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Understanding Fats Will Help You Make the Right Food Choices

Fats and Fatty Acids

Fats are composed of fatty acids and glycerol in chemical combination. The chemical combination is called triglycerides. Three fatty acids are connected to one glycerol molecule through the carboxyl group of the fatty acid on the front, or alpha end of the fatty acid.

Fatty acids are transported and stored in the triglyceride form. When they are needed for a particular task, one or more fatty acids are removed from the glycerol carrier.

Saturated Fatty Acids Fatty acids can be either saturated or unsaturated. We can picture a saturated fatty acid like this below.

***********H H*H*H*H H H
(omega end)H-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-Carboxyl group (alpha end)
***********H H*H*H*H H H

• The purpose of the * is to position the H above and below the proper carbon or C.
• Each carbon, designated by C, has 4 bonds. Two of the 4 bonds are shared with adjacent carbons.
• Each hydrogen atom, H, has only bond. In the example shown hydrogen, H, shares its bond with carbon of the fatty acid chain.
• The carbon on the back, or omega end, of the fatty acid molecule has 3 hydrogen’s attached to the omega carbon.
• The carboxyl group is on the alpha end of the fatty acid.

Butter has 4 to 6 carbons in saturated fatty acid chains. Lauric acid is a 12 carbon saturated fatty acid found in coconut oil. Stearic acid is an 18 carbon saturated fat found in animal fats.

Lauric acid is important in supporting the immune system in newborn babies and is found in mothers milk.

Future pages will give very important information about saturated and unsaturated fatty acids and health consequences.

Unsaturated Fatty Acids

An unsaturated fatty acid will have one or more double bonds in the carbon chain. As with saturated fatty acids, on the front, or alpha end, of the chain, is the carboxyl group. On the omega carbon are attached 3 H’s.

Numbering from the omega end, there are double bonds between carbons 3 and 4, and between carbons 6 and 7. Below is an example of an omega 3 fatty acid.

***********H H*H H*H*H*H
(omega end)H-C-C-C=C-C-C=C-Carboxyl group (alpha end)
***********H H**** H
• The purpose of the * is to position the H above and below the proper carbon or C.
• Each carbon still has 4 bonds. Carbons with 2 bonds between them have only one hydrogen, H, attached to the carbon on each side of the double bond.
• Unsaturated fatty acids have one or more carbon-carbon double bonds. Three of the four bonds of carbon in each carbon-carbon double bond are shared by an adjacent carbon.
• Two hydrogen atoms are missing in each carbon-carbon double bond. A total of 4 H are missing because there are 2 double bonds.
The missing hydrogen atoms are what makes the fatty acid unsaturated.

Omega 3, Omega 6, and Omega 9 Fatty Acids

The preceding example above is an omega 3 poly unsaturated fatty acid, because the first double bond is between the 3rd and 4th carbon atoms from the omega end of the molecule, and it has more than one double bond.

Actual omega 3 fatty acids have 18 or more carbons in the chain, and 3 double bonds.

Omega 6 fatty acids are found in large concentrations in many vegetable oil seeds. They have two double bonds, and the first double bond is between the 6th and 7th carbons from the omega end of the chain. They are 18 or more carbons long

Oleic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid has one double bond between carbons 9 and 10 from the omega end, and is found in olive oil. It has two hydrogen atoms missing from carbons 9 and 10. It is an omega 9 fatty acid.

Palmitoleic acid is a 16 carbon monounsaturated fatty acid that has strong antimicrobial properties, and is found in animal fats.

Cis and Trans Configuration

Unsaturated double bonds made by biological systems, plant or animal, are always in the cis configuration, with one small exception. These cis configurations are preferred by the human body.

Trans fats are found in processed and hydrogenated vegetable oils because of the harsh methods used to extract these oils by the food processing industry.

Trans fats are the most dangerous oils available. The function of cell membranes, found in all tissues, are disrupted by the presence of trans fats.

The electronic configuration of the trans fats is so different that metabolic processes cannot proceed properly resulting in serious disturbances.

Trans fats should be avoided whenever possible.

I won’t try to explain the cis/trans electronic configuration, but a subsequent page will explain some important differences in these two configurations that have profound health consequences.

Sources for this page were an organic chemistry text, The Modern Nutritional Diseases by Fred and Alice Ottoboni, and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon with Mary Enig, Ph.D.

Saturated fats are not villains but essential in the body.

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