With fatty acids so much in the news, what are they? Some are even called essential, why are they called essential and where do you find them?
Short answer, oil, all fatty oils are made up of carbon chains of varying lengths called fatty acids. These fatty acids can be saturated – with hydrogen – thus solid at room temperature or, unsaturated – less than a full complement of hydrogen – and liquid at room temperature. Examples of saturated oil are coconut and cocoa butter while unsaturated oils include olive and grapeseed.
When from the plant world, oils are found in the seeds and nuts, kernels and beans. Animal fats too, contain fatty acids. These are the oils we eat and cook with and are fundamental building blocks of our bodies. As important foodstuffs our health depends on their quality and how we use them daily. There are many beneficial and necessary fatty acids but only two are deemed essential.
Found in all life forms, plant, animal and human, fatty acids are small molecules made of chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached to all or most of the carbon atoms. How hydrogen atoms attach, and where, creates the many different fatty acids including those that are considered essential. Fatty acids have many variations that make up the different qualities found in oil and they fall into two main groups, solid that are saturated and liquid, which are unsaturated.
The saturated fatty acids are fats or oils like butter, coconut oil, shea butter and cocoa butter. They are solid at room temperature. In this saturated form, hydrogen atoms are bound to all the carbon atoms on the chain creating a straight molecule with no bends orkinks. The fatty acids lie closely against each other, which creates a solid appearing mass at room temperature. The longer the saturated chain the harder that oil is and the more heat needed to melt it to a liquid state.
The other very large group of fatty acids is the UN-saturated fatty acids. In this group, two or more hydrogen atoms are missing from the carbon chain. The chain is not saturated with hydrogen and the carbon atoms are now linked together with a double bond, =, that maintains the carbon chain. Where the double bond appears in the chain, causes it to bend. It is no longer straight and when bundled with other unsaturated fatty acids the kinks and bends in the chains cause the oil present as liquid.
Mono–unsaturated fatty acids have a single double bond (=) and the chain is bent in one place. You know these oils as olive, almond, and avocado. Most of their fatty acids are mono-unsaturated fatty acids with just one double bond.
Poly-unsaturated fatty acids, poly, meaning more than one, have two or more double bonds holding the carbon atoms together where the hydrogen atoms are absent. The carbon chain is bent at each double bond (=) becoming quite kinked with each additional double bond. Polyunsaturated fatty acids can have up to five double bonds though the most common forms have two or three. The bent chains of carbon are unable to lie flat against each other creating a mass that acts as liquid.
Essential Fatty Acids
Grapeseed, evening primrose, flax and hemp oils are examples of poly-unsaturated fatty acids.
What makes a food or compound essential is its necessity for health. A body can sustain itself on a wide variety of foods however; it must have about 50 essential nutrients each day. We cannot thrive without these necessary building blocks. Consisting of proteins, vitamins, minerals, water, sunlight, oxygen and two essential fatty acids, these are what we must eat regularly to be healthy.
The names of the two essential fatty acids, EFAs, are, linoleic acid, (an omega 6 fatty acid) with two double bonds and alpha-Linolenic acid, (omega 3 fatty acid) with three double bonds. They are both polyunsaturated having multiple double bonds. Poly-unsaturated fatty acids function in the body by transporting oxygen, giving them a vitamin like quality. Vitamin for vital, these fatty acids are used in the body as fuel and energy.
While necessary and beneficial, oxygen can, by inappropriate oxidation damage the body tissues. Protecting oils from oxidation from heat, light and air and by consuming them in a timely manner keeps them wholesome and fresh. Also by consuming an abundance of plant foods containing anti-oxidants our health is protected from damaging oxidation. The protective antioxidants found in highly colorful foods offers a wide array of protective plant compounds. Look for color in fresh oils, fruits and vegetables to maintain health so that oxygen serves its beneficial functions and prevents any unnecessary damage.