Rancidification is the decomposition of fats, oils and other lipids by hydrolysis or oxidation, or both. Hydrolysis will split fatty acid chains away from the glycerol backbone in glycerides. These free fatty acids can then undergo further auto-oxidation. Oxidation primarily occurs with unsaturated fats by a free radical-mediated process. These chemical processes can generate highly reactive molecules in rancid foods and oils, which are responsible for producing unpleasant and noxious odors and flavors. These chemical processes may also destroy nutrients in food. Under some conditions, rancidity, and the destruction of vitamins, occurs very quickly.
Antioxidants are often added to fat-containing foods in order to retard the development of rancidity due to oxidation. Natural anti-oxidants include flavonoids, polyphenols, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and tocopherols (vitamin E). Synthetic antioxidants include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl 3,4,5-trihydroxybenzoate also known as propyl gallate and ethoxyquin. The natural antioxidants tend to be short-lived, so synthetic antioxidants are used when a longer shelf-life is preferred. The effectiveness of water-soluble antioxidants is limited in preventing direct oxidation within fats, but is valuable in intercepting free-radicals that travel through the watery parts of foods. A combination of water-soluble and fat-soluble antioxidants is ideal, usually in the ratio of fat to water.
In addition, rancidification can be decreased, but not completely eliminated, by storing fats and oils in a cool, dark place with little exposure to oxygen or free-radicals, since heat and light accelerate the rate of reaction of fats with oxygen.