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Concerning research reveals that the infant brain is capable of absorbing and accumulating synthetic vitamin E. This petrochemical derivative may have significant downstream adverse effects on gene expression, immune function, and even neurodevelopment.
A provocative new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition titled, “The naturally occurring α-tocopherol stereoisomer RRR-α-tocopherol is predominant in the human infant brain,” has found that the infant brain preferentially absorbs and accumulates the natural form of vitamin E over the synthetic form, but it does so incompletely.
The researchers obtained their findings analyzing both the total α-tocopherol (RRR-α-tocopherol/natural) and α-tocopherol stereoisomers (8 different synthetic molecules) in the frontal cortex (FC), hippocampus (HPC) and visual cortex (VC) of infants (n 36) who died of sudden infant death syndrome or other conditions. They summarized their results as follows:
“These findings reveal that RRR-α-tocopherol is the predominant stereoisomer in infant brain. These data also indicate that the infant brain discriminates against the synthetic 2R stereoisomers, but is unable to do so completely. On the basis of these findings, investigation into the impact of α-tocopherol stereoisomers on neurodevelopment is warranted.”
With the near universal prevalence of synthetic vitamin E as the predominant form in both breast milk (presumably via maternal supplementation) and infant formula, the discovery of synthetic vitamin E within the infant brain while not surprising is concerning. Why?
Clearly, if the infant brain discriminates against synthetic vitamin E, it should not be considered biologically equivalent to natural vitamin E; which is still a common assumption, and which justifies the use of this petrochemically-derived set of 8 molecular analogs in tens of thousands of consumer products today.
The authors address the difference here:
We believe this finding raises important questions, as biological discrimination often reflects biological importance. Emerging evidence suggests that RRR-α-tocopherol and all-rac-α-tocopherol may have differential cellular effects mediated through gene expression(34)."
The “emerging evidence” cited above refers to a 2010 study published in Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, titled, “Differential effects of natural and synthetic vitamin E on gene transcription in murine T lymphocytes,” which reveals that the two kinds of vitamin E are qualitatively much different, especially when it comes to their ability to modulate the expression of genes and/or cell signaling processes:
The data presented here provide the first starting point in the utility of the immune response to differentiate biological effects of synthetic and natural form of vitamin E. It has been accepted, in recent years, that vitamin E effects cannot be solely attributed to an alleged antioxidant function, but one has to take into consideration the vitamin E effect on the regulation of signal transduction and gene expression. Until now, the paradigm has been that only quantitative differences were exerted by the two forms of vitamins and that an appropriate increase of the dosage of the synthetic form would make it indistinguishable from the natural one. The data discussed above clearly show that, if the physicochemical properties of the synthetic and natural vitamin E forms are identical, their biological effects at the level of the regulation of gene expression are not...
The data obtained indicate significant qualitative and quantitative differences between the two vitamin forms in regulating gene expression in response to T-cell stimulation.”
Nutrients or Chemicals? Informational Differences in Biological Systems
If you consider how synthetic vitamin E is produced, namely, from highly toxic petrochemicals such as toluene and 2,3,5-trimethyl-hydroquinone, it is no wonder that it acts differently than natural vitamin E and may cause harm. Below is described one method for its manufacture:
It is synthesised from a mixture of toluene and 2,3,5-trimethyl-hydroquinone that reacts with isophytol to all-rac-alpha-tocopherol using iron in the presence of hydrogen chloride gas as catalyst. The reaction mixture obtained is filtered and extracted with aqueous caustic soda. Toluene is removed by evaporation and the residue (all-rac-alpha-tocopherol) is purified by vacuum distillation." [Source: Toxnet]
I believe we are on the eve of a new era of “informational medicine,” where we must always consider biological processes and biologically active substances not simply through their physio-chemical quantities and mechanics, but through their informational/qualitative effects. This means that in the case of synthetic vitamin E, a petrochemically-derived set of 8 different molecules, their ability to affect and/or disrupt a wide range of genetic and epigenetic pathways must be taken into account in order fully grasp both their functions and potential risks. If synthetic vitamin E is capable of disrupting normal gene expression in the infant brain within which it accumulates then clearly it could have an affect on neurodevelopment, and should be considered a significant health risk to be avoided in favor of natural substances that have millions of co-evolutionary history within mammalian systems.
For more information on synthetic vitamin E, you can view our database on the subject:
Also, consider that synthetic vitamin E is not the only problem with infant formula today. Even USDA certified organic infant formulas contain toxic, pesticidal ingredients.
There has never been a more important time to highlight science that points to the health benefits of breast milk so that we, as a society, can better support women in this most primal endeavor. To learn more about breast feeding health benefits you can use our database on the topic: Breastfeeding Health Benefits.