What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential fatty acids are essential nutrients. You can not manufacture them in your body. Western people today suffer from significant deficiencies in essential fatty acids. Most fatty acid research is very new indeed, and the health impacts are not well understood. This is an exciting area of nutritional research.
What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
An essential fatty acid is part of an unsaturated fat or oil and belongs to a particular breed of unsaturated fatty acids which can not be manufactured by the body. In other words, your food must supply you with these particular fatty acids since they are essential for health.
There are two main groups of essential fatty acids. These are the Omega three and the Omega six essential fatty acids. Each of these molecules has a double bonded carbon atom toward the end of the long fatty acid carbon chain which characterizes such molecules. The names omega three and omega six refer to the position of doubled bonded carbons along the carbon chain of these molecules.
Carbon atoms in an organic carbon chain more commonly are joined together with single carbon to carbon bonds. Three other bonding locations on each carbon atom are left available to bond with other atoms such as hydrogen or oxygen atoms. In a fatty acid the free carbon bonds are taken up simply with hydrogen atoms. When adjacent carbon atoms in the carbon chain share two bonds rather than just one bond this bond is called a double carbon bond. These double carbon bonds are called "unsaturated" (hence the name "polly unsaturated oil" which refers to these such bonds in oil molecules). Double bonded carbons put a serious bend in the otherwise straight carbon chain of the fatty acid in the oil molecule. This bend in the carbon chain is responsible for the special biochemical properties for which the essential fatty acids are required by your body. See Essential Fatty Acids: How They Influence Health to find out more.
Essential Fatty Acids’ Very Special Unsaturated Carbon Bonds
Unsaturated carbon bonds are quite reactive compared to saturated carbon bonds. This means that essential fatty acids are relatively reactive molecules since they contain these unsaturated carbon bonds. This "reactivity" of the essential fatty acid is one of the aspects of the essential fatty acid that gives the molecule its special biological characteristics but it also means that essential fatty acids break down easily when exposed to oxygen, light and heat. The new compounds that form when such reactions take place in an oil are toxic and impart properties of rancidity to the oil or fat.
Modern oil processing methods are aimed at eliminating the tendency of unsaturated oils to deteriorate in this manner. Unfortunately, in doing so, these same technologies destroy the health promoting features of these very delicate fatty acids, and turn much of the oil into a mixture of toxic trans fats. All natural and un-refined unsaturated oils are subject (to varying degrees) to this same rapid breakdown tendency. The oil refining methods used to overcome this natural tendency of oils to break down produces an inert oil that will no longer go rancid in storage but which is no longer biologically natural either. Supermarket polyunsaturated oils are all processed in this manner and are not safe to eat (in the long run). The high temperatures involved in modern oil processing methods cause trans fats to form in oils even when hydrogenation processes are not used.
Everyone knows that trans fats are to be avoided, and that hydrogenation causes trans fats to accumulate in oil products but did you know that ordinary mass-produced corn oil and canola oil contains trans fats too? Luckily there are alternatives to the oils you find lined up on your local supermarket shelves. See the article "Buying Oils and Spreads That Have No Trans Fats" for information on how to purchase oil containing products that contain healthy essential fatty acids while avoiding those that contain trans fatty acids.
Essential Fatty Acids Need to Be Balanced…
The health implications of essential fatty acids are only just starting to be understood. Serious deficiencies of omega three fatty acids exist in Western populations. Today you can see products popping up all over the market which claim that they provide this essential fatty acid. Such products may or may not be useful. In most cases they are not. The body requires a balance of un-damaged omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, on the one hand, and it needs to be relieved of the burden of damaged trans fatty acids on the other hand. Food product producers seldom understand how to accomplish this using current oil processing methods. Unfortunately, since the currently accepted oil processing techniques are so very damaging to unsaturated fatty acids, just because an oil starts out it’s journey in the factory in an oil seed or nut as an intact essential fatty acid, it does not follow that the oil is still composed of healthy un-damaged essential fatty acids once it has been processed. Products which are labelled as containing omega 3 oils may not be safe. Due to lack of understanding as to the sources of trans fats in modern food oil products in most cases they contain trans fats even though they are often labeled as being "trans fat free". Only the genuinely "cold pressed" and " unrefined" oils are truly safe at this point. To date, such oils are only to be found in health food stores. Understanding how saturated and unsaturated fatty acids as well as the damaged "trans" fatty acids are created, and how they all interact in our bodies at the cellular level will make it easy to find and put to use healthful fats and oils. Chances are overwhelmingly likely that your body is suffering a deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids and an over-sufficiency of omega 6 fatty acids. The ratio of these two fatty acids in the North American diet is massively out of whack. The articles in this series aim at shining some light on this matter.