Should the pharmacological actions of dietary fatty acids in cardiometabolic disorder be classified based on biological or chemical function? By Brown and Poudyal. 1


Conventionally, fatty acids are always identified by their chemical structure. However in their recent review, Brown & Poudyal argued that using chemical structures to identified fatty acids seem not a very useful and accurate means. This they argued is especially true when discussing and describing the impact of fatty acids on metabolic syndrome. They raised this issue since it is known for certain that fatty acids and carbohydrates (sugar) play a very significant role in the development of metabolic syndrome.  The complexity of fatty acids is such that a structurally similar fatty acid from the same class can elicit different physiological response in humans. Even from the perspective of a medical professionals, the current classification is rarely easy to understand, let alone explaining various responses of fatty acid in diet and predict health outcomes.   Thus, it is imperative to have a simpler way of designating these fatty acids without generalizing their effects on diets. Hence, Brown & Poudyal have proposed a new classification for fatty acids, which are no longer based on their chemical structure but on their biological activity in humans.


The authors pointed out that by having a classification based on biological activities, it would be more fatty acid specific and easy to categorize. More importantly, it would be able to eliminate all forms of generalization among the various fatty acid groups.

This proposed shift from conventional classification of fatty acids based on chemical structure to their biological activities would possibly create a better understanding about fatty acids and human nutrition. However, it will not solve all the problems about the human diet and it could also create new issues.  Having said all that, it could be a positive step forward for nutritionist and those who are involved in formulating dietary recommendations if this new proposal takes into account available current science, without discriminating against any particular fatty acid or sources of oils and fats.

Unlike conventional classification, this proposal, takes into account the impact of individual fatty acids on risk factors, evaluated from various studies in making any decision or recommendation. This could pose new challenges in other areas such as food legislation and nutrition labelling whereby such comprehensive information may not be available and forthcoming. Ideally any new classification should be such, so that it may be incorporated into current international food legislations and guidelines with minimum fuss. This is important as food legislation and nutrition labelling involves multi country stakeholders. Under the new proposal, food labelling could be an area of concern as there are possibilities that this may not be compatible with the current legislation. If that is the case, stakeholders will have to make the necessary changes to the current guidelines. This can be overcome but it could take a long time.

The new proposed classification is quite detailed in its approach as it looks at every aspect of fatty acid’s impact on cardiovascular risk. This is certainly a new format which would require some degree of learning curve. Therefore, there would be a lot of new information to digest and understand by nutritionists, dieticians and those who are involve with formulating dietary guidelines. It will be a much steeper learning curve for consumers and the general public as this new proposal is more complex compared to the current structural classification. The worst case scenario is that it could cause more confusion than create a better understanding among the general public.

  1. H. Poudyal, L. Brown. Should the pharmacological actions of dietary fatty acids in cardiometabolic disorder be classified based on biological or chemical function. Progress in Lipid Research 59(2015) 172-200


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