What are the types of fatty acids?

Margaret Floyd
Nutrition & Dietetics
Fatty acids are made up of carbon and hydrogen molecules. There are three types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. The basic difference between each of these is the number of carbon atoms with or without two hydrogen atoms bonded to them. Here's the difference.

Saturated fatty acids. In a saturated fatty acid, each carbon atom has bonded with two hydrogen atoms. In other words, it's "saturated" with hydrogen. This saturation makes the fatty acid very stable, which means it can withstand more heat before it becomes rancid. Common examples of saturated fats are butter and coconut oil. An easy way to know if a fat is saturated is if it's solid at room temperature. Saturated fats are ideal for cooking because of their natural ability to withstand heat without being damaged.

Monounsaturated fatty acids. In a monounsaturated fatty acid, one pair of carbon atoms forms a double bond with each other that replaces the bond each would have with one hydrogen atom. So it is unsaturated, but only by one bond. This means the fatty acid is less stable than a saturated fatty acid molecule. The classic example of monounsaturated fat is olive oil. The oil in almonds, hazelnuts, and avocados is also monounsaturated. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, but they solidify in the refrigerator. These are okay for cooking, but only at very low temperatures.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids. A polyunsaturated fatty acid has two or more carbon pairs that have bonded together rather than with a hydrogen atom. This means the fatty acid is quite unstable. Examples of polyunsaturated fats include most vegetable oils, most seed oils, soybean oil, flaxseed oil, and sunflower oil. These fats are liquid both at room temperature and in the refrigerator, and they should never be used for cooking. This might be surprising, given that so many of our standard cooking oils are exactly these unstable vegetable oils.

There is a fourth type of fatty acid, but I haven't included it in the list above because it's not found in nature. It's the trans fat, which is an unsaturated fatty acid that has been either partially or fully hydrogenated.
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Janis Jibrin, MS, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
The four types of fatty acids are polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated, and trans. Though most foods contain a mix, usually one type of fatty acid predominates. For instance, olive oil contains 73 percent monounsaturated fat; the rest is polyunsaturated and saturated fat.
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Continue Learning about Fats

Fats

At 9 calories per gram, fats can add up quickly in your diet, yet experts recommend that you get only 7% of your calorie intake from fat. Fats also affect your cholesterol, and there are both good and bad fats. The best kind of fa...

ts are called unsaturated fats, and can be found in oils like olive and canola oils, nuts and seeds. These fats can help your body get rid of cholesterol. Saturated fats often have had hydrogen added to them to make them more solid. Other saturated fats are found in cream, butter and meats. They can raise your blood cholesterol. Its wise to learn which is which and check nutrition labels to make proper choices.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.