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Food Chemistry Basics: Proteins, Fats, and Carbs (part 7) - Fats - SatFats vs. PolyFats

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7. Fats

Fats, or fatty acids, are an important macronutrient both for food intake and as a source of energy when you are not eating and generating energy from your own stored tissue. Fats are also important because they contain fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K, as well as other nutrients.

Note

I use the mnemonic device “a deck of cards” to remember the vitamins in fats: ADEK, or “a deck.” Not bad, huh?

Many fat-containing foods also contain protein and/or carbs; in fact, it’s quite common to get all three macronutrients in your food.

We get our fats from a variety of foods, including dairy (e.g., butter, whole milk, cheese), veggies like avocados and olives, meat, fish, nuts, coconut oil, nut butters, and oils (olive, peanut, coconut, etc.).

The form in which fats are both stored and eaten is called a triglyceride. This is an E-shaped molecule with a glycerol backbone attached to three fatty acids, as Figure 10 depicts.

A triglyceride molecule (source: )

Figure 10. A triglyceride molecule (source: http://www.reducetriglycerides.com/reader_triglyceride_molecules.htm)

Note

The body also contains fats in the form of phospholipids in cell membranes, cholesterol (which is crucial for synthesizing steroid hormones and making vitamin D in the skin), and other less substantial forms, but the vast majority of fat is stored in lipocytes, or fat cells, in the body’s fat depots such as adipose tissue and muscles.

Each one of the three fatty acids in a triglyceride is a hydrocarbon chain (often just described as a chain of carbon atoms) that is liberated at digestion and eventually released to the bloodstream. In other words, after you consume an animal or a plant fat (veggies also contain fats!), the simplified version is this: an enzyme called pancreatic lipase splits up the triglyceride into separate molecules, including the three fatty acids, so that they can be absorbed in the small intestine (a triglyceride cannot be absorbed in its present bulky state).

When the body stores fats, they are reassembled into triglycerides, and when you metabolize fats for energy, they are split up (yet again, just as in digestion) and are transported by proteins in the form of free fatty acids (FFAs) in the blood. Somewhat similar to the other macronutrients, the FFAs are the Lego pieces that can be fit together into the triglyceride structures, along with the glycerol molecule. Figure 11 shows an FFA called lauric acid, a shorter-chain fat with 12 carbons in its chain.

Coconut milk and human breast milk contain lauric acid (source: )

Figure 11. Coconut milk and human breast milk contain lauric acid (source: http://www.worldofmolecules.com)

Note

The body can store fats in a waterless environment, and therefore they are a more efficient, lightweight storage medium for a human’s onboard energy. We each store about 100,000 calories’ worth of fat. Carbohydrates have an affinity for water, on the other hand, and therefore weigh more, including the water, as stored glycogen. It would take about 67 pounds of stored glycogen to represent the equivalent energy of 10 pounds of stored fat!22 This must be one of the reasons that we only store about 1,200 to 2,000 calories’ worth of glycogen, our own starch.

Free fatty acids have common names like lauric or stearic acid, along with a numbered symbolic notation, such as 12:0. This means that lauric acid, a saturated fat, has 12 carbon atoms and 0 double bonds along its chain. Before your eyes glaze over with this reminder of geeky Mr. Taylor’s Chem 101 class back in Wichita Falls, realize that the length of a fatty acid chain is always even, and represents a good geek detail for understanding fat nutrition. We promise!

7.1 SatFats vs. PolyFats

A saturated fat (satFat, my abbreviation) is a molecule that has a straight, noncurvy orientation (without the “kinks” or double bonds of the other fats). This orientation allows the satFats to fit together snugly and remain solid at room temperature (like cheese, or butter, before they get moldy and rancid!). On the other hand, a polyunsaturated fat (polyFat) has more than one double bond along its carbon chain (which is where the poly prefix comes from). This creates a bend, or kink, in the molecule. That structural aspect keeps polyFats liquid at room temperature.

A polyunsaturated fat that is much discussed for its health benefits, an Omega 3, is called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

Note

Forget it, don’t even try to pronounce it.

EPA has a notation that looks like 20:5, n-3, indicating that this fatty acid has 20 carbon atoms and 5 double bonds, and that the first double bond is located three carbons in from the Omega end of the chain (i.e., at the end of the “toes” of the E-shaped structure, rather than at the location where the fatty acid chains connect with the glycerol molecule).

Note

Only a food chemist really wants to practice memorizing these complicated notations. You can impress your friends, however, by calmly explaining to them the difference between saturated and polyunsaturated fat; one’s kinky!

A monounsaturated fat (monoFat), like the oleic acid in olive oil, has only one double bond in the molecule.

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