Bull Vet Inst Pulawy 57, 135-139, 2013
FATTY ACID PROFILE OF MILK - A REVIEW
MARIA MARKIEWICZ-KĘSZYCKA, GRAŻYNA CZYŻAK-RUNOWSKA1,
PAULINA LIPIŃSKA, AND JACEK WÓJTOWSKI1
Department of Animal Sciences,
Institute of Genetics and Animal Breeding of the Polish Academy of Sciences,
05-552 Jastrzębiec, Poland
1 Department of Small Mammals Breeding and Raw Materials of Animal Origin,
Poznan University of Life Sciences, 62-002 Suchy Las, Poland
Received: December 12, 2012 Accepted: May 4, 2013
The article describes the recent data dealing with the fatty acid content in cow, goat, and sheep milk. A large body of
evidence demonstrates that fatty acid profile in goat and sheep milk was similar to that of cow milk. Palmitic acid was the most
abundant in milk. Goat milk had the highest C6:0, C8:0, and C10:0 content. Sheep milk was the richest source of conjugated linoleic
acid and α-linolenic acid. Ewe’s milk had lower value of n-6/n-3 then goat and cow milk.
Key words: ruminants, milk, fatty acids, human diet.
Milk and milk products are well balanced
nutritious food in human diet. The premium nutritional
quality of dairy products is highly correlated with milk
fat quality and concerns: high concentration of fat
soluble vitamins and n-3 fatty acids, as well as high
content of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Moreover,
milk fat influences processing of raw material and is a
carrier of taste and aroma. The proportion of fat in cow’s
milk is typical - 3.3%-4.4% (14, 32, 33). Goat’s and
ewe’s milk contains approx. 3.25%-4.2% and 7.1% of
fat, respectively (6, 12, 13, 35). The concentration of fat
in milk depends on factors such as: breed, nutrition,
individual traits, and period of lactation.
The purpose of the paper is to review the
specific characteristics of fatty acid profile of cow, goat,
and sheep milk with an emphasis on health benefits for
human organism, as well as milk fat modification
methods enhancing content of unsaturated fatty acids in
Cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and
diabetes are collectively responsible for more than 80%
of the disease-related mortality in the United States (2).
Lipids play a critical role in all of these diseases, and the
relative amounts and types of dietary lipids consumed
are believed to be of a critical importance.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids. Until now, it was
believed that due to a lack of appropriate enzymes
mammals may not synthesise de novo two
polyunsaturated fatty acids: α-linolenic acid (ALA) from
the n-3 family and linoleic acid (LA) from the n-6
family, thus they were labelled essential fatty acids
(EFA). Nowadays, it has been found that the term EFA
applied solely to ALA and LA is inadequate (7). It was
discovered that ALA and LA may be formed in the
human organism from hexadecatrienoic acid C16:3 and
hexadecadienoic acid C16:2 (7). Moreover, most of the
effects of EFAs result from their transformation into
Human diet in developed countries is
characterised by a too low proportion of n-3 fatty acids
and too high content of n-6 fatty acids. LA and ALA
compete for the same enzymatic systems. Long chain
polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) from n-3 family -
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid
(DHA) may be supplied to the organism with food or
synthesised in the organism from ALA. It was observed
that in the human organism up to 8% of the ALA in
phospholipids may be converted to EPA but only about
8% of dietary ALA was incorporated into phospholipids
(10). Nevertheless, the synthesis of DHA from ALA is
highly limited and is more efficient in infants (about
1%) than in adults (3). Moreover, this process may still
be further hindered by a high consumption of linoleic
acid, which traps an enzyme, δ-6-desaturase, and
prevents further elongation of ALA (19).
DHA is an n-3 fatty acid that constitutes the
main structural component of the brain cinerea, retina,
and semen. DHA has important functions in the
development of premature babies and little children. It
participates actively in the development of the nervous
system, in the process of vision, and in preventing
inflammations. In the elderly, it supports prevention and
treatment of senile dementia. DHA requirement rapidly
increases in the last trimester of intrauterine life, at the
time of extremely accelerated brain development (11).
The ratio of n-6/n-3 fatty acids in the diet of
most people ranges from 15:1 to 16.7:1 (28). However,
it is recommended to maintain a markedly lower
proportion of n-6 fatty acids. According to Simopoulos
(28), an optimal n-6/n-3 fatty acids ratio is specific to
different diseases. In the diet of asthmatics it should be
5:1, while in case of patients suffering from rheumatoid
arthritis and colon cancer the author recommended the
n-6/n-3 ratio of 2.5:1 (28). The World Health
Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation
Expert Committee recommended the n-6/n-3 fatty acids
ratio to be below 4 since at such a proportion a
considerable (70%) reduction in the number of deaths
caused by cardiovascular diseases was observed (25,
Results of clinical studies indicate that
increased share of n-3 fatty acids in the diet supports
prevention and treatment of cancers, heart diseases,
thrombosis, arterial hypertension, hyperlipidaemia,
senile dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, or
rheumatoid arthritis (19). Moreover, n-3 fatty acids are
used in the treatment of skin diseases, e.g. psoriasis,
acne, and lupus erythematosus.
Fish and seafood are primary sources of EPA
and DHA from the n-3 family. Most vegetables and
fruits contain LA and ALA at the 1:1 ratio, while in
maize grain, soybeans, sunflower seeds, and certain nuts
LA predominates. However, its most important sources
include animal origin products, first of all meat, milk,
Milk fat is one of the most complex natural fats
that consist of approximately 400-500 fatty acids (1).
Milk fat biosynthesis is a complex process, which
requires coordinated control of many cellular processes
and metabolic pathways that occur at various stages of
development and functioning of the mammary gland
(15, 29). Polyunsaturated fatty acids consumed by
ruminants are microbially dehydrogenated in the rumen.
In cow, sheep, and goat, milk EPA and DHA are found
in trace amounts. In cow, goat, and sheep, milk PUFAs
account for as little as ~3% of all fatty acids (8);
however, Strzałkowska et al. (34) and Mayer and
Fiechter (18) found more than 4% of PUFA in goat
milk, and Cieślak et al. (6) found even more than 21%
of PUFAs in milk of sheep fed rapeseeds.
The predominant n-3 FA in milk fat of the
majority of mammals is α-linolenic acid. Milk of sheep
and goats usually has a smaller value of n-6/n-3 ratio
and greater concentration of ALA compared to cow’s
milk (Table 1).
Monounsaturated fatty acids. Monounsatu-
rated fatty acids do not cause accumulation of
cholesterol as saturated fats do, and do not turn rancid as
readily as polyunsaturated fatty acids. Moreover, they
have a positive effect on the concentration of high
density lipoproteins (HDL), transporting cholesterol
from blood vessel walls to the liver, where it is degraded
by bile acids, which are afterwards excreted from the
organism. At the same time, monounsaturated fats
reduce the concentration of low density lipoproteins
(LDL), which when circulating over the entire organism
are deposited in blood vessels.
The share of monounsaturated fatty acids
(MUFA) is similar in sheep, cow, and goat milk fat and
may range from about 20% to about 35%. Among the
MUFA group, the oleic acid (C18:1) is characterised by
the highest content, which is typical for milk of the
majority of mammals (5, 18, 22, 27, 34, 36). Cow’s milk
is the richest source of oleic acid (24%), while its
content in goat and sheep milk is on average 18% of all
fatty acids (27, 36); however, some authors reported its
higher concentration (more than 20% of all fatty acids)
in sheep and goat milk (18). In ruminant’s milk, there
are also relatively small but significant contributions
from other MUFA such as 14:1 (about 1%), 16:1 (about
1.5%), and very desirable vaccenic acid, which is a
precursor of CLA in human organism (1.5%-5%).
Saturated fatty acids. Although a high
proportion of MUFA and long-chain unsaturated fatty
acids from the n-3 family has an advantageous effect on
human health, saturated fatty acids (SFA) constitute the
primary fat component of human diet. They are stable
substances, originating mainly from animal products. An
excessively high share of SFA in the diet may cause
chronic diseases such as atherosclerosis, heart failure, or
obesity. General dietary recommendations concerning
the reduction of SFA and cholesterol consumption have
contributed to an erroneous belief that dairy products,
particularly full-fat, may lead to coronary heart disease
The studies conducted since 2000 have
contradicted the thesis that the consumption of milk and
dairy products would increase the synthesis of LDL and
the risk of coronary disease (24). At present, it is
believed that the increased LDL blood concentration is
attributable to lauric C12:0, myristic C14:0, and palmitic
C16:0 acids, while the other saturated fatty acids found
in milk neutralise their effect since they increase HDL
Taking into account a negative role of the
C12:0, C14:0, and C16:0 acids, Ulbricht and Southgate
(39) proposed atherogenic indices (AI) and
thrombogenic indices (TI). Based on AI and TI values
conclusions may be drawn concerning fat quality from
the point of view of human diet. The results for AI and
TI for goat, sheep, and cow milk are similar and depend
on breed, stage of lactation, and diet; however, the
lowest values of these indices were for sheep milk,
which is favourable in a health perspective (Table 1).
The values of AI and TI of ruminant milk can be
improved by the administration of either olive cake,
rapeseed oil, linseed oil, or camelina sativa cake to the
diet (6, 36).
Saturated fatty acids in ruminant milk account
for 60% to 70% of fatty acids. The main SFA in milk fat
of the majority of mammals is C16:0. The fat present in
sheep and goat milk is a rich source of medium-chain
fatty acids. In goat milk, these are: C6:0, C8:0, and
C10:0 fatty acids in particular (12, 18, 27, 34).
Fatty acids profile in goat, sheep, and cow milk
Fatty acids (g 100g -1)
18:2 cis-9, cis-12; linoleic
18:2 cis-9, trans-11; CLA
18:3 cis- 9, cis-12, cis- 15 ; α-linolenic
Total fat (g 100g -1)
SFA - saturated fatty acids; MUFA - monounsaturated fatty acids; PUFA - polyunsaturated fatty acids; AI-
atherogenic index; TI - trombogenic index.
Calculated as (39): AI = (C12:0 + (4*C14:0) + C16:0)/(MUFA + (n-6) + (n-3)); TI=(C14:0 + C 16:0 +
C18:0)/(0.5*MUFA + (0.5*n-6) + (3*n-3) + (n-3/n-6)).
1Average value (16, 18, 27, 34), 2average value (16, 18, 36), 3average value (8, 20, 22), 4average value (8, 38),
5average value (8, 36), 6average value (5, 8, 20)
The share of the acids in the pool of FA
composing the goat milk fat is more than twice as high
as in cow’s milk (Table 1). A characteristic trait
distinguishing goat milk from cow and sheep milk is the
relation between lauric C12:0 and capric C10:0 acid
(less than 0.5 and more than 1 in cow milk). It is an
important indicator, as it may be used to detect
falsifications of goat milk with cow’s milk (34). A
higher concentration of C6:0, C8:0, and C10:0 fatty
acids in sheep and goat milk in comparison to cow’s
milk cause a specific aroma in milk of these little
ruminants (34, 38). Furthermore, these fatty acids may
have health-promoting effects on human health by
inhibiting bacterial and viral growth, as well as
dissolving cholesterol deposits.
Trans fatty acids. Fatty acids posing the
greatest threat for human health are partly hydrogenated
vegetable oils, being components of refined oils and
margarines, which contain high amounts of trans
isomers. Approximately 80% all trans fatty acids (TFAs)
in human diet originate from food produced under
commercial scale production conditions, while 20%
come from milk and meat of ruminants (17). TFAs
coming from these food sources considerably differ in
their position isomerism. In individuals, consuming high
amounts of partly hydrogenated vegetable oils there is a
dependence between the incidence of coronary disease
and TFA consumption, while such a dependence has not
been observed in case of dairy products (30). The main
TFAs in ruminant milk are conjugated linoleic acid and
Conjugated linoleic acid. In the last twenty
years, CLA has been of a considerable interest of
researchers. CLAs are conjugated dienes of linoleic acid.
This name refers to a group of position and geometric
isomers of linoleic acid, characterised by a conjugated
system of double bonds, separated by one single bond.
There are 28 potential CLA isomers of which rumenic
acid (C18:2 cis-9, trans-11) is dominant in milk fat.
Studies on animals indicate that CLA exhibits
immunostimulatory, antihypertensive, anticarcinogenic,
and antiatherogenic properties and promotes a reduction
of body weight (21, 37).
The effect of CLA on the human organism has
been verified by a limited number of studies and their
results are not conclusive. Mougios et al. (21) observed
a reduction of skin fold thickness and percentage
contents of adipose tissue in the organisms of
individuals consuming 1.4 g CLA/day. In these studies,
a trend was also recorded for a decrease in serum lipid
content; although only the disadvantageous decrease in
HDL level was statistically significant. Most research
reports indicate a necessity to exercise caution while
applying CLA. The advantageous effect of CLA as a
factor correcting the serum lipid profile, body weight, or
the metabolism of insulin and glucose among patients
with diabetes type II, has not been confirmed in most
cases. Investigations conducted by Tricon et al. (37) on
the effect of CLA-enriched dairy products by a
modification of diet for milk-producing animals did not
confirm their health-promoting effect.
The sheep and goat milk are usually richer in
CLA than cow’s milk, probably due to the semi-
extensive nature of the system under which little
ruminants are usually farmed (40). Several studies have
found higher concentration of CLA in milk fat of ewes
than of goats. Some authors observed the CLA
concentration in ewe’s milk as high as 2.2% of FA (16).
Usually, under the same dietary treatment, sheep milk
has higher CLA content than goat milk, what can be
explained by the differences found in mRNA of their
mammary adipocytes (40).
Milk fat improvement. Despite the fact that it
is difficult to enrich ruminant’s milk with PUFA by
changing the feed ration, still many authors observed
advantageous changes in the fatty acid profile in milk of
cows, ewes, and goats consuming feed rations rich in
green forages (5, 17). Several authors have found that
organic milk has higher MUFA, PUFA, and CLA
contents, and as a result they are healthier and have
higher nutritional value than conventional ones (5, 23,
38). However, according to O’Donnell-Megaro et al.
(23) the above difference is not enough to affect public
Stoop et al. (31) found that there is a
considerable genetic variation for fatty acid
composition, with genetic variation being high for C4:0
to C16:0 and moderate for C18 fatty acids. The
moderate coefficient of variation in combination with
moderate to high heritability indicates that fatty acid
composition can be changed by genetic selection (31).
Schennink et al. (26) found that the DGAT1 K232A
polymorphism has a clear influence on milk fat
composition. The DGAT1 allele that encodes lysine (K)
at position 232 (232K) is associated with more saturated
fat; a larger fraction of C16:0, smaller fractions of
C14:0, unsaturated C18:3, and conjugated linoleic acid.
In a whole genome association analysis, Bouwman et al.
(4) found a total of 54 regions that were significantly
associated with one of more fatty acids. Medium chain
and unsaturated fatty acids are strongly influenced by
polymorphisms in DGAT1 and SCD1. Other regions also
showed significant associations with the fatty acids
studied. This information helps in unraveling the genetic
background of milk fat composition.
Supplementation of feed rations for ruminants
with fish oils, vegetable oils, oilseeds, and other forms
of protected fats may also, to a certain degree, influence
an increase in the content of unsaturated fatty acids in
milk (20, 27), but some authors reported their negative
effect on milk flavour. Moreover, it can cause milk fat
depression and decrease in milk yield. The change of
fatty acid composition of milk can also alter the
rheological properties of milk products i.e. a
considerably softer butter. Nevertheless, in most studies,
supplementing dairy cows, ewes, and goats with
vegetable oils or oilseeds improved milk fat
composition. Milk was characterised by increased levels
of beneficial nutritional factors, including MUFA and n-
3 PUFA, and also by lower AI and TI (6, 12, 36).
The review presented the most recent data
concerning fatty acid composition in cow, ewe, and goat
milk. While there are a lot of data for FA profile of
cow’s milk, this area needs further investigations on
goat and ewe’s milk because of large differences in fatty
acid profile among breeds within these species.
Moreover, rapidly growing market for functional food
and recent findings in the physiological effects of
nutritionally desirable fatty acids, that are present in
milk, have generated the need of improved knowledge
on health-promoting effects of dairy products on human
organism, and on possibilities of improvement of milk
fat composition throughout various factors, such as
feeding regime, production system, breed, or stage of
Acknowledgments: The authors acknow-
ledge the financial support of the Project ‘Biofood –
innovative, functional animal products’,
no.POIG.01.01.02-014-090/09 co-financed by the
European Union from the European Regional
Development Fund within the Innovative Economy
Operational Programme 2007-2013.
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