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25.2: Waxes, Fats, and Oils

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    After completing this section, you should be able to

    1. identify waxes as being mixtures of long‑chain esters, and write the general structure for such compounds.
    2. identify fats and oils as being triacylglycerols, and write a general structure for such compounds.
    3. relate the physical properties of animal fats and vegetable oils to their structures.
    4. predict the behaviour of a given fat or oil when it is subjected to some of the more common reactions discussed in previous units; examples would include hydrolysis, reduction and ozonolysis.

    Key Terms

    Make certain that you can define, and use in context, the key terms below.

    • fat
    • fatty acids
    • triacylglycerols

    Study Notes

    You are not expected to memorize the trivial names or formulas of the fatty acids listed in Table 27.1. The systematic names for these compounds are shown in the tables below.

    Saturated Fatty Acids

    Table 27.1 Systematic names of some common saturated fatty acids
    Trivial Name Systematic Name
    lauric acid dodecanoic acid
    myristic acid tetradecanoic acid
    palmitic acid hexadecanoic acid
    stearic acid octadecanoic acid
    arachidic acid eicosanoic acid

    Unsaturated Fatty Acids

    Table 27.2 Systematic names of some common unsaturated fatty acids
    Trivial Name Systematic Name
    palmitoleic acid (Z)‑9‑hexadecenoic acid
    oleic acid (Z)‑9‑octadecenoic acid
    ricinoleic acid (Z)‑12‑hydroxy‑9‑octadecenoic acid
    linoleic acid (Z,Z)‑9,12‑octadecadienoic acid
    linolenic acid (Z,Z,Z)‑9,12,15‑octadecatrienoic acid
    arachidonic acid (Z,Z,Z,Z)‑5,8,11,14‑eicosatetraenoic acid

    The systematic names in these tables may be somewhat unfamiliar, but they are derived in exactly the same way as the names of the simpler carboxylic acids that we discussed in Chapter 20. You may wish to review the alkane names (Section 3.2) and the E,Z system (Section 7.5) to satisfy yourself that you understand how these names originate.

    In many older textbooks, the term “fatty acid” is used to describe all carboxylic acids, not only those that are obtained from the hydrolysis of triacylglycerols.

    Fats play an important role in human nutrition, and most people are aware of the desirability of limiting their dietary intake of saturated fats, as these compounds have been associated with heart disease. Unsaturated fats are generally considered to be much more desirable from the point of view of good health. Notice that all the fatty acids derived from naturally occurring fats have a Z (i.e., cis) configuration.

    Linoleic acid is an “essential” nutrient; that is, it cannot be made by the body in sufficient quantity to meet our physiological needs, and must be obtained from food. A deficiency in linoleic acid results in skin problems and liver abnormalities. Historically, linolenic and arachidonic acids were also thought to be essential nutrients, but recent research suggests that they can be synthesized in the body if sufficient linoleic acid is present.

    Waxes are esters of fatty acids with long chain monohydric alcohols (one hydroxyl group). Natural waxes are often mixtures of such esters, and may also contain hydrocarbons. The formulas for three well known waxes are given below, with the carboxylic acid moiety colored red and the alcohol colored blue.



    Carnuba wax




    Waxes are widely distributed in nature. The leaves and fruits of many plants have waxy coatings, which may protect them from dehydration and small predators. The feathers of birds and the fur of some animals have similar coatings which serve as a water repellent. Carnuba wax is valued for its toughness and water resistance.

    Triglycerides are esters of fatty acids and a trifunctional alcohol - glycerol (IUPAC name is 1,2,3-propantriol). The properties of fats and oils follow the same general principles as already described for the fatty acids. The important properties to be considered are: melting points and degree of unsaturation from component fatty acids. Since glycerol has three alcohol functional groups, three fatty acids must react to make three ester functional groups. The three fatty acids may or may not be identical. In fact, three different fatty acids may be present. The synthesis of a triglyceride is another application of the ester synthesis reaction. To write the structure of the triglyceride you must know the structure of glycerol and be given or look up the structure of the fatty acid in the table.

    The common fats and oils including fatty acid content are listed below.
    Fat or Oil Saturated Unsaturated
    Palmitic Stearic Oleic Linoleic Other
    Animal Origin
    Butter 29 9 27 4 31
    Lard 30 18 41 6 5
    Beef 32 25 38 3 2
    Vegetable Origin
    Corn oil 10 4 34 48 4
    Soybean 7 3 25 56 9
    Peanut 7 5 60 21 7
    Olive 6 4 83 7 -



    The higher melting points of the saturated fatty acids reflect the uniform rod-like shape of their molecules. The cis-double bond(s) in the unsaturated fatty acids introduce a kink in their shape, which makes it more difficult to pack their molecules together in a stable repeating array or crystalline lattice. The trans-double bond isomer of oleic acid, known as elaidic acid, has a linear shape and a melting point of 45 ºC (32 ºC higher than its cis isomer). The shapes of stearic and oleic acids are displayed in the models below.

    Stearic acid

    Oleic acid

    Two polyunsaturated fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic, are designated "essential" because their absence in the human diet has been associated with health problems, such as scaley skin, stunted growth and increased dehydration. These acids are also precursors to the prostaglandins, a family of physiologically potent lipids present in minute amounts in most body tissues.


    Synthesis of a Triglyceride

    Since glycerol, (IUPAC name is 1,2,3-propantriol), has three alcohol functional groups, three fatty acids must react to make three ester functional groups. The three fatty acids may or may not be identical. In fact, three different fatty acids may be present. nThe synthesis of a triglyceride is another application of the ester synthesis reaction. To write the structure of the triglyceride you must know the structure of glycerol and be given or look up the structure of the fatty acid in the table - find lauric acid.


    The simplified reaction reveals the process of breaking some bonds and forming the ester and the by product, water. Refer to the graphic on the left for the synthesis of trilauroylglycerol. First, the -OH (red) bond on the acid is broken and the -H (red) bond on the alcohol is also broken. Both join to make HOH, a water molecule. Secondly, the oxygen of the alcohol forms a bond (green) to the acid at the carbon with the double bond oxygen. This forms the ester functional group. This process is carried out three times to make three ester groups and three water molecules.


    As might be expected from the properties of the fatty acids, fats have a predominance of saturated fatty acids, and oils are composed largely of unsaturated acids. Thus, the melting points of triglycerides reflect their composition, as shown by the following examples. Natural mixed triglycerides have somewhat lower melting points, the melting point of lard being near 30 º C, whereas olive oil melts near -6 º C. Since fats are valued over oils by some Northern European and North American populations, vegetable oils are extensively converted to solid triglycerides (e.g. Crisco) by partial hydrogenation of their unsaturated components. Some of the remaining double bonds are isomerized (to trans) in this operation. These saturated and trans-fatty acid glycerides in the diet have been linked to long-term health issues such as atherosclerosis.

    Triglycerides having three identical acyl chains, such as tristearin and triolein (above), are called "simple", while those composed of different acyl chains are called "mixed". If the acyl chains at the end hydroxyl groups (1 & 3) of glycerol are different, the center carbon becomes a chiral center and enantiomeric configurations must be recognized.

    The hydrogenation of vegetable oils to produce semisolid products has had unintended consequences. Although the hydrogenation imparts desirable features such as spreadability, texture, "mouth feel," and increased shelf life to naturally liquid vegetable oils, it introduces some serious health problems. These occur when the cis-double bonds in the fatty acid chains are not completely saturated in the hydrogenation process. The catalysts used to effect the addition of hydrogen isomerize the remaining double bonds to their trans configuration. These unnatural trans-fats appear to to be associated with increased heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, as well as immune response and reproductive problems.

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    25.2: Waxes, Fats, and Oils is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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