Serum nonesterified fatty acids have utility as dietary biomarkers of fat intake from fish, fish oil, and dairy in women

J Lipid Res. 2020 Jun;61(6):933-944. doi: 10.1194/jlr.D120000630. Epub 2020 Mar 31.


Nutritional studies rely on various biological specimens for FA determination, yet it is unclear how levels of serum NEFAs correlate with other circulating lipid pools. Here, we used a high-throughput method (<4 min/sample) based on multisegment injection-nonaqueous capillary electrophoresis-mass spectrometry (MSI-NACE-MS) to investigate whether specific serum NEFAs have utility as biomarkers of dietary fat intake in women. We first identified circulating NEFAs correlated with long-term/habitual food intake among pregnant women with contrasting dietary patterns (n = 50). Acute changes in serum NEFA trajectories were also studied in nonpregnant women (n = 18) following high-dose (5 g/day) fish oil (FO) supplementation or isoenergetic sunflower oil placebo over 56 days. In the cross-sectional study, serum ω-3 FAs correlated with self-reported total ω-3 daily intake, notably EPA as its NEFA (r = 0.46; P = 0.001), whereas pentadecanoic acid was associated with full-fat dairy intake (r = 0.43; P = 0.002), outcomes consistent with results from total FA serum hydrolysates. In the intervention cohort, serum ω-3 NEFAs increased 2.5-fold from baseline within 28 days following FO supplementation, and this increase was most pronounced for EPA (P = 0.0004). Unlike for DHA, circulating EPA as its NEFA also strongly correlated to EPA concentrations measured from erythrocyte phospholipid hydrolysates (r = 0.66; P = 4.6 × 10-10) and was better suited to detect dietary nonadherence. We conclude that MSI-NACE-MS offers a rapid method to quantify serum NEFAs and objectively monitor dietary fat intake in women that is complementary to food-frequency questionnaires.

Keywords: capillary electrophoresis; high-throughput assay; lipid metabolism; mass spectrometry; maternal health; metabolism; nutrition; omega-3; pregnancy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Dairy Products / analysis*
  • Dietary Fats / metabolism*
  • Dietary Supplements*
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified / blood*
  • Female
  • Fish Oils / analysis*
  • Fishes*
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy


  • Biomarkers
  • Dietary Fats
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified
  • Fish Oils

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