Triglycerides - What are Triglycerides?

Triglyceride (triacylglycerol, TAG or triacylglyceride) is an ester composed of a glycerol bound to three fatty acids. It is the main constituent of vegetable oil and animal fats.

Most of the fats digested by humans are triglycerides. Triglycerides are formed from a single molecule of glycerol, combined with three molecules of fatty acid. The glycerol molecule has three hydroxyl (OH-) groups. Each fatty acid has a carboxyl group (COOH-). In triglycerides, the hydroxyl groups of the glycerol join the carboxyl groups of the fatty acid to form ester bonds.

The enzyme pancreatic lipase acts at the ester bond, hydrolysing the bond and "releasing" the fatty acid. In triglyceride form, lipids cannot be absorbed by the duodenum. Fatty acids, monoglycerides (one glycerol, one fatty acid) and some diglycerides are absorbed by the duodenum, once the triglycerides have been broken down.

Chain lengths of the fatty acids in naturally occurring triglycerides can be of varying lengths, but 16, 18 and 20 carbons are the most common. Natural fatty acids found in plants and animals are typically composed only of even numbers of carbon atoms due to the way they are bio-synthesised from acetyl CoA. Bacteria, however, possess the ability to synthesise odd- and branched-chain fatty acids. Consequently, ruminant animal fat contains odd numbered fatty acids, such as 15, due to the action of bacteria in the rumen.

Most natural fats contain a complex mixture of individual triglycerides. Because of this, they melt over a broad range of temperatures. Cocoa butter is unusual in that it is composed of only a few triglycerides, one of which contains palmitic, oleic, and stearic acids, in order of concentration.

Further Reading


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