A breath test for the detection of pancreatic insufficiency was developed and tested in rats. The test features the hydrophobic molecule cholesteryl-1-14C-octanoate, which liberates 14C-octanoic acid when hydrolyzed by carboxyl ester lipase (cholesterol esterase). The 14C-octanoate is absorbed passively and rapidly metabolized to 14CO2, which is excreted in expired air. The compound was administered as an emulsion of cholesteryl octanoate, triglyceride, and lecithin to rats with mild pancreatic insufficiency induced by injecting the pancreatic duct with zein. The animals had exocrine pancreatic hypofunction based on the enzyme content of pancreas at autopsy. Amylase was reduced by 97.1 +/- 1.4%, whereas chymotrypsin was reduced by 73 +/- 14%. The p-aminobenzoic acid test was abnormal at 1 wk (21.68 +/- 8.4%), but become normal at 3 months (72.08 +/- 5.8%) after zein injection. Despite this, the animals gained weight and absorbed fat normally. The 14CO2 excretion rate in the 110-min interval after feeding was significantly reduced to 60% of sham-operated animals. Peak 14CO2 collections 20 min after feeding were reduced by 75 +/- 11%. 14CO2 output was completely normalized by administration of pancreatin prior to the test meal. The results suggest that a sensitive, noninvasive method for detecting deficiency of pancreatic carboxyl ester lipase (cholesterol esterase) secretion in the rat has been developed.