Erucic acid is a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid. It is known as monounsaturated because it has only one double-bonded carbon atom in its fatty acid chain. The term omega-9 refers to a group of fatty acids, including erucic and oleic acid, which have their double carbon bond occurring at the ninth position from the end of their acid chains. This is known as the n-9 position.
Major sources of this acid include rapeseed, mustard seed, and wallflower seed. In all of these plants, erucic acid constitutes 40 to 50% of their oils. Ingestion of large amounts of this acid have been linked to heart damage. Due to health concerns, a strain of rapeseed known as canola, which had low acid volume, was developed.
There are still two strains of rapeseed currently being cultivated. One is low erucic acid rapeseed (LEAR), and the other is high erucic acid rapeseed (HEAR). LEAR is used in food production and HEAR is primarily used to create a slip agent for plastics production.
This acid is not soluble in water, but does dissolve in methanol and ethanol. It is used to make a wide range of chemicals. Products produced using erucic acid include lubricants, cosmetics, nylon, and polyester. It is also a component in bio-diesel, a vegetable-based fuel source.
The term 'erucic' is from the Latin eruca. This is a genus of plants from the family Brassicaceae, all of which flower. This acid is found naturally in many green plants of this family, in addition to rapeseed and mustard seed. Kale, brussel sprouts, and broccoli are also all natural sources of the acid.
Studies have shown that large amounts of erucic acid fed to animals can result in fat deposits infiltrating their heart walls. For this reason, oils high in this acid are no longer used for cooking in many parts of the world. The European Union has banned the use of mustard oil for cooking food products. More recent scientific data suggests that potential damage done to the heart by this acid may be transient rather than permanent.
A mixture of two fatty acids, erucic and oleic, were used to create Lorenzo's oil, which is used to treat adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). ALD is an inherited disorder that causes adrenal gland failure, brain damage, and death. The triglyceride forms of these two acids, in a four-to-one ratio of oleic to erucic acid, were used to treat young Lorenzo Odone in the 1980s. In long term studies, Lorenzo's oil has been shown to have positive effects for suffers of the disease.