Measurement of Circulating Phospholipid Fatty Acids: Association between Relative Weight Percentage and Absolute Concentrations.

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Volume 35, Issue 7, p.647-656 (2016)


OBJECTIVE: Most epidemiologic studies of circulating phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) and disease risk have used the relative concentration (percentage of total) of each fatty acid as the measure of exposure. Using relative concentrations, the total of all fatty acids is summed to 100% and thus the values of individual fatty acid are not independent. This has led to debate, along with the suggestion to use absolute concentrations of fatty acids. We aimed to examine the relationship between relative (weight percentage) and absolute (mg/L) concentrations of individual circulating PLFAs. METHODS: Relative and absolute concentrations of 41 circulating PLFAs were measured by gas chromatography in samples from 3 diverse populations. Correlations between the relative and absolute concentrations for each fatty acid were used to measure agreement. Unadjusted correlations and correlations adjusting absolute PLFA concentrations for total cholesterol were calculated. RESULTS: Unadjusted correlations between relative and absolute concentrations, as well as correlations adjusting absolute PLFA concentrations for total cholesterol, were high for most PLFAs in all 3 studies. Across the 3 studies, 28 of the 41 analyzed PLFAs had unadjusted correlations > 0.6 and 39 had adjusted correlations > 0.6. CONCLUSIONS: Choice of relative vs absolute concentration may not affect interpretation of results for most circulating PLFAs in studies of association between individual PLFAs and disease outcomes, especially if a covariate reflecting total lipids, such as total circulating cholesterol, is included in the model. However, for fatty acids, such as 16:0 (palmitic acid), with low correlation between the 2 metrics, using relative vs absolute concentration may lead to different inferences regarding their association with the outcome. Because both concentrations could be obtained simultaneously from the same laboratory assay, use of both metrics is warranted to better understand PLFA-disease relationships.