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The Truth about Vitamin E

From the desk of Mogens Eliasen - first published: October 21, 2006

Mogens Eliasen - the author of this article
on 'vitaminE'

Vitamin E (or d-alpha-tocopherol, as the chemical name is) is a fairly newly discovered vitamin that is subject to many myths and misunderstandings. As all other vitamins, it became known because of the effects an insufficient supply of it has on the body, in this case the bodies of mice. The mice got infertile when this vitamin was missing in their diet.

A little chemistry

The chemical d-alpha-tocopherol is quite special. It cannot be made synthetically without also producing its mirror molecule l-alpha-tocopherol. Most often, a synthesis will also produce a whole bunch of other tocopherols that are very similar in their chemical properties to Vitamin E, but they all lack the importance to the body… So, when you on a label in a vitamin store see d,l-alpha-tocopherol, it means that you are dealing with both the "d" and the "l" version - so only half of this mixture is actually Vitamin E! Even if the comma between "d" and "l" is missing, it is still the same.

When made synthetically, other tocopherols than the d-alpha and l-alpha ones are also made. Technically, you always get a mix of about a dozen of them and some similar chemicals. Unfortunately, there is some lousy labeling practice that has led to selling such mixtures as being the same as "vitamin E". Such a mix of tocopherols is much cheaper to manufacture than the pure vitamin E (which actually is not technically possible….). Although it most likely will contain some vitamin E, maybe even in larger concentration than any other components (aside from the l-version, which always will be equally represented in the exact same concentrations as the d-version), calling such a mix "Vitamin E" is simply false.

You can find many chemical variations/modifications of this vitamin. They are chemical compounds made of the vitamin plus something more, where this "something more" can be split off the combined molecule by the body's natural processes, for instance by impact of the stomach's acid. Many names with "d-alpha-tocopheryl + something-ate" are good examples of this. The name "-ate" indicates that they are esters of "the real thing" and those will split into "the real thing" plus "something more", in the moment they come in contact with the stomach acid. These esters are easier to store as they are less vulnerable to decomposition by oxidation when in contact with air. (Esters are chemical compounds generated as a combination of an alcohol and organic acid splitting off a water molecule in the process. Under the influence of strong acid, they react with water and re-generate the alcohol and the acid. Chemical names ending on the suffix "-ol" are generally alcohols, like the tocopherols.)

Vitamin E occurs naturally in almost all kinds of natural fats, such as animal fat and plant oils. Small concentrations - but very abundant. We don't need much of it, so, as long as we get a reasonable amount of plant oils, we will get enough. "Enough" is some 20-30 mg (30-45 IU) per day for a person. Same thing with our dogs - they can do with less because their generally have smaller bodies.

Food preservation…

Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, just like all the other tocopherols. It will help the body fight free radicals and other harmful chemical species in the body. This also means that it reacts very rapidly with oxygen in the air. In the process of reacting with free radicals or oxygen, all tocopherols are destroyed themselves, just as wood is, when it burns to ash in the reaction with oxygen. (That is why you always buy Vitamin E in small airtight gelatin capsules - it must be protected from exposure to air).

Some antioxidants are effective in the role of preserving food, particularly fat. They act as decoys that are destroyed by the oxygen before the fat is, so the oxygen will attack them before the fat. All tocopherols have about the same effect in this regard. Preserving foods with Vitamin E is thus technically and financially stupid, compared to simply using a mix of tocopherols (which would be much cheaper and have the same effect in terms of preservation).

Unfortunately, when exposed to air, all tocopherols decompose in a matter of a day or less….

For these reasons, using them as food preservatives is not very effective, unless you keep the food in air-tight containers that are vacuum-sealed, so the total amount of air that can come into contact with the food is limited to what corresponds to the amounts of tocopherols in the food.

Therefore, when you see claims like "Preserved with Vitamin E" on a food that is sold in bags that can lie on shelves in a store or in your kitchen for weeks, you can rest assured that somebody here is trying to fool you… That food must be preserved with something else also! And you can bet your bottom dollar that the amounts of vitamin E that are used are very small indeed, and that it most definitely is not "pure vitamin E" that was used in the process. If you are in doubt, then check the prices of vitamin E in your drug store, and compare to the prices of that dog food….

Pet food manufacturers are not financial incompetent! And they have chemists employed that are far smarter in regards to chemistry than all lawyers and law-makers together! (Note that you will never find a claim on such foods that it "contains no other preservatives than vitamin E"!!!)

Effects on the immune system

The tocopherols in general (and most likely vitamin E in particular) do have a positive effect on the immune systems ability to be effective and fight infection. It is extremely difficult (if not outright technically impossible) to measure that effect quantitatively. But it is for real, so do not dismiss it just because you cannot find "scientific proof" of it….

The effect is almost immediate (within hours) of an extra intake, and it also works preventatively when the blood concentration of these antioxidants are maintained at levels that are constantly kept higher than normal.

This leads some people to want to take 10-100 times as much as we need.

The benefits for the immune system are obtained with some 200-400 mg (300-600 IU) per day for a person. Just pro-rate it to your dog per weight, and you should be fine. For your dog, Vitamin E is much better for this than Vitamin C. (Vitamin C should NOT be given consistently to dogs - they generate it themselves - please see my separate article on that.)

Should you supplement with it?

There is no problem in your helping your dog's immune system by adding some Vitamin E to its daily food. You can also add some of the other tocopherols (cheaper…), since they do have some effect too, although less than Vitamin E. As long as you get the 20-30 mg of Vitamin E per day, you can supplement with a mixture of tocopherols for the balance, if you don't like the higher cost of the natural Vitamin E.

However, synthetic vitamins are all made from crude oil as the raw material. They originate from the petrochemical industry's oil refineries, and, no matter how much chemists have rinsed them and cleaned them, they will still carry measurable concentrations of all kinds of petrochemicals in them. Many of these will be very dangerous, but they occur in concentrations that are small enough for our governments to accept the sale of the final product - assuming that the damages to people's health will be moderate.

Well, there have been many cases in history where governments have been very, very wrong on that, particularly when there are cumulative effects involved that cannot be discovered until the damage has been done. So, if you want to use significant extra doses of any vitamins, you should be very careful about buying anything synthetic.

As mentioned, you will need an increase of the daily dose to about 10-50 times "normal" in order to have a substantial effect on the immune system. This also means that you will increase the intake of those unnatural impurities you get from non-natural sources…. This is one of the reasons that some governments (like the European Union) have made it law that people are limited in regards to how much vitamin they can buy - because the EU law-makers assume that Europeans buy the cheap synthetic vitamins that are far less safe to ingest in such large quantities….

Can you get too much of it?

Vitamin E is not known to exist anywhere in Nature in concentrations that can become dangerous (in contrast to Vitamin A, for instance - please see my separate article on that).

You need very high doses before Vitamin E or any of the other tocopherols get toxic - significantly more than 2,000 mg (3,000 IU) for a normal person. It is not practically possible to reach those levels through a natural feeding. Very far from. And it would become outrageously expensive to try to supplement that much…

Can you freeze it?

Finally, be aware that the combination of being fat soluble and being a powerful antioxidant will destroy synthetic Vitamin E when you leave it exposed to air for longer time, as we discussed. And if you freeze it, chances are, you will be doing exactly that - because the capsules you get it in are not tight enough to keep air out when they are frozen.

However, the naturally occurring Vitamin E in the raw fat in the food is not affected by this to any measurable extent. So, if you want to supplement Vitamin E because you freeze your dog food and you heard that this vitamin decomposes upon freezing, you are victim of a myth based on an incorrect conclusion that went a bit too far...

But if you store food for many months, regardless the temperature, then you will lose a significant amount of vitamin E because of the extended exposure to air, unless you have the food stored in air-tight vacuum-sealed packaging.


Mogens Eliasen


Mogens Eliasen holds a mag. scient. degree (comparable to a US Ph. D.) in Chemistry from Århus University, Denmark, has a extensive education also as military officer and in business management. He has been working with dogs, dog owners, dog trainers, and veterinarians since 1970. A large part of his dog work has been in the area of education and education planning, and as consultant for dog owners and dog training associations. He is a strong advocate of treating the dog with respect for its nature as domesticated wolf, and has published several books and videos on topics related to dogs, dog training, dog behavior, and responsible care of dogs. He publishes a newsletter "The Peeing Post" containing lots of tips and advice on all matters pertaining to dogs.

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Titles available from K9joy®:

Anders Hallgren:
"The ABC's of Dog Language" (140 page book - 1996)
Understand what your dog is telling you - and communicate with it on its own terms. A must have for all dog lovers. Easy to read. Easy to use as reference.

Mogens Eliasen:
"The Dog's Social Behavior" (2.5 hr. video - 1998, updated on DVD 2006, with support materials on a CD)
How the dog's behavior is linked to its instincts and needs. What you can change and what is "for life". How you use this information to dramatically improve your relationship with your dog.

Mogens Eliasen:
"BrainWork for Smart Dogs" (380 page e-book - 2003)
How you get a happy and well-behaved dog, stimulating its brain with 15 minutes of fun per day. Dogs need to work and use their instinct in order to be in mental balance. Everyone can do it with these instructions. More than 40 exercises to choose from!

Mogens Eliasen:
"Don't Pull on the Leash!" (40 page e-book - 2005)
The 5 simple steps in this complete training manual will effectively stop any dog from pulling on the leash, with no pain or abuse and no special equipment - and make the start of a much better relationship with the dog.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Is Your Dog's Drinking Water Safe?" (30 page e-book - 2005, updated 2006)
A layman's overview of how and why drinking water gets contaminated - and what you can do about it.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Feeding Your Dog - the Natural Way" (1 hr. video - 1998)
The fastest introduction to get you started on feeding your dog a natural diet. It explains the dog's physiology in simple terms, so you also understand why you should do this.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Canine Choice - by Nature" (80 page e-book - 1999, updated 2005)
The simple "how-to" about feeding a natural diet for optimal health.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Raw Food for Dogs - the Ultimate Reference for Dog Owners"
(340 page e-book - revised/expanded 2006)
Everything you need for making your own informed decisions about what to feed your dog, and why and how. Includes numerous examples of feeding plans plus two chapters on how to work with your vet, also if he/she does not approve of your feeding...

Mogens Eliasen:
"The Wolf's Natural Diet - a Feeding Guide for Your Dog?"
(125 page e-book - 2004 updated/revised 2006)
What we know and don't know about the wolf and its natural feeding, and about the dog and its domestication, and what we can and cannot conclude from wolf to dog... this is the big "why?" behind any responsible approach to feeding your dog.

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