BCFA - Gut Health, Immunity, Cancer | Branched-Chain Fatty Acids! What Are They? What Are They Good For? And From Which Foods & Beverages in Your Diet Can You Get Them?

Looking for BCFAs? Look no further, they are right here in all your dairy and other ruminant products.
No, I am neither mad, nor did I produce another major typo, when I wrote "BCFA" in the headline. Although they may have some structural familiarity to BCAAs, BCFAs are the branched-chain variety of fatty, not amino acids.

In view of the fact that I assume that only very few of them will have heard about these hitherto extremely underresearched lipds, I am going to put the cart before the horse and break the news right away. According to recent studies from the Cornell University it's not unlikely that these BCFAs are similarly essential to optimal health as their amino acid comrades.
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If you look at a recent study by Ran-Ressler et al. (2011), for example, you will see that the substitution of 20% the regular fat in a "rodent formula" with this special type of fatty acids lead to significant alterations in the gastrointestinal microbial.

As a diligent SuppVersity reader you will obviously know that the analysis of the bacterial composition of our intestines is one of the hottest and in my humble opinion most exciting topics in medical science, these days. Based on what you've read here about the gut microbiome and its effects on our endocrine, immune and metabolic health  (lean more), you will thus not be surprised that Ran-Ressler et al. report that the said change in the bacterial ecology towards organisms that use BCFA led to significant reductions necrotising enterocolitis in neonatal rodents.
Figure 1: The IHC images of IL-10 in healthy ileal sections from DF, Control, and BCFA pups confirm that the provision of BCFAs will ramp up the beneficial immune defenses of the gut lining (Ran-Ressler. 2011)
Eleven and seven years before, Yang et al. (2000) and Wongtangtintharn (2004) had been able to show that BCFA induce apoptosis in human breast cancer cells, and inhibit tumour growth in cultured cells and in a mouse model. As Ran-Ressler et al. rightly point out in their latest study on the matter,
"[t]hese data all point to previously neglected nutritional properties of BCFA that may be important for the development and maintenance of the microbiota, enterocyte health, skin and possibly other function." (Ran-Ressler. 2014)
In that, the reference to skin health, could be of particular interest for people suffering from psoriasis. BCFAs are after all a major, yet variable constituent of healthy skin, and the vernix caseosa, the unique waxy white substance coating the skin of term newborns, with their concentrations being about 29 wt% (Ran-Ressler. 2008). Even in human mother's milk 0.1-0.2% of the fat content is made up of branched-chained fatty acids (diet dependent - high dairy intake, high BCFA; cf. Li. 2009).

Up to now it has yet not been clear how much of these allegedly highly beneficial fatty acids we are actually consuming. Since milk is supposed to be one of the major dietary sources of BCFA, scientists have used a representative sampling of retail milk in the USA along with the reports for BCFA consumption from beef to estimated the intake of BCFA from cheese and beef food products in the American diet. Whether the value, i.e .400 mg/d, Ran-Ressler et al. present in the introduction to their latest paper is accurate or not has yet long been questionable.
BCFAs are lost during food processing, but "grass fed" does not matter: As with almost all the good stuff in foods, the BCFA content of various foods is likewise significantly reduced during processing (Ran-Ressler. 2011). On the other hand, data from a 2004 study by Elgersma et al. would suggest that buying grass fat is - in contrast to the situation for omega-3s - not an advantage. There was after all no difference between the BCFA content during the grass- vs. silage-fed period in said study (Elgersma. 2004). What rather appears to matter, is a high fiber content (high fiber high BCFA; cf. Patel. 2013)
The corresponding calculations were after all based on retail milk and did not take into account the BCFA profiles or the increase or loss in total BCFA concentrations due to, for instance, fermentation or processing methods (Ran-Ressler. 2011).
Figure 2: Estimated mean daily branched chain fatty acids (BCFA) consumption per capita in the US, based on actual and recommendeda consumption of milk, cheese, and beef; (a) USDA recommendation (Ran-Ressler. 2011)
Still, as the data in Figure 2 already suggests, dairy lovers are (as so often) at an advantage and that does not necessarily change. You just have to take a cursory look at the left column of Table 1 to see: If there are health advantages to a high intake of branch-chain fatty acids, vegans are missing out big time!
Table 1: Estimated per capita intake of branched-chain fatty acids (BCFA) from the dairy and protein food groups in the
US population; *based on FDA data according to Ran-Ressler. 2011
If you look closely, you will realize: Tuna is in fact the only non-dairy contribution to the average Americans BCFA consumption (with "chocolate" being analyzed as a whole, you can safely assume that the 5.7mg/day Mr. Average US Joe gets from the latter is from the milk in "milk chocolate").
What exactly could BCFA be good for? Primarily gut health and immunity - especially in newborns and likely other people with a "weak" blood-gut barrier (Ran-Ressler. 2011). Along with the higher gastric cancer risk the low BCFA levels in African Americans would also suggest that they could protect you from gastric cancer (Ou. 2012). Their ability to activate the "short chain fatty acid (SCFA) receptor" GPR41 (Xiong. 2004), which has been implicated in the anti-obesity + pro-gut health effects of SFCAs would even suggest beneficial metabolic downstream effects. But alas, until we have more reliable evidence from human studies, most of this is mere speculation.
Bottom line: Overall, the previously cited assumption was thus pretty accurate. In spite of being based on milk only. And I mean, if all the BCFAs come from dairy, what else did you expect? It's also interesting to note that - despite an overall low intake - the amount of BCFAs (~500mg) in the average American diet still exceeds the amount of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA (~100mg).

What both EPA+DHA and the BCFAs could have in common, though, is that their potential role in health and disease has long been overlooked. With their proven beneficial effects on the expression of anti-inflammatory cytokines in an animal model, it does even seem likely that the branch-chain fatty acids could exert similar beneficial effects as the long-chain omega-3s do, yet with an emphasis on the gut. As Ran-Ressler et al. point out in their latest paper, this is why "their intake in the population becomes relevant" and "their bioactivity strongly suggest that the effects of BCFA on health should be studied" (Ran-Ressler. 2014).

Notwithstanding the positive evidence researchers like Ran-Ressler et al. have accumulated over the past decade. There is still way too little reliable evidence to suggest buying a product that was based on one of the patents I found, when I was digging for further information... but I will obviously let you know as soon as there is more than just boastful claims in patent specifications.
  • Elgersma, Anjo, et al. "Quick changes in milk fat composition from cows after transition from fresh grass to a silage diet." Animal feed science and technology 117.1 (2004): 13-27.
  • Li, Jing, et al. "Evaluating the trans fatty acid, CLA, PUFA and erucic acid diversity in human milk from five regions in China." Lipids 44.3 (2009): 257-271.
  • Ou, Junhai, et al. "Association between low colonic short-chain fatty acids and high bile acids in high colon cancer risk populations." Nutrition and cancer 64.1 (2012): 34-40.
  • Patel, M., E. Wredle, and J. Bertilsson. "Effect of dietary proportion of grass silage on milk fat with emphasis on odd-and branched-chain fatty acids in dairy cows." Journal of dairy science 96.1 (2013): 390-397.
  • Ran-Ressler, Rinat R., et al. "Branched chain fatty acids reduce the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis and alter gastrointestinal microbial ecology in a neonatal rat model." PloS one 6.12 (2011): e29032.
  • Ran-Ressler, R. R., et al. "Branched chain fatty acid content of United States retail cow’s milk and implications for dietary intake." Lipids 46.7 (2011): 569-576.
  • Ran-Ressler, Rinat R., et al. "Branched-Chain Fatty Acids in the Neonatal Gut and Estimated Dietary Intake in Infancy and Adulthood." (2013): 133-143. 
  • Ran-Ressler, R.R., et al. "Branched-chain fatty acid content of foods and estimated intake in the USA." British Journal of Nutrition (2014). Ahead of Print.
  • Xiong, Yumei, et al. "Short-chain fatty acids stimulate leptin production in adipocytes through the G protein-coupled receptor GPR41." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101.4 (2004): 1045-1050.
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