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What is Fatty Acid Structure?

Adrianne Baron, Nissa Garcia
  • Author
    Adrianne Baron

    Adrianne has a master's degree in cancer biology and has taught high school and college biology.

  • Instructor
    Nissa Garcia

    Nissa has a masters degree in chemistry and has taught high school science and college level chemistry.

Explore saturated fatty acids. Learn the structure, the general chemical formula, and examples of saturated fatty acids including their sources in foods. Updated: 10/22/2021

Table of Contents


Saturated Fatty Acid

Fatty foods, such as pizza, burgers and French fries, all contain fatty acids. Fatty acids are a part of triglycerides that make up the lipids in the body. Lipids are fats. The fatty acids structure are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms that are linked together. They are linear chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. There is a carboxyl group at the end of the fatty acid chain. A carboxyl group is a carbon double bonded to an oxygen atom and singularly bonded to a hydroxyl group. It is notated as -COOH.

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Saturated fatty acids have twice as many hydrogen atoms as carbon atoms

Diagram of saturated fatty acid chain

Saturated Fatty Acid Structure

Not all fatty acids are the same. Some are unsaturated fatty acids, and others are saturated fatty acids. The difference between the two results in a different fatty acid structure. Unsaturated fatty acids contain carbon atoms that are double bonded to each other because there are not enough hydrogen atoms to allow for single bonding. The saturated fatty acid structure has enough hydrogen atoms that all carbon atoms are singly bonded. The end of a saturated fatty acid chain has a carbon atom that is double bonded to an oxygen atom and singly bonded to a hydroxyl group. Saturated fatty acids are also called a saturated fat chain.

Saturated Fat Chain Length

The different saturated fatty acid chains vary in length, but still contain the same basic saturated fat molecule structure. There is a general formula for all fatty acids. That formula is {eq}C_{n}H_{2n}O_{2} {/eq}. This means that there are two times the number of hydrogen atoms that there are of carbon atoms. The number of oxygen atoms is always two. The saturated fat molecular structure and fatty acid chains of different lengths are explored below.

Short Chain Saturated Fat

There are some short saturated fatty acid chains. Short fatty acid chains are chains with six or less carbons in the chain. One of the most notable of them is butyric acid. The name looks and sounds funny, but it is actually a well known saturated fatty acid. It is the fatty acid that is found in animal fats and oils such as butter. Butyric acid is a liquid at room temperature and has no color. It contains four carbon atoms and eight hydrogen atoms. This particular saturated fatty acid is soluble in water. Caproic acid is another short chain saturated fatty acid. It is also called hexanoic acid. The word part hex- means six, and this explains the structure of the saturated fatty acid. It is one that contains six carbon atoms and twelve hydrogen atoms. This is also a liquid at room temperature, but it is one that has a high fat content and is borderline waxy in consistency. Most short saturated fatty acids are produced by the bacteria that live in the intestines of people.

Medium Chain Saturated Fat

There are some saturated fatty acids that are medium in length. Medium chain saturated fatty acids contain between seven to twelve carbons. They are longer than the short chain saturated fatty acids. One example of medium chain saturated fat is decanoic acid, also called decylic acid. The word part deca- means ten, so as the name implies it contains ten carbon atoms. This means that it also contains twenty hydrogen atoms. It is also called capric acid. It naturally occurs in liquid form and can be found in coconut oil and palm kernel oil. It is also a fat component of the milk of many animals. Decanoic acid is soluble in water as well as other substances such as alcohol.

Lauric acid is a twelve carbon atom saturated fatty acid. It is also called dodecanoic acid. Since there are twelve carbon atoms, this means that there are twenty-four hydrogen atoms contained in the molecule of fatty acid. It is found in human breast milk as well as coconut milk and palm kernel oil.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are 3 examples of saturated fats?

There are many saturated fats that occur naturally in the human diet. Three of them are palmitic acid, caprylic acid and lauric acid.

What is fatty acid formula?

There are two types of fatty acids, unsaturated and saturated. The formula for unsaturated fatty acids can vary, but the one for saturated fats is set. That formula is CnH2nO2.

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