The World's Healthiest Foods

Dietary Vitamin E, But Not Supplements, Helps Prevent Breast Cancer

Current statistics project that one out of every eight American women will develop breast cancer, so a great deal of research has sought ways to prevent this increasingly common killer. One of the most extensively studied compounds as a potential protective agent against breast cancer is vitamin E, but studies have provided mixed results as to its efficacy. Finally, thanks to a researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine who compiled and analyzed the tremendous volume of published data on vitamin E and breast cancer, we now understand why, and also how dietary, but not common vitamin E supplements, lower a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

This comprehensive review study, just published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, clearly shows that “there is no evidence that vitamin E supplements confer any protection whatever against breast cancer.” The reason lies in the fact that standard vitamin E supplements contain only one vitamin E fraction called alpha tocopherol acetate, while natural vitamin E, as it is found in foods, contains a whole spectrum of fractions that work together synergistically. Test tube studies of breast cancer cells indicate that vitamin E fractions called tocotrienols, specifically the alpha- gamma-, and delta-tocotrienol fractions, and to a lesser extent the delta- and gamma- tocopherol fractions, are the components in vitamin E with potent anti-cancer effects.

The tocotrienols in dietary vitamin E have been shown to both prevent the excessive proliferation of breast tissue cells that greatly increases a woman’s risk of developing cancer and to promote breast cell apoptosis, the normal self-destruct sequence through which old or abnormal cells die off. In cancerous cells, this apoptotic signal is turned off, allowing these cells to replicate without limit or control.

Among vitamin E's tocopherol fractions, gamma tocopherol has been shown to be significantly more effective than alpha tocopherol in inhibiting a powerful and highly toxic oxidizing agent called peroxynitrite. By trapping and removing reactive oxygen species (a type of free radical), including peroxynitrite, gamma tocopherol protects cells against these free radicals' mutagenic and carcinogenic effects.

The bottom line? Most vitamin E supplements consist primarily of alpha tocopherol, and many contain only a synthetic form, dl-alpha tocopherol, which does not have the same molecular configuration and therefore does not have the same activity as the form found in nature, d-alpha tocopherol. Unlike supplements, many food sources of vitamin E contain not only the full spectrum of natural tocopherols, but all the tocotrienols as well. Thus, the research riddle is solved. The protection from breast cancer associated with dietary vitamin E is most likely due to the fact that Mother Nature knows best.

Want to increase your consumption of foods rich in vitamin E? Not surprisingly, the richest sources of vitamin E are found among the World’s Healthiest Foods. Excellent sources of vitamin E include: mustard greens, chard, sunflower seeds, and turnip greens. Very good sources include spinach and almonds.

To learn more about these vitamin E-rich foods, including quick and easy cooking and serving ideas, simply click on the highlighted name of the food in the above list.

To learn more about this important antioxidant, click vitamin E.

For some truly exceptional recipes that will help you enjoy vitamin E-rich foods more frequently as part of your healthy way of eating, take a look at the World's Healthiest Foods' Recipes containing of these foods. Simply, click on the Recipe Assistant, select the foods for which you’d like some recipes from the Healthy Foods List, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all our recipes containing the foods chosen will appear immediately below.


Schwenke DC. Does lack of tocopherols and tocotrienols put women at increased risk of breast cancer? J Nutr Biochem 2002 Jan;13(1):2-20.
Cooney RV, Franke AA, Harwood PJ, Hatch-Pigott V, Custer LJ, Mordan LJ.Gamma-tocopherol detoxification of nitrogen dioxide: superiority to alpha-tocopherol. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 1993 Mar 1;90(5):1771-5.

This page was updated on: 2004-11-22 18:06:19
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation