There are 8 different forms of vitamin E: 4 tocopherols and 4 tocotrienols. The difference between tocopherols and tocotrienols is that the former have a saturated tail, while the latter have an unsaturated tail. Within tocopherols and tocotrienols, the difference between the different forms is the position of the methyl groups on the ring. The 4 different forms within the tocopherol and tocotrienols are designated by the Greek letters: alpha, beta, gamma, and delta. The difference in these structures is shown in the figures below.
For reasons that will be covered in a later subsection, the primary form of vitamin E found in the body is alpha-tocopherol. The major, and possibly only, function of vitamin E is as an antioxidant. When it serves as an antioxidant it forms an alpha-tocopherol radical, as shown below.
Alpha-tocopherol is believed to be the first part of an antioxidant network (shown below) where it is oxidized to donate an electron to stabilize reactive oxygen species. Alpha-tocopherol radical can then be reduced by the donation of an electron from ascorbate.
To help protect the antioxidant function of alpha-tocopherol (by preventing the formation of alpha-tocopherol radical) in foods and during digestion, some manufacturers have added compounds to this site of alpha-tocopherol through ester bonds. These are referred to as alpha-tocopherol derivatives or alpha-tocopherol esters. The most common forms are alpha-tocopherol acetate, alpha-tocopherol succinate, and alpha-tocopherol phosphate (Ester-E®). The figures below show the structure of alpha-tocopherol acetate, and the structure of succinic acid.
Alpha-tocopherol derivatives, such as acetate in alpha-tocopherol acetate, are cleaved prior to absorption in the small intestine by esterases, meaning that alpha-tocopherol is absorbed, not the alpha-tocopherol derivative.
References & Links
2. Packer L, Weber SU, Rimbach G. (2001) Molecular aspects of alpha-tocotrienol antioxidant action and cell signalling. J Nutr 131(2): 369S-373S