In order to distinguish between possible fatty acid differences during lumenal lipolysis and cellular absorption, we have reinvestigated the in vitro hydrolysis of menhaden oil and its alkyl esters by pancreatic lipase. For this purpose we incubated menhaden oil or its fatty acid methyl and ethyl esters with porcine pancreatic lipase in the presence of bile salts and determined the composition of the released free fatty acids, monoacylglycerols, diacylglycerols, and residual triacylglycerols, or the free fatty acids and residual alkyl esters, respectively, by thin-layer and gas-liquid chromatography. There was significant discrimination against the delta 4- to delta 7-unsaturated fatty acids of both medium and long chain lengths during the hydrolysis of menhaden oil and its fatty acid ethyl esters. In general, the ethyl esters were hydrolyzed 10-50 times more slowly than the corresponding glyceryl esters, depending on the exact ratio of the two substrate types. None of the triacylglycerols or ethyl esters, however, was completely resistant to hydrolysis resulting in an eventual cleavage of all the alkyl esters and presumably all the primary ester bonds in the triacylglycerol molecules. Since the rate of release of the least resistant fatty acid exceeded that of the most resistant acid by only a factor of 6, it is concluded that in the presence of a large excess of lipase the liberated fatty acids would approach the composition of the dietary alkyl or glyceryl esters, as observed during lumenal lipolysis (Yang, L.-Y., A. Kuksis, and J. J. Myher. 1989. Biochem. Cell Biol. 67: 192-204).