Phytol and its metabolites phytanic and pristanic acids for risk of cancer: current evidence and future directions

Eur J Cancer Prev. 2020 Mar;29(2):191-200. doi: 10.1097/CEJ.0000000000000534.


This review summarizes the current evidence on the potential role of phytol, a microbial metabolite of chlorophyl A, and its metabolites, phytanic and pristanic acids, in carcinogenesis. Primary food sources in Western diets are the nut skin for phytol and lipids in dairy, beef and fish for its metabolites. Phytol and its metabolites gained interest as dietary compounds for cancer prevention because, as natural ligands of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-α and -γ and retinoid X receptor, phytol and its metabolites have provided some evidence in cell culture studies and limited evidence in animal models of anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and anti-metabolic-syndrome properties at physiological concentrations. However, there may be a narrow range of efficacy, because phytol and its metabolites at supra-physiological concentrations can cause in vitro cytotoxicity in non-cancer cells and can cause morbidity and mortality in animal models. In human studies, evidence for a role of phytol and its metabolites in cancer prevention is currently limited and inconclusive. In short, phytol and its metabolites are potential dietary compounds for cancer prevention, assuming the challenges in preventing cytotoxicity in non-cancer cells and animal models and understanding phytol metabolism can be mitigated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Butter
  • Carcinogenesis / drug effects*
  • Carcinogenesis / metabolism
  • Diet Surveys / statistics & numerical data*
  • Diet, Western
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Fatty Acids / metabolism
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Nuts / chemistry
  • PPAR alpha / metabolism
  • PPAR gamma / metabolism
  • Phytanic Acid / metabolism
  • Phytol / administration & dosage*
  • Phytol / metabolism
  • Retinoid X Receptors / metabolism
  • Risk Assessment / statistics & numerical data


  • Fatty Acids
  • PPAR alpha
  • PPAR gamma
  • Retinoid X Receptors
  • Phytanic Acid
  • Phytol
  • pristanic acid
  • Butter