Fatty Acid Analysis of Emu Oil
Margaret C. Craig-Schmidt, Ph.D. Amanda
Paul C. Smith, D.V.M., Ph.D. Auburn
Emu oil has
recently received attention for its possible therapeutic and cosmetic
benefits. The oil of the emu has
been used for medicinal purposes by the Aborigines of Australia
for many years and is currently being used in the cosmetic industry for its
protective and softening effects of the skin. The exact mechanism by which emu oil
exerts these effects is not known.
Because several fatty acids are known to have potent physiological
effect, it is important to characterize emu oil with respect to its fatty
Fatty acids are
classified according to chain length and by the number of double bonds, or
points of unsaturation, in the chain. For example, palmitic
acid is a fatty acid with sixteen carbons and no double bonds; thus in
scientific nomenclature it is abbreviated as “16.0”. Because this fatty acid contains no
double bonds, it is termed a “saturated” fatty acid. Fatty acids with one double bond (one
point of unsaturation) are called
“monounsaturated” fatty acids, and those with two or more double bonds are
called “polyunsaturated” fatty acids.
Oleic acid or 18:1 is a common monounsaturated fatty acid, and linoleic acid or 18:2 is a common polyunsaturated fatty
acid. Any natural fat contains a
mixture of all three types of fatty acids attached to a glycerol
“backbone”. These compounds are
called triglycerides. If a fat contains
triglycerides made up of mostly saturated fatty acids, such as palmitic acid, then this fat is called a saturated fat.
The health effects of different types of
fatty acids are well established.
For example, saturated fat in the diet is known to raise blood
cholesterol, but monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are known to
lower blood cholesterol levels and thus reduce one’s risk for
cardiovascular disease. Some
polyunsaturated fatty acids are called “essential fatty acids” because they
are necessary for the proper functioning of the body yet cannot be made by
the body. Humans must get these
fatty acids from dietary sources.
Linoleic acid (18:2), an essential fatty acid for humans, is
converted to arachidonic acid (20:4) which serves
as a precursor for the powerful hormone-like compounds called “eicosanoids”. Eicosanoids serve normal functions in the body;
however, they are produced in excessive amounts in some disease states such
as arthritis. Concentrations of eicosanoids in the body can be manipulated by drugs
(such as aspirin), by the type of fat in the diet, and in some cases, by
fat administered in a topical manner.
Because there are no published scientific
studies which have reported the fatty acid composition of emu oil, a study was
undertaken at Auburn
characterize the fatty acid composition of emu oil. The results from this investigation help
to explain the properties and possible benefits of emu oil.
Ten samples of emu fat/oil were analyzed
by gas chromatography. Two of these
were rendered samples. All but one
sample was taken from the fat depot on the back of the animal; the single
sample was taken from the abdomen.
All samples were obtained from animals in the Southeastern
Results indicated that emu oil is highest
in monounsaturated fatty acids, with lower amounts of saturated and
polyunsaturated fatty acids (Figure 1).
Oleic acid (18:1) was found to be the major monounsaturated fatty
acid in emu oil, comprising over 40% of the total fatty acids (Figure
2). Much smaller amounts (less than
5%) of the palmitoleic acid (16:1) were found.
Major saturated fatty acids in emu oil
were palmitic acid (16:0) which comprised
approximately 20% of total fatty acids and stearic
acid (18:0) at 8%. Linoleic acid
(18:2) at 20% of the total was the primary polyunsaturated fatty acid were observed.
approximately 70% of the fatty acids in emu fat are unsaturated. This composition is consistent with
current recommendations for a “heart healthy” diet. The monounsaturated fatty acid, oleic
acid, is the major fatty acid in emu oil.
This fatty acid is a known enhancer for transport of bioactive
compounds into the skin, and thus, the fatty acid compositions consistent
with emu oil being very penetrating.
This aspect of the oil is being investigated in a second phase of
Editors Note: Emu
oil research dates back to 1987.
However, most studies have been proprietary. No emu oil analysis has been reported in
medical of scientific journals.
Research Committee sponsored this for public analysis. The results will be published in
Highlight of Agricultural Research, an Auburn University
publication, as well as scientific journals.