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In this "Comparatively Speaking," industry expert Tony O'Lenick explains the difference between essential fatty acids and trans fatty acids.
Both essential fatty acids and trans fatty acids are fatty acids. Fatty acids are compounds that contain both a carboxylic group (-COOH) and an alkyl group. The alkyl groups can be either saturated (no double bonds) or unsaturated (double bonds) with double bonds.
Essential fatty acids are fatty acids that the body needs but are not made by the body in sufficient quantities for the body to use. For this reason, they must be present in the diet. Essential fatty acids are primarily used to produce hormonelike substances that regulate a wide range of functions including: blood pressure, blood clotting, blood lipid levels, the immune response and the inflammation response to injury infection.
Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated, i.e., they have several double bonds, and include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. They are essential in the human diet because humans lack the ability to introduce double bonds in fatty acids beyond carbons 9 and 10, as counted from the carboxylic acid side.
Humans, like all mammals, also do not have the enzymes necessary to introduce a double bond at the omega-3 position or omega-6 position. However, humans can easily make saturated fatty acids or monounsaturated fatty acids with a double bond at the omega-9 position.