Milk Lipids - Chemical Properties

The fat content of milk is of economic importance because milk is sold on the basis of fat. Milk fatty acids originate either from microbial activity in the rumen, and transported to the secretory cells via the blood and lymph, or from synthesis in the secretory cells. The main milk lipids are a class called triglycerides which are comprised of a glycerol backbone binding up to three different fatty acids. The fatty acids are composed of a hydrocarbon chain and a carboxyl group. The major fatty acids found in milk are:

Long chain

  • C14 - myristic 11%
  • C16 - palmitic 26%
  • C18 - stearic 10%
  • C18:1 - oleic 20%

Short chain (11%)

  • C4 - butyric*
  • C6 - caproic
  • C8 - caprylic
  • C10 - capric

* butyric fatty acid is specific for milk fat of ruminant animals and is responsible for the rancid flavour when it is cleaved from glycerol by lipase action.

Saturated fatty acids (no double bonds), such as myristic, palmitic, and stearic make up two thirds of milk fatty acids. Oleic acid is the most abundant unsaturated fatty acid in milk with one double bond. While the cis form of geometric isomer is the most common found in nature, approximately 5% of all unsaturated bonds are in the trans position as a result of rumen hydrogenation.

Triglycerides account for 98.3% of milkfat. The distribution of fatty acids on the triglyceride chain, while there are hundreds of different combinations, is not random. The fatty acid pattern is important when determining the physical properties of the lipids. In general, the SN1 position binds mostly longer carbon length fatty acids, and the SN3 position binds mostly shorter carbon length and unsaturated fatty acids. For example:

  • C4 - 97% in SN3
  • C6 - 84% in SN3
  • C18 - 58% in SN1

The small amounts of mono- , diglycerides, and free fatty acids in fresh milk may be a product of early lipolysis or simply incomplete synthesis. Other classes of lipids include phospholipids (0.8%) which are mainly associated with the fat globule membrane, and cholesterol (0.3%) which is mostly located in the fat globule core.