Emulsification in Your Kitchen

When you add water to a greasy skillet, the grease forms a layer on top of the water. If you squeeze one drop of dishwashing liquid into the center of the skillet, you'll see the large grease layer immediately break up into small droplets.

Body Fat Basics

The human body contains two types of fat tissue:

  • White fat is important in energy metabolism, heat insulation and mechanical cushioning.
  • Brown fat is found mostly in newborn babies, between the shoulders, and is important for thermogenesis (making heat). Since adult humans have little to no brown fat, we'll concentrate on white fat in this article. See the bottom of this page for more on brown fat.

Fat tissue is made up of fat cells, which are a unique type of cell. You can think of a fat cell as a tiny plastic bag that holds a drop of fat. White fat cells are large cells that have very little cytoplasm, only 15 percent cell volume, a small nucleus and one large fat droplet that makes up 85 percent of cell volume.

How Fat Enters Your Body

When you eat food that contains fat, mostly triglycerides, it goes through your stomach and intestines. In the intestines, the following happens: 

  1. Large fat droplets get mixed with bile salts from the gall bladder in a process called emulsification. The mixture breaks up the large droplets into several smaller droplets called micelles, increasing the fat's surface area.
  2. The pancreas secretes enzymes called lipases that attack the surface of each micelle and break the fats down into their parts, glycerol and fatty acids.
  3. These parts get absorbed into the cells lining the intestine.
  4. In the intestinal cell, the parts are reassembled into packages of fat molecules (triglycerides) with a protein coating called chylomicrons. The protein coating makes the fat dissolve more easily in water.
  5. The chylomicrons are released into the lymphatic system -- they do not go directly into the bloodstream because they are too big to pass through the wall of the capillary.
  6. The lymphatic system eventually merges with the veins, at which point the chylomicrons pass into the bloodstream.

You might be wondering why fat molecules get broken down into glycerol and fatty acids if they're just going to be rebuilt. This is because fat molecules are too big to easily cross cell membranes. So when passing from the intestine through the intestinal cells into the lymph, or when crossing any cell barrier, the fats must be broken down. But, when fats are being transported in the lymph or blood, it is better to have a few, large fat molecules than many smaller fatty acids, because the larger fats do not "attract" as many excess water molecules by osmosis as many smaller molecules would.

In the next section, we'll look at how fat is stored in your body.