Natural Foods Merchandiser
NFM Secret Shopper: What is the difference between natural and synthetic vitamin E?

NFM Secret Shopper: What is the difference between natural and synthetic vitamin E?

Each month, NFM’s secret shopper heads incognito into a natural products store with a question. The employee’s answer—and our expert’s evaluation of the response—is reported here. Our aim: to help you improve your store’s customer service. 

Natural Foods Merchandiser: What is the difference between natural and synthetic vitamin E?

Store (Small supplements shop in the Midwest): Both natural and synthetic vitamin E may be derived from natural sources, but one is its complete, true form, while the other has been produced in a lab. Natural vitamin E contains the full range of tocopherols, which are antioxidants, but synthetic vitamin E offers only one tocopherol, usually a nonnatural form of alpha-tocopherol. To know exactly which type is in a supplement, look at the ingredients panel. Natural vitamin E is listed as d-alpha-tocopherol; synthetic appears as dl-alpha-tocopherol or dl-alpha-tocopheryl.

NFM: Is one or the other better for you?

Store:In my opinion, natural is better. It’s more bioavailable and gives you a mix of tocopherols. Even though humans don’t require every tocopherol, when given the whole range at once, our bodies naturally know what to do with it and pull out the necessary compounds.

How did this retailer do?

Our expert educator: Ray Sahelian, MD, best-selling author and herbal supplements formulator 

The retailer did an excellent job explaining how to identify natural and synthetic vitamin E. As she mentioned, on a supplement label, natural vitamin E is listed as d-alpha-tocopherol.Synthetic forms are labeled with a dl prefix.

The retailer is also correct to suggest a natural form of vitamin E. Many of the studies that have scrutinized vitamin E as an ineffective supplement for promoting health and preventing disease have used synthetic sources.

Researchers haven’t recognized that there may be health benefits of natural sources that aren’t apparent with synthetic. This is partly because they haven’t recognized that several types of vitamin E substances are likely beneficial—not just alpha-tocopherol, the most common synthetic on the market.

Other kinds of vitamin E include beta-, gamma- and delta-tocopherol. Although alpha-tocopherol seems to be the most active, I tell my clients not to dismiss the importance of these other forms. Natural sources are more likely to contain a mix. 

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