Rethinking Healthcare

Vitamin E protects against four kinds of cancer, but not in pill form

Posting in Cancer

The most common form of vitamin E in our food helps prevent colon, lung, breast and prostate cancers. But the form of the vitamin most commonly in supplement pills doesn't share these benefits.

I've always had a "Well, it couldn't hurt," attitude towards vitamin pills. New research suggests that laissez-faire approach towards supplements may put my health at risk.

Vitamin E has gotten a bad rap in recent years, with studies linking it to increased risks for prostate cancer, greater death rates from disease, and higher rates of heart failure.

Rutgers University researcher Chung S. Yang published a report this week in the journal Cancer Prevention Research that could clear the vitamin's record.

Those other studies, Yang points out, looked at vitamin E supplements. Vitamin E pills usually contain the vitamin in a form called alpha-tocopherol.

Yang decided to instead focus on the form of vitamin E most common in our diets, gamma-tocopherol. It's found in soybean, canola and corn oils as well as in nuts. He found that along with delta-tocopherols, another form of vitamin E found in vegetable oils, it helps protect against cancer.

A Rutgers University press release explains:

Rutgers scientists conducting animal studies for colon, lung, breast and prostate cancer found that the forms of vitamin E in vegetable oils, gamma and delta-tocopherols, prevent cancer formation and growth in animal models.

"When animals are exposed to cancer-causing substances, the group that was fed these tocopherols in their diet had fewer and smaller tumors," Yang said in the press release.  "When cancer cells were injected into mice these tocopherols also slowed down the development of tumors."

The study found no such protective benefits from alpha-tocopherols.

Though it's good to know that we have more allies against cancer in the gamma and delta-tocopherols form of vitamin E, I find the results of this study disconcerting overall. The average consumer isn't going to know to discern between different forms of vitamin E available in the vitamin aisle. Honestly, I didn't even know that different forms of vitamin E existed.

Why would pharmaceutical companies preferentially produce alpha-tocopherol vitamin E supplements when it appears to be an inferior form of the vitamin? And why does that form of the vitamin remain on the market, if research has linked it to health risks?

Clearly there are more factors at play here than can be gleaned from a few research articles, but this blogger for one will certainly be reconsidering her casual approach towards vitamin supplements.

Photo: John Liu/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure