The gastrointestinal handling and metabolic disposal of [1-13C]palmitic acid, [1-13C]stearic acid and [1-13C]oleic acid administered within a lipid–casein–glucose–sucrose emulsion were examined in normal healthy women by determining both the amount and nature of the 13C label in stool and label excreted on breath as 13CO2. The greatest excretion of 13C label in stool was in the stearic acid trial (9.2 % of administered dose) whilst comparatively little label was observed in stool in either the palmitic acid (1.2 % of administered dose) or oleic acid (1.9 % of administered dose) trials. In both the palmitic acid and oleic acid trials, all of the label in stool was identified as being present in the form in which it was administered (i.e. [13C]palmitic acid in the palmitic acid trial and [13C]oleic acid in the oleic acid trial). In contrast, only 87 % of the label in the stool in the stearic acid trial was identified as [13C]stearic acid, the remainder was identified as [13C]palmitic acid which may reflect chain shortening of [1-13C]stearic acid within the gastrointestinal tract. Small, but statistically significant, differences were observed in the time course of recovery of 13C label on breath over the initial 9 h of the study period (oleic acid = palmitic acid > stearic acid). However, when calculated over the 24 h study period, the recovery of the label as 13CO2 was similar in all three trials (approximately 25 % of absorbed dose). These results support the view that chain length and degree of unsaturation may influence the gastrointestinal handling and immediate metabolic disposal of these fatty acids even when presented within an emulsion.