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Overview of vitamin E

Sassan Pazirandeh, MD
David L Burns, MD
Section Editors
Timothy O Lipman, MD
Kathleen J Motil, MD, PhD
Deputy Editor
Alison G Hoppin, MD


Vitamins are a number of chemically unrelated families of organic substances that cannot be synthesized by humans but need to be ingested in the diet in small quantities to prevent disorders of metabolism. They are divided into water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins (table 1).

In 1922, Evans and Bishop discovered a substance that was deficient in rats fed a diet that contained lard and that resulted in infertility [1]. The deficiency was corrected when a lipid extract of cereals was added to the diet; this was termed the "anti-sterility factor" [2]. In 1925, vitamin E was officially recognized as the fifth vitamin. A few years later the name tocopherol from the Greek word of "toc" (child) and "phero" (to bring forth) was coined to describe its role as an essential dietary substance in normal fetal and childhood development [3]. In 1969, the FDA formally recognized vitamin E as an essential nutrient for humans. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble compound and an antioxidant and protects cell membranes from oxidation and destruction.

This topic review will focus on vitamin E. Overviews of the other fat-soluble vitamins, minerals and water-soluble vitamins are available elsewhere. (See "Overview of vitamin A" and "Overview of vitamin D" and "Overview of vitamin K" and "Overview of dietary trace minerals" and "Overview of water-soluble vitamins" and "Vitamin supplementation in disease prevention".)


Vitamin E is found in a variety of foods including oils, meat, eggs, and leafy vegetables. The form that is best known for its role in human health is alpha-tocopherol, which is abundant in olive and sunflower oils, and is the predominant form in the European diet. Gamma-tocopherol is another form, which is abundant in soybean and corn oil, and is common in the American diet.


The primary bioactive form of vitamin E is alpha-tocopherol. Alpha-tocopherol has eight isomers, but only four of these (RRR-, RSR-, RRS-, and RSS- alpha-tocopherol) are efficiently maintained in human plasma, and these are the forms to which the dietary reference intakes apply [4]. Furthermore, the RRR-isomer (formerly and incorrectly called D-alpha-tocopherol) is the only form found in foods; it is sometimes known as "natural source" vitamin E.


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Literature review current through: Sep 2016. | This topic last updated: Oct 3, 2016.
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