and total tocotrienols.
The researchers concluded that high plasma levels of vitamin E (tocopherols and tocotrienols) are associated with a reduced risk of AD in advanced age, with tocotrienols being more potent than tocopherols in preventing AD. These studies were sponsored by the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) under the AddNeuroMed Project. The overall aim of AddNeuroMed is to find a tangible biomarker for AD.
Cholesterol Reduction A double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial reported that participants with high blood cholesterol who received self-emulsifying, mixed tocotrienols demonstrated significant reduction in total and LDL cholesterol levels by the fourth month of supplementation. Continuous significant reduction was seen on the fifth and sixth month with an overall reduction of approximately 17 percent. In contrast, participants in the placebo group had negligible changes in their total and LDL cholesterol levels compared with baseline.
Arterial Compliance Decreased arterial compliance or increased arterial stiffness is a predictor of cardiovascular events in both normal and diseased individuals. A randomized, controlled clinical trial demonstrated that oral supplementation of a self-emulsifying tocotrienol complex for two months reduced arterial stiffness in healthy adults.
In this blinded endpoint clinical trial conducted by researchers in the University of Science, Malaysia, 36 healthy volunteers were randomized to receive a placebo, 50 mg, 100 mg, or 200 mg of a self-emulsifying tocotrienol complex daily for two months. The results showed that treatment produced significantly higher plasma concentrations of tocotrienols compared with placebo. After two months of supplementation, statistically significant improvement in augmentation index (up to 8.7 percent reduction from baseline) was observed in all the tocotrienol-supplemented groups. Significant improvement in pulse wave velocity (up to 10 percent reduction from baseline) was also seen in participants who received 100 mg and 200 mg of the tocotrienols.
Liver Health Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common cause for abnormal liver function in individuals who consume little (less than 20 g per day) or no alcohol, with prevalence estimated at about 30 percent of the global population. NAFLD has been gaining attention in the medical community as it is the common thread that runs across diabetes, obesity, and hypertension (i.e., metabolic syndrome). A recent article by CNN declared NAFLD to be the “silent killer of the 21st century.”
A review paper showed similar prevalence of NAFLD in Asia as in Western countries. On the other hand, Malaysian data shows that 60 percent of hypercholesterolemic adults in Malaysia have NAFLD. Recently, the University of Hong Kong reported that a staggering 40 percent of the healthy Hong Kong population has NAFLD, with the majority of them not aware of their condition.
Researchers in Malaysia and the Philippines have independently shown in human studies that full-spectrum, self-emulsifying tocotrienol supplementation improves liver conditions in NAFLD participants.
In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted by researchers at the School of Pharmaceutical Science, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 87 adults diagnosed with NAFLD were recruited and randomized into two groups. One group with 43 participants received 200 mg of a bioenhanced palm tocotrienol complex in a softgel twice a day, and another group of 44 participants received a placebo softgel twice a day. Blood tests and high-sensitivity B-mode ultrasonography examinations were carried out on all participants before, during, and after supplementation.
A total of 64 participants completed the study—30 from the tocotrienols group and 34 from the control group. Liver ultrasound showed normalized echogenic response in 15 of 30 participants in the tocotrienols group. In comparison, only 8 out of 34 participants in the placebo group showed normalization. The rate of normalization of hepatic (liver) echogenic response was significantly higher for the tocotrienol-treated group compared with the placebo group.
Another group of researchers from the Philippines presented a human study (67 participants) at the Asia Pacific Association for the Study of Liver (APASL) showing that a regimen of bioenhanced palm tocotrienol complex together with lifestyle modification and exercise was approximately four times more effective in improving liver stiffness in NAFLD patients, compared with lifestyle modification and exercise alone.
Skin and Hair Health Research shows that tocotrienols have 40 to 60 times more antioxidant potency compared with alpha-tocopherols. Hence, tocotrienols confer higher protection and efficiency against the onslaught of free radicals generated in the skin.
The unsaturated side chain of tocotrienols makes the molecule more flexible, allowing it to pass through the membrane bi-layer (mainly made up of unsaturated fatty acids) in a more efficient manner than the completely saturated tocopherol molecule.
Research has also shown that oral or topical application of tocotrienols preferentially accumulates at the stratum corneum of the skin. Another published randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed that supplementation of a bioenhanced palm tocotrienol complex at 50 mg twice daily brought about a 34.5 percent increase in hair counts in human volunteers.
In an ongoing human clinical trial, researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center evaluate the “efficacy of natural vitamin E tocotrienol on the treatment of surgical scars.” Preliminary results from this study indicate that tocotrienols are an effective tool, either orally or topically, to prevent or reduce normal, hypertrophic, or keloid scarring by mediating the inflammatory response.
Choose the Right Tocotrienol
Not all tocotrienols are created equal. Shoppers must seek out tocotrienols that are extracted from an edible plant source, are sustainably produced in a Good Manufacturing Practice-certified facility, and have proven scientific evidence published in peer-reviewed journals. Observing these criteria will help you obtain the benefits from tocotrienols as shown in research. It is not enough to have the tocotrienols only absorbed into blood plasma; getting them to the right organs is equally important to confer the benefits.
By WH Leong