It is often difficult to tell synthetic vitamins from plant-based vitamins. A good example is synthetic vitamin E. Synthetic vitamin E often comes as dl-alpha tocopherol and sometimes has an acetate or succinate with it. The natural vitamin E comes as d-alpha tocopherol and can include a mix of tocopherols and tocotrienols. There are many tocopherols and many tocotrienols. Since the synthetic is often listed as dl-alpha tocopherol and the natural is d-alpha tocopherol, people might wonder about the “d” and the “l.” There is only one letter difference—what’s the big deal? The “d” stands for dextrorotatory which means rotation to the right and “l” stands for levorotatory which means rotation to the left. So, this “d” and “l” notation corresponds to the optical activity of the substance, whether it rotates the plane of polarized light clockwise (d) or counterclockwise (l).

In the synthetic vitamin E, half the light rotates (or bends) right and half rotates (or bends) left thus making it dl-alpha tocopherol. The natural only rotates (or bends) right making it d-alpha tocopherol. How can one letter be a big deal? Who would care except a chemist or microbiologist? But our body cares and it seems to care a lot! Synthetic vitamin E has been shown to significantly increase the mortality rate of individuals consuming it. Apparently, our body knows geometry and just the optical difference causes it to respond to the molecule in dramatically different ways—one extremely helpful and one extremely hurtful.

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