What is vitamin E (Tocopherol)?

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Monday, 02 December 2013.
Tagged: antioxidants, healthy eating, healthy kids, nutrients, nutrition, nuts, oil, seeds, vitamins

What is vitamin E (Tocopherol)?

Vitamin E isn't a single substance but consists of a group of 8 compounds known as tocopherols and tocotrienols, of which alpha-tocopherol is the most potent and the one that's generally analysed for. Alpha-tocopherol is the active ingredient of vitamin supplements, assigned the name vitamin E.

What does vitamin E do in the body

First and foremost, vitamin E acts as an antioxidant and its job is to protect polyunsaturated fats and vitamin A from breakdown. It also assists in maintaining the stability of the fats found in cell membranes.

Studies show that diets high in vitamin E are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Confirmation of this with clinical studies using vitamin E supplements however has been inconclusive, and research continues in this area.

It's also under study for prevention of cancers.

It helps your body make red blood cells and enables it to use Vitamin K.

How much do I need?

The Adequate Intake (AI) for vitamin E as alpha-tocopherol equivalents per day are (note: there are no Recommended Dietary Intakes only the lower figure of AI):
           (Source:  NRVs 2006)

4 mg for babies (0 to 6 months)
5 mg for babies (7 to 12 months)
5 mg for children (1 to 3 years)
6 mg for children (4 to 8 years)
9 mg for boys (9 to 13 years)
10 mg for boys (14 to 18 years)
8 mg for girls (9 to 18 years)

7 mg or 10 IU (women 19+ years)
10 mg or 15 IU (men 19+ years)
7-8 mg for pregnant women
11-12 mg for breastfeeding women

mg means milligrams

Upper limit

300 mg or 450 IU as d-alpha tocopherol equivalents

Best food sources

  • Seeds, particularly sesame seeds and sunflower seeds
  • Tahini (sesame seed paste)
  • Oils especially sunflower oil and safflower oil, followed by canola and olive oils
  • Items made from oil such as salad dressings and mayonnaises
  • Nuts, particularly almonds, hazelnuts and pine nuts
  • Wheatgerm
  • Margarines made from seed oils e.g. polyunsaturated margarines
  • Eggs
  • Oily fish such as salmon or mackerel

Easy ways to get a day's intake of 7mg 

  • Enjoy 2 hard-boiled eggs on toast for breakfast
  • Have a handful of almonds for morning tea
  • Toss half a tablespoon of sesame seeds over your salad or stir-fry
  • Cook with one tablespoon of sunflower oil
  • Use 1-2 tablespoons tahini as a salad dressing OR as part of a dip
  • Cook up a salmon fillet and serve with a salad with oil-lemon dressing

Deficiency signs

Mild deficiency often has no symptoms. Longer-standing deficiency shows mostly neurological symptoms e.g. impaired balance.

Severe vitamin E deficiency (as in cystic fibrosis or any disturbance of fat absorption) results in:

  • Impaired balance and coordination causing unsteady walking
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Damage to the retina of the eye, vision problems
  • Abnormal eye movements
Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.