From a chemical point of view, we can identify in the olive oil two fractions, depending on the behavior in the presence of heating and strong alkaline solutions (concentrated solutions of KOH or NaOH):
the saponifiable fraction, which represents 98-99% of the total weight, is composed of substances that form soaps in the above conditions;
the unsaponifiable fraction, which represents the remaining 1-2% of the total weight, is composed of substances that fail to form soaps in the above conditions.
Fatty acid composition is influenced by several factors.
The zone of production.
Italian, Spanish and Greek olive oils are high in oleic acid and low in palmitic and linoleic acids, while Tunisian olive oils are high in palmitic and linoleic acids but lower in oleic acid. Therefore, oils can be divided into two groups:
The degree of olive ripeness at the time of oil extraction.
It should be noted that oleic acid is formed first in the fruit, and data seem to indicate a competitive relationship between oleic acid and palmitic, palmitoleic, and linoleic acids.
As previously said, fatty acids in olive oil are almost entirely present as triglycerides.
In small percentage, they are also present as diglycerides, monoglycerides, and in free form.
During triglyceride biosynthesis, thanks to the presence of specific enzymes, only about 2% of glycerol binds palmitic acid in the sn-2 position (also the percentage of stearic acid in the sn-2 position is very low); for the most part, the sn-2 position is occupied by oleic acid.
On the contrary, if we consider oils that have undergone a nonenzymatic esterification, the percentage of palmitic acid in the sn-2 position increases significantly.
Note: sn = Stereospecific numbering
Among triglycerides present in significant proportions in olive oil, there are:
SOO: 3- 7%.
POP, POS, OLnL, OLnO, PLL, PLnO are present in smaller amounts.
Trilinolein (LLL) is a triglyceride that contains three molecules of linoleic acid. Its low content is an indicator of an oil of good quality.
Triglycerides containing three saturated fatty acids or three molecules of alpha-linolenic acid have not been reported.
Diglycerides and monoglycerides
Their presence is due to an incomplete synthesis and/or a partial hydrolysis of triglycerides.
The content of diglycerides in virgin olive oil ranges from 1% to 2.8%. 1,2-Diglycerides prevail in fresh olive oil, representing over 80% of the diglycerides. During oil storage, isomerization occurs with a progressive increase of the more stable 1-3 isomers, which after about 10 months become the major isomers.
Therefore, the ratio 1,2/1,3-diglycerides may be used as an indicator of the age of the oil. Monoglycerides are present in amounts lower than diglycerides, <0.25%, with 1-monoglycerides far more abundant than 2-monoglycerides.
It is composed of a large number of different molecules, very important from a nutritional point of view, as they contribute significantly to the health effects of olive oil.
Furthermore, they are responsible for the stability and the taste of olive oil, and are also used to detect adulteration with other vegetable oils.
This fraction includes tocopherols, sterols, polyphenols, pigments, hydrocarbons, aromatic and aliphatic alcohol, triterpene acids, waxes, and minor constituents.
Their content is influenced by factors similar to those seen for fatty acid composition, such as:
the degree of ripeness of the olive;
the zone of production;
the crop year and olive harvesting practices;
the storage time of olives;
the oil extraction process;
the storage conditions of the oil.
It should be noted that many of these compounds are not present in refined olive oils, as they are removed during the refining processes.
They make up 18 to 37% of the unsaponifiable fraction.
They are a very heterogeneous group of molecules with nutritional and organoleptic properties (for example, oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol give oil its bitter and pungent taste).
For a more extensive discussion, see: ” Polyphenols in olive oil: variability and composition.”
They make up 30 to 50% of the unsaponifiable fraction.
Squalene and beta-carotene are the main molecules. Squalene, isolated for the first time from shark liver, is the major constituent of the unsaponifiable fraction, and constitutes more than 90% of the hydrocarbons. Its concentration ranges from 200 to 7500 mg/kg of olive oil.
It is an intermediate in the biosynthesis of the four-ring structure of steroids, and it seems to be responsible of several health effects of olive oil.
In the hydrocarbon fraction of virgin olive oil, n-paraffins, diterpene and triterpene hydrocarbons, isoprenoidal polyolefins are also found. Beta-carotene acts both as antioxidant, protecting oil during storage, and as dye (see below).
widely used for checking its genuineness.
On this regard, it is to underline that sterols are species-specific molecules; for example, the presence of high concentrations of brassicasterol, a sterol typically found in Brassicaceae (Cruciferae) family, such as rapeseed, indicates adulteration of olive oil with canola oil.
Four classes of sterols are present in olive oil: common sterols, 4-methylsterols, triterpene alcohols, and triterpene dialcohols. Their content ranges from 1000 mg/kg, the minimum value required by the IOOC standard, to 2000 mg/kg. The lowest values are found in refined oils because of the refining processes may cause losses up to 25%.
Common sterols or 4α-desmethylsterols
Common sterols are present mainly in the free and esterified form; however they have been also found as lipoproteins and sterylglucosides.
The main molecules are beta-sitosterol, which makes up 75 to 90% of the total sterol, Δ5-avenasterol, 5 to 20%, and campesterol, 4%. Other components found in lower amounts or traces are, for example, stigmasterol, 2%, cholesterol, brassicasterol, and ergosterol.
They are intermediates in the biosynthesis of sterols, and are present both in the free and esterified form. They are present in small amounts, much lower than those of common sterols and triterpene alcohols, varying between 50 and 360 mg/kg. The main molecules are obtusifoliol, cycloeucalenol, citrostadienol, and gramisterol.
Triterpene alcohols or 4,4-dimethylsterols
They are a complex class of sterols, present both in the free and esterified form. They are found in amounts ranging from 350 to 1500 mg/kg.
The main components are beta-amyrin, 24-methylenecycloartanol, cycloartenol, and butyrospermol; other molecules present in lower/trace amounts are, for example, cyclosadol, cyclobranol, germanicol, and dammaradienol.
The main triterpene dialcohols found in olive oil are erythrodiol and uvaol.
Erythrodiol is present both in the free and esterified form; in virgin olive oil, its level varies between 19 and 69 mg/kg, and the free form is generally lower than 50 mg/kg.
They make up 2 to 3% of the unsaponifiable fraction, and include vitamin E.
Of the eight E-vitamers, alpha-tocopherol represents about 90% of tocopherols in virgin olive oil. It is present in the free form and in very variable amount, but on average higher than 100 mg/kg of olive oil. Thanks to its in vivo antioxidant properties, its presence is a protective factor for health. Alpha-tocopherol concentration seems to be related to the high levels of chlorophylls and to the concomitant requirement for deactivation of singlet oxygen.
Beta-tocopherol, delta-tocopherol, and gamma-tocopherol are usually present in low amounts.
In this group we find chlorophylls and carotenoids.
In olive oil, chlorophylls are present as phaeophytins, mainly phaeophytin a (i.e. a chlorophyll from which magnesium has been removed and substituted with two hydrogen ions), and confer the characteristic green color to olive oil. They are photosensitizer molecules that contribute to the photooxidation of olive oil itself.
Beta-carotene and lutein are the main carotenoids in olive oil. Several xanthophylls are also present, such as antheraxanthin, beta-cryptoxanthin, luteoxanthin, mutatoxanthin, neoxanthin, and violaxanthin.
Olive oil’s color is the result of the presence of chlorophylls and carotenoids and of their green and yellow hues. Their presence is closely related.
They are important components of the olive, and are present in trace amounts in the oil. Oleanolic and maslinic acids are the main triterpene acids in virgin olive oil: they are present in the olive husk, from which they are extracted in small amount during processing.
Aliphatic and aromatic alcohols
Fatty alcohols and diterpene alcohols are the most important ones.
Aliphatic alcohols have a number of carbon atoms between 20 and 30, and are located mostly inside the olive stones, from where they are partially extracted by milling.
They are linear saturated alcohols with more than 16 carbon atoms.
They are found in the free and esterified form and are present, in virgin olive oil, in amount not generally higher than 250 mg/kg.
Docosanol (C22), tetracosanol (C24), hexacosanol (C26), and octacosanol (C28) are the main fatty alcohols in olive oil, with tetracosanol and hexacosanol present in larger amounts.
Waxes, which are minor constituents of olive oil, are esters of fatty alcohols with fatty acids, mainly of palmitic acid and oleic acid. They can be used as a criterion to discriminate between different types of oils; for example, they must be present in virgin and extra virgin olive oil at levels <150 mg/kg, according to the IOOC standards.
Geranylgeraniol and phytol are two acyclic diterpene alcohols, present in the free and esterified form. Among esters present in the wax fraction of extra virgin olive oil, oleate, eicosenoate , eicosanoate, docosanoate, and tetracosanoate have been found, mainly as phytyl derivatives.
More than 280 volatile compounds have been identified in olive oil, such as hydrocarbons, the most abundant fraction, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, esters, acids, ethers and many others. However, only about 70 of them are present at levels higher than the perception threshold beyond which they may contribute to the aroma of virgin olive oil.
Phospholipids are found among the minor components of olive oil; the main ones are phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylinositol.
In the unfiltered oils, trace amounts of proteins may be found.
Gunstone F.D. Vegetable oils in food technology: composition, properties and uses. 2th Edition. Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2011
Caponio F., Bilancia M.T., Pasqualone A., Sikorska E., Gomes T. Influence of the exposure to light on extra virgin olive oil quality during storage. Eur Food Res Technol 2005;221:92-8. doi:10.1007/s00217-004-1126-8
Servili M., Sordini B., Esposto S., Urbani S., Veneziani G., Di Maio I., Selvaggini R. and Taticchi A. Biological activities of phenolic compounds of extra virgin olive oil. Antioxidants 2014;3:1-23. doi:10.3390/antiox3010001
Trans fatty acids (TFA) or trans-unsaturated fatty acids or trans fats are unsaturated fatty acids with at least one a double bond in the trans or E configuration.
Carbon-carbon double bonds show planar conformation, and so they can be considered as plains from whose opposite sides carbon chain attaches and continues. “The entry” and “the exit” of the carbon chain from the plain may occur on the same side of the plain, and in this case double bond is defined in cis or Z configuration, or on opposite side, and in that case it is defined in trans configuration.
Below, some distinctive characteristics of the fats rich in trans fats, that make them particularly suited for the production of margarines and vegetable shortening used in home and commercial cooking, and manufacturing processes.
Bent molecules can’t pack together easily, but linear ones can do it.
This means that trans fatty acids contribute, together with the geometrically similar saturated fatty acids, to the hardness of the fats in which they are, giving them a higher melting point.
Heightening the melting point of fats means that it is possible to convert them from liquid form to semi-solids and solids at room temperature.
Note: trans fats tend to be less solid than saturated fatty acids.
a melting point, consistency and “mouth feel” similar to those of butter;
a long shelf life at room temperature;
a flavor stability.
They are stable during frying.
Sources of trans fatty acids
Dietary TFA come from different sources briefly reviewed below.
In industrialized countries, greater part of the consumed trans fatty acids, in USA about 80 percent of the total, are produced industrially, in varying amounts, during partial hydrogenation of edible oils containing unsaturated fatty acids (see below).
They come from bacterial transformation of unsaturated fatty acids ingested by ruminants in their rumen (see below).
Another natural source is represented by some plant species, such as leeks, peas, lettuce and spinach, that contain trans-3-hexadecenoic acid, and rapeseed oil, that contains brassidic acid (22:1∆13t) and gondoic acid (20:1∆11t). In these sources trans fatty acids are present in small amounts.
Very small amounts, less than 2 percent, are formed during deodorization of vegetable oils, a process necessary in the refining of edible oils. During this process trans fatty acids with more than one double bond are formed in small amounts. These isomers are also present in fried foods and in considerable amounts in some partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (see below).
Industrial trans fatty acids
Hydrogenation is a chemical reaction in which hydrogen atoms react, in the presence of a catalyst, with a molecule.
The hydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids involves the addition of hydrogen atoms to double bonds on the carbon chains of fatty acids. The reaction occurs in presence of metal catalyst and hydrogen, and is favored by heating vegetable oils containing unsaturated fatty acids.
Partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils
The process of hydrogenation was first discovered in 1897 by French Nobel prize in Chemistry, jointly with fellow Frenchman Victor Grignard, Paul Sabatier using a nickel catalyst.
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were developed in 1903 by a German chemist, Wilhelm Normann, who files British patent on “Process for converting unsaturated fatty acids or their glycerides into saturated compounds”. The term trans fatty acids or trans fats appeared for the first time in the Remark column of the 5th edition of the “Standard Tables of Food Composition” in Japan.
During partial hydrogenation, an incomplete saturation of the unsaturated sites on the carbon chains of unsaturated fatty acids occurs. For example, with regard to fish oil, trans fatty acid content in non-hydrogenated oils and in highly hydrogenated oils is 0.5 and 3.6%, respectively, whereas in partially hydrogenated oils is 30%.
But, most importantly, some of the remaining cis double bonds may be moved in their positions on the carbon chain, producing geometrical and positional isomers, that is, double bonds can be modified in both conformation and position.
Below, other changes that occur during partial hydrogenation are listed.
Cyclic monomers, as well as intramolecular linear dimmers, are also formed.
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils were developed for the production of vegetable fats, a cheaper alternative to animal fats. In fact, through hydrogenation, oils such as soybean, safflower and cottonseed oils, which are rich in unsaturated fatty acids, are converted into semi-solid fats (see above).
The first hydrogenated oil was cottonseed oil in USA in 1911 to produce vegetable shortening.
In the 1930’s, partial hydrogenation became popular with the development of margarine.
Currently, per year in USA, 6-8 billion tons of hydrogenated vegetable oil are produced.
Ruminant trans fatty acids
Ruminant trans fats are produced by bacteria in the rumen of the animals, for example cows, sheep and goats, using as a substrate a proportion of the relatively small amounts of unsaturated fatty acids present in their feedstuffs, that is, feed, plants and herbs. And, considering an animal that lives at least a year, and has the opportunity to graze and/or eat hay, there is a season variability in unsaturated fatty acids intake, and trans fats produced. In fact, in summer and spring, pasture plants and herbs may contain more unsaturated fatty acids than the winter feed supply.
Then, TFA are present at low levels in meat and full fat dairy products, typically <5% of total fatty acids, and are located in the sn-1 and sn-3 positions of the triacylglycerols, whereas in margarines and other industrially hydrogenated products they appear to be concentrated in the sn-2 position of the triacylglycerols.
Ruminant trans fatty acids are mainly monounsaturated fatty acids, with 16 to 18 carbon atoms, and constitute a small percentage of the trans fatty acids in the diet (see below).
Isomers of dietary trans fatty acids
The most important cluster of trans fatty acids is trans-C18:1 isomers, that is, fatty acids containing 18 carbon atoms plus one double bond, whose position varies between Δ6 and Δ16 carbon atoms. In both sources, the most common isomers are those with double bonds between positions Δ9 and Δ11.
However, even if these molecules are present both in industrial and ruminant TFA, there is a considerable quantitative difference. For example, vaccenic acid (C18:1 Δ11t) represents over 60 percent of the trans-C18:1 isomers in ruminant trans fatty acids, whereas in industrial ones elaidic acid (C18:1Δ9t) comprises 15-20 percent and C18:1 Δ10t and vaccenic acid over 20 percent each others.
Trans fatty acids: effects on human health
Ruminant trans fatty acids, in amounts actually consumed in diets, are not harmful for human health (see below).
Conversely, consumption of industrial trans fats has neither apparent benefit nor intrinsic value, above their caloric contribution, and, from human health standpoint they are only harmful, having adverse effects on:
serum lipid levels;
other risk factors for cardiovascular disease;
Moreover, they are positively associated with the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), and sudden death from cardiac causes and diabetes.
Note: further in the text, we will refer to industrial trans fatty acids as trans fats or trans fatty acids.
Trans fatty acids: effects at plasmatic level
Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) plasma levels are well-documented risk markers for the development of coronary heart disease (CHD).
High LDL-C levels are associated with an increased incidence of ischemic heart disease.
High HDL-C levels are associated with a reduced incidence of the risk.
For this reason, the ratio between total cholesterol level and HDL-C is often used as a combined risk marker for these two components in relation to the development of heart disease: the higher the ratio, the higher the risk.
TFA, as previously said, have adverse effects on serum lipids.
These effects have been evaluated in numerous controlled dietary trials by isocaloric replacement of saturated fatty acids or cis–unsaturated fatty acids with trans fats. It was demonstrated that such replacement:
raises LDL-C levels;
lowers HDL-C levels, in contrast to saturated fatty acids that increase HDL-C levels when used as replacement in similar study;
increases the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL-C, approximately twice that for saturated fatty acids, and, on the basis of this effect alone, trans fatty acids has been estimated to cause about 6% of coronary events in the USA.
Furthermore, trans fats:
produce a deleterious increase in small, dense LDL-C subfractions, that is associated with a marked increased in the risk of CHD, even in the presence of relatively normal LDL-C;
increase the blood levels of triglycerides, and this is an independent risk factor for CHD;
increase levels of Lp(a)lipoprotein, another important coronary risk factor.
But on 2004 prospective studies have shown that the relation between the intake of trans fatty acids and the incidence of CHD is greater than that predicted by changes in serum lipid levels alone. This suggests that trans fats influence other risk factors for CHD, such as inflammation and endothelial-cell dysfunction.
Trans fatty acids, inflammation and endothelial-cell dysfunction
The role of inflammation in atherosclerosis, and consequently in CHD, is burgeoned in the last decade.
Interleukin-6, C-reactive protein (CRP), and an increased activity of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) system are markers of inflammation.
In women greater intake of trans fatty acids is associated with increased activity of TNF system, and in those with a higher body mass index with increased levels of interleukin-6 and CRP. For example, the difference in CRP seen with an average intake of trans fats of 2.1% of the total daily energy intake, as compared with 0.9%, correspond to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease of 30%. Similar results have been reported in patients with established heart disease, in randomized, controlled trials, in in vitro studies, and in studies in which it has been analyzed membrane levels of trans fatty acids, a biomarker of their dietary intake.
So, trans fats promote inflammation, and their inflammatory effects may account at least in part for their effects on CHD that, as seen above, are greater than would be predicted by effects on serum lipoproteins alone.
Attention: the presence of inflammation is an independent risk factor not only for CHD but also for insulin resistance, diabetes, dyslipidemia, and heart failure.
Another site of action of TFA may be endothelial function.
Several studies have suggested the association between greater intake of trans fats and increased levels of circulating biomarkers of endothelial dysfunction, such as E-selectin, sICAM-1, and sVCAM-1.
Other effects of trans fatty acids
In vitro studies have demonstrate that trans fats affect lipid metabolism through several pathways.
They alter secretion, lipid composition, and size of apolipoprotein B-100 (apo B-100).
They increase cellular accumulation and secretion of free cholesterol and cholesterol esters by hepatocytes.
They alter expression in adipocytes of genes for peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-γ (PPAR- γ), lipoprotein lipase, and resistin, proteins having a central roles in the metabolism of fatty acids and glucose.
Industrial trans fatty acids and CHD
Industrial trans fats are independent cardiovascular risk factor.
Since the early 1990s attention has been focused on the effect of trans fatty acids on plasma lipid and lipoprotein concentrations (see above).
Furthermore, four major prospective studies covering about 140,000 subjects, monitored for 6-14 years, have all found positive epidemiological evidence relating their levels in the diet, assessed with the aid of a detailed questionnaire on the composition of the diet, to the risk of CHD. These four studies are:
“The Health Professionals Follow-up study” (2005);
“The Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Study” (1997);
“The Nurses’ Health Study” (2005);
“The Zutphen Elderly Study” (2001).
These studies cover such different populations that the results very probably hold true for the populations as a whole.
A meta-analysis of these studies have shown that a 2% increase in energy intake from industrial TFA was associated with a 23% increase in the incidence of CHD. The relative risk of heart disease was 1.36 in “The Health Professionals Follow-up Study”, 1.14 in “The Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Study”; 1.93 (1.43-2.61) in “The Nurses’ Health Study”, and 1.28 (1.01-1.61) in “The Zutphen Elderly Study”.
So, there is a substantially increased risk even at low levels of intake: 2% of total energy intake, for a 2,000 Kcal diet is 40 Kcal or about 4-5 g of fat corresponding to a teaspoonful of fat!
Moreover, in three of the studies, the association between the intake of industrial trans fats and the risk of CHD was stronger than a corresponding association between the intake of saturated fatty acids and the risk of heart disease. In “The Zutphen Elderly Study”, this association was not investigated.
Because of the adverse effects of industrial trans fatty acids, for the same authors are unethical conducting randomized long-term trials to test their effects on the incidence of CHD.
So, avoidance of industrial trans fats, or a consumption of less 0.5% of total daily energy intake is necessary to avoid their adverse effects, far stronger on average than those of food contaminants or pesticide residues.
A study conducted in an Australia population with a first heart attack and no preceding history of CHD or hyperlipidemia has showed a positive association between levels of trans fatty acids in adipose tissue and the risk of nonfatal myocardial infarction.
It was shown that adipose tissue C18:1Δ7t, found in both animal and vegetable fats, was an independent predictor of a first myocardial infarction, that is, its adipose tissue level is still a predictor for heart disease after adjustment for total cholesterol. Again, it appears that only a minor part of the negative effects of trans fats occurs via plasma lipoproteins.
During the course of this study, mid-1996, TFA were eliminated from margarines sold in Australia (see below). This was a unique opportunity to investigate the temporal relationship between trans fat intake and their adipose tissue levels. It was demonstrated that trans fats disappear from adipose tissue of both case-patients and controls with a rate about 15% of total trans fats/y.
Another study conduct in Costa Rica have found a positive association between myocardial infarction and trans fatty acids.
Interestingly, in a larger, community-based case-control study, levels of trans fats in red blood cell membranes were associated, after adjustment for other risk factors, with an increase in the risk of sudden cardiac death. Moreover, the increased risk appeared to be related to trans-C18:2 levels, that were associated with a tripling of the risk, but not with cell membrane levels of trans-C18:1, the major trans fatty acids in foods (see above).
Trans fatty acids and diabetes
In a prospective study covering 84,204 female nurses, from “The Nurses’ Health Study”, aged 34–59 y, analyzed from the 1980 to 1996, with no cancer, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease at base line, the intake of trans fatty acids was significantly related to the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. And, after adjustment for other risk factors trans fat intake was positively associated with the incidence of diabetes with a risk up to 39% greater.
Data from controlled intervention studies showed that TFA could impair insulin sensitivity in subjects with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (saturated fatty acids do the analogous response, with no significant difference between TFA and them) more than unsaturated fatty acids, in particular the isomer of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) trans-10, cis-12-CLA. Be careful because some dietary supplements contain CLA isomers and may be diabetogenic and proatherogenic in insulin-resistant subjects.
No significant effect was seen in insulin sensitivity of lean, healthy subjects.
Ruminant trans fatty acids and the risk of CHD
Four prospective studies have evaluated the relation between the intake of ruminant trans fatty acids and the risk of CHD: no significant association was identified.
In another study published on 2008 was analyzed data from four Danish cohort studies that cover 3,686 adults enrolled between 1974 and 1993, and followed for a median of 18 years. In Denmark, consumption of dairy products is relatively high and the range of ruminant trans fat intake is relatively broad, up to 1.1% of energy. Conversely, in the other countries, ruminant trans fatty acid consumption for most people is substantially lower than 1% of energy, in USA about 0.5% of energy. After adjustment for other risk factors, no significant associations between ruminant TFA consumption and incidence of CHD were found, confirming, in a population with relatively high intake of ruminant trans fatty acids, conclusions of four previous prospective studies.
So ruminant trans fats, in amounts actually consumed in diets, do not raise CHD risk.
The absence of risk of CHD with trans fats from ruminants as compared with industrial trans fatty acids may be due to a lower intake. In the USA, greater part of trans fats have industrial origin (see above); moreover trans fat levels in milk and meats are relatively low, 1 to 8% of total fats.
The absence of a higher risk of CHD may be due also to the presence of different isomers. Ruminant and industrial sources share many common isomers, but there are some quantitative difference (see fig. 4):
vaccenic acid level is higher in ruminant fats, 30-50% of trans isomers;
trans-C18:2 isomers, present in deodorized and fried vegetable oils, as well as in some partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, are not present in appreciable amounts in ruminants fats.
Finally other, still unknown, potentially protective factors could outweigh harmful effects of ruminant trans fats.
Trans fatty acids: legislation regulating their content
Until 1985 no adverse effects of trans fatty acids on human health was demonstrated, and in 1975 a Procter & Gamble study showed no effect of trans fats on cholesterol.
Their use in fast food preparation grew up from 1980’s, when the role of dietary saturated fats in increasing cardiac risk began clear. Then, it was led a successful campaign to get McDonald’s to switch from beef tallow to vegetable oil for frying its French fries. Meanwhile, studies began to raise concerns about their effects on health. On 1985 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that TFA and oleic acid affected serum cholesterol level similarly, but from the second half of 1985 their harmful began clear, and the final proof came from both controlled feeding trials and prospective epidemiologic studies.
On 2003 FDA ruled that food labels, for conventional foods and supplements, show their content beginning January 1, 2006. Notably, this ruling was the first substantive change to food labeling since the requirement for per-serving food labels information was added in 1990.
On 2005 the US Department of Agriculture made a minimized intake of trans fatty acids a key recommendation of the new food-pyramid guidelines.
On 2006 American Heart Association recommended to limit their intake to 1% of daily calorie consumption, and suggested food manufacturers and restaurants switch to other fats.
On 2006 New York City Board of Health announced trans fat ban in its 40,000 restaurants within July 1, 2008, followed by the state of California in 2010-2011.
After June 1996 they were eliminated from margarine sold in Australia, that before contributed about 50% of their dietary intake.
On March 11, 2003 the Danish government, after a debate started in 1994 and two new reports in 2001 and 2003, decided to phase out the use of industrial trans fats in food before the end of 2003. Two years later, however, the European Commission (EC) asked Denmark to withdraw this law, which was not accepted on the European Community level, unfortunately. However, in 2007, EC decided to closes its infringement procedure against Denmark because of increasing scientific evidence of the danger of this type of fatty acids.
The Danish example was followed by Austria and Switzerland in 2009, Iceland, Norway, and Hungary in 2011, and most recently, Estonia and Georgia in 2014. So, about 10% of the European Union population, about 500 million people, lives in countries where it is illegal to sell food high in industrial trans fats.
Governments of other European Union countries instead rely on the willingness of food producers to reduce trans fatty acid content in their products. This strategy has proved effective only for Western European countries (see below).
Canada is considering legislation to eliminate them from food supplies, and, in 2005, ruled that pre-packaged food labels show their content.
Therefore, with the exception of the countries where the use of trans fats in the food industry was banned, the only way to reduce their intake in the other countries is consumer’s decision to choose foods free in such fatty acids, avoiding those known containing them, and always reading nutrition facts and ingredients because they may come from margarine, vegetable oil and frying. Indeed, for example in the USA, the producers of foods that contain less than 0.5 g of industrial trans fatty acids per serving can list their content as 0 on the packaging. This content is low but if a consumer eats multiple servings, he consumes substantial amount of them.
Be careful: food labels are not obligatory in restaurants, bakeries, and many other retail food outlets.
Trans fatty acids and food reformulation
Public health organizations, including the World Health Organization in September 2006, have recommended reducing the consumption of industrial trans fatty acids; only in USA the near elimination of these fatty acids might avoid between 72,000 and 280,000 of the 1.2 million of CHD events every year.
Food manufacturers and restaurants may reduce industrial TFA use choosing alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils.
In Denmark, their elimination (see above) from vegetable oils did not increase consumption of saturated fatty acids because they were mostly replaced with cis–unsaturated fatty acids. Moreover, there were no noticeable effects for the consumer: neither increase in the cost nor reduction in availability and quality of foods.
In 2009, Stender et al. have shown that industrial trans fatty acids in food such as French fries, cookies, cakes, and microwave-oven popcorn purchased in USA, South Africa, and many European Country can be replaced, at similar prices, with a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Such substitution has even greater nutritional benefit than one-to-one substitution of industrial trans fats with saturated fatty acids alone. However, be careful because only in French fries with low industrial trans fats the percentage of saturate fatty acids remains constant, whereas in cookies and cakes is in average +33 percentage points and microwave-oven popcorn +24 percentage points: saturated fatty acids are less dangerous than industrial trans fats but more than mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
The same research group, analyzing some popular foods in Europe, purchased in supermarkets, even of the same supermarket chain, and fast food, namely, McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), from 2005 to 2014, showed that their TFA content was reduced or even absent in several Western European countries while remaining high in Eastern and Southeastern Europe.
In 2010 Mozaffarian et al. evaluated the levels of industrial trans fats and saturated fatty acids in major brand-name U.S. supermarket and restaurant foods after reformulation to reduce industrial trans fatty acid content, in two time: from 1993 through 2006 and from 2008 through 2009. They found a generally reduction in industrial trans fat content without any substantial or equivalent increase in saturated fatty acid content.
Foods high in trans fatty acids: examples and values
Many foods high in trans fats are popularly consumed worldwide.
In USA greater part of these fatty acids comes from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, with an average consumption from this source that has been constant since the 1960′s.
It should be noted that the following trans fatty acid values must be interpreted with caution because, as previously said, many fast food establishments, restaurants and industries may have changed, or had to change the type of fat used for frying and cooking since the analysis were done.
The reported values, unless otherwise specified, refer to percentage in trans fatty acids/ 100 g of fatty acids.
Among foods with trans fats, stick or hard margarine had the highest percentage of them, but levels of these fatty acids have declined as improved technology allowed the production of softer margarines which have become popular. But there are difference in trans fatty acid content of margarine from different countries. Below some examples.
The highest content, 13-16.5%, is found in soft margarine from Iceland, Norway, and the UK.
Less content is found in Italy, Germany, Finland, and Greece, 5.1%, 4.8%, 3.2%, and 2.9% respectively).
In Portugal, The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, France, Spain, and Sweden margarine trans fat content is less than 2%.
USA and Canada lag behind Europe, but in the USA, with the advent of trans fat labeling of foods and the greater knowledge of the risk associated with their consumption by the buyers, change is occurring. For this reason, at now, in the USA margarine is considered to be a minor contributor to the intake of TFA, whereas the major sources are commercially baked and fast food products like cake, cookies, wafer, snack crackers, chicken nuggets, French fries or microwave-oven popcorn (see below).
Trans fatty acid content of vegetable shortenings ranges from 6% to 50%, and varies in different country: in Germany, Austria and New Zealand it is less than France or USA.
However, like margarines, their trans fat content is decreasing. In Germany it decreased from 12% in 1994 to 6% in 1999, in Denmark is 7% (1996) while in New Zealand is about 6% (1997).
At now, non-hydrogenated vegetable oils for salad and cooking contain no or only small amounts of trans fats.
Processing of these oils can produce minimal level of them, ranged from 0.05g/100 food for extra virgin oil to 2.42 g/100 g food for canola oil. So, their contribution to trans fat content of the current food supply is very little.
One exception is represented by Pakistani hydrogenated vegetable oils whose TFA content ranges from 14% to 34%.
Among foods with trans fats, prepared soups contain significant amount of them, ranging from 10% of beef bouillon to 35% of onion cream. So, they contribute great amount of such fatty acids to the diet if frequently consumed.
Thanks to their properties (see above), trans fatty acids are used in many processed foods as cookies, cakes, croissants, pastries and other baked goods. And, baked goods are the greatest source of these fats in the North American diet. Of course, their trans fat content depends on the type of fat used in processing.
Mayonnaise, salad dressings and other sauces contain only small or no-amounts of trans fats.
Human milk and infant foods
Trans fat content of human milk reflects the trans fat content of maternal diet in the previous day, is comprised between 1 and 7%, and is decreasing from 7.1% in 1998 to 4.6% in 2005/2006. Infant formulas have trans fat values on average 0.1%-4.5%, with a brand up to 15.7%. Baby foods contain greater than 5% of trans fats.
Fast foods and restaurant’s foods
Vegetable shortenings high in trans fats are used as frying fats, so fast foods and many restaurant’s foods may contain relatively large amounts of them. Foods are fried pies, French fries, chicken nuggets, hamburgers, fried fish as well as fried chicken.
In articles published by Stender et al. from 2006 to 2009, it is showed that for French fries and chicken nuggets their content varies largely from nation to nation, but also within the same fast food chain in the same country, and even in the same city, because of the cooking oil used. For example, oil used in USA and Peru outlets of a famous fast food chain contained 23-24% of trans fats, whereas oil used in many European countries of the same fast food chain contained about 10%, with some countries, such as Denmark, as low as 5% and 1%.
And, considering a meal of French fries and chicken nuggets, in serving size of 171 and 160 g respectively, purchased at McDonald‘s in New York City, it contained over 10 g of TFA, while if purchased at KFC in Hungary they were almost 25 g.
Below, again from the work of Stender et al. it can see a cross-country comparison of trans fat contents of chicken nuggets and French fries purchased at McDonald ‘s or KFC.
Chicken nuggets and French fries from McDonald’s:
less than 1 g only if the meals were purchased in Denmark;
1-5 g in Portugal, the Netherlands, Russia, Czech Republic, or Spain;
5-10 g in the United States, Peru, UK, South Africa, Poland, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Germany, or Hungary.
Chicken and French fries from KFC:
less than 2 g if the meals were purchased UK (Aberdeen), Denmark, Russia, or Germany (Wiesbaden);
2-5 in Germany (Hamburg), France, UK (London or Glasgow), Spain, or Portugal;
5-10 in the Bahamas, South Africa, or USA;
10-25 g in Hungary, Poland, Peru, or Czech Republic.
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De novo fatty acid synthesis in plants and animals
De novofatty acid synthesis is largely similar among plants and animals.
It occurs in chloroplasts of photosynthetic cells of higher plants, and in cytosol of animal cells by the concerted action of two enzymes: acetyl-CoA carboxylase (EC 220.127.116.11) and fatty acid synthase (EC 18.104.22.168).
Fatty acid synthase catalyzes a repeating four-step sequence by which the fatty acyl chain is extended by two carbons, at the carboxyl end, every each passage through the cycle; this four-step process is the same in all organisms.
In animals, the primary site for lipid metabolism is liver, not the adipose tissue. However, adipose tissue is a major organ system in which fatty acid synthesis occurs, though in humans it is less active than in many other animal species.
Although myristic, lauric and a trace of stearic acids may also be produced, in animals and plants the main product of these reactions is palmitic acid.
It should be noted that in certain plants, such as palm and coconut, chain termination occurs earlier than palmitic acid release: up to 90% of the fatty acids produced and then present in the oils of these plants are between 8 (caprylic acid) and 14 (myristic acid) carbons long (palmitic acid: 16 carbon atoms).
Synthesis of long chain saturated and unsaturated fatty acids
it may be desaturated (insertion of a double bond into fatty acid chain) to palmitoleic acid, the precursor of all fatty acids of omega-7 or n-7 family, in a reaction catalyzed by Δ9-desaturase (EC 22.214.171.124), an ubiquitous enzyme in both plant and animal kingdoms and the most active lipid enzyme in mammalian tissues, the same enzyme that catalyzes the desaturation of stearic acid to oleic acid (see below).
Note: Δ9- desaturase inserts double bounds in the 9-10 position of the fatty acid carbon chain, position numbered from the carboxyl end of the molecule, and:
if the substrate is palmitic acid, the double bond will appear between n-7 and n-8 position of the chain (in this case numbered from the methyl end of the molecule), so producing palmitoleic acid, the founder of omega-7 series;
if the substrate is stearic acid, the double bond will appear between n-9 and n-10 position of the chain and oleic acid will be produced.
Of course, in plants and animals there are fatty acids longer and/or more unsaturated than these just seen thanks to modification systems (again desaturation and elongation) that catalyze reactions of fatty acid synthesis that are organism- tissue- and cell- specific.
For example, stearic acid may be:
elongated to arachidic, behenic and lignoceric acids, all saturated fatty acids, in reactions catalyzed by elongases. Again, chain elongation occurs, both in mitochondria and in the smooth endoplasmic reticulum, by the addition of two carbon atom units at a time at the carboxylic end of the fatty acid through the action of fatty acid elongation systems (particularly long and very long saturated fatty acids, from 18 to 24 carbon atoms, are synthesized only on cytosolic face of the smooth endoplasmic reticulum);
Animal tissues can desaturate fatty acids in the 9-10 position of the chain, thanks to the presence of Δ9 desaturase; as previously seen, if the substrate of the reaction is palmitic acid, the double bond will appear between n-7 and n-8 position, with stearic acid between n-9 and n-10 position, so leading to formation respectively of palmitoleic acid and oleic acid. Animals lack Δ12- and Δ15-desaturases, enzymes able to desaturate carbon carbon bonds beyond the 9-10 position of the chain. For these reason, they can’t produce de novo omega-3 and omega-6 PUFA (which have double bonds also beyond the 9-10 position), that are so essential fatty acids.
Δ12- and Δ15-desaturases are present in plants; though many land plants lack Δ15-desaturase, also called omega-3 desaturase, planktons and aquatic plants in colder water possess it and produce abundant amounts of the omega-3 fatty acids.
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Biochemistry, Metabolism, and Nutrition