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Chemistry of Fatty Acids

Fatty acids, esterified to glycerol, are the main constituents of oils and fats. The industrial exploitation of oils and fats, both for food and oleochemical products, is based on chemical modification of both the carboxyl and unsaturated groups present in fatty acids. Although the most reactive sites in fatty acids are the carboxyl group and double bonds, methylenes adjacent to them are activated, increasing their reactivity. Only rarely do saturated chains show reactivity. Carboxyl groups and unsaturated centers usually react independently, but when in close proximity, both may react through neighboring group participation. In enzymatic reactions, the reactivity of the carboxyl group can be influenced by the presence of a nearby double bond.

The industrial chemistry of oils and fats is a mature technology, with decades of experience and refinement behind current practices. It is not, however, static. Environmental pressures demand cleaner processes, and there is a market for new products. Current developments are in three areas: ‘‘green’’ chemistry, using cleaner processes, less energy, and renewable resources; enzyme catalyzed reactions, used both as environmentally friendly processes and to produce tailor-made products; and novel chemistry to functionalize the carbon chain, leading to new compounds. Changing perceptions of what is nutritionally desirable in fat-based products also drives changing technology; interesterification is more widely used and may replace partial hydrogenation in the formulation of some modified fats.

Chemistry of Fatty Acids