Are You Ready for Science Writing and Communication 2017/2018?

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We are so excited about what’s in store for SWAC this year! If you are interested in writing or editing for SWAC for the 2017/2018 year, be sure to attend one of our orientations this fall. Even if you’ve contributed before, come learn new SWAC policies, meet the new executive board, and make new friends interested in science communication. There are two orientations for your convenience, but you only need to attend one.  Click on the links to register today!

 

Thursday, September 7th at 4pm  http://tinyurl.com/ybxz6sdj

Wednesday, September 13th at 12pm  http://tinyurl.com/y8kf2th4

 

Be on the lookout for more details coming to your inbox in August.

 

Sincerely,

The SWAC Team

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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: How Mirror Images of Molecules Affect Our Daily Lives

All we know around us is constructed of atoms that are connected to form molecules. The types of atoms and their arrangement can change the function and characteristics of these molecules. In some cases, two molecules that are made of the same atoms can have very different characteristics, based simply on the 3D arrangement of the connected atoms. As a result of this arrangement, molecules can be exact mirror images of each other. The characteristics of these mirror image molecules can have a significant influence on everything from the scent of fruit to a patient’s survival.

To understand the concept of mirror image molecules, we can consider our left and right hands. Both hands are made of the same components, including the palms, fingers, and knuckles, which are connected in the same order on each hand. Additionally, the shape of each hand is a mirror image of the other (observe this fact by looking at both of your hands out in front of you with the palms facing each other). However, our hands are also considered to be non-superimposable, meaning they can never perfectly line up when both palms are facing the same direction. Just like our hands, molecules can be non-superimposable, mirror images of each other. When two molecules demonstrate this relationship, they are referred to as enantiomers. Conventionally, to distinguish between these two molecules, one is labeled with the letter and the other with S (in some cases, the letters L and D are also used).

Cortney Cavanaugh

The left and right hand are mirror images of each other but are non-superimposable

With this basic overview of a fundamental concept in chemistry, we can now consider how pairs of incredibly similar-seeming molecules can differ so greatly in their function and how those differences impact our lives in a variety of ways! Though enantiomers are simply mirror images of each other, they can trigger very different responses in the human body.

The refreshing scent of citrus fruits doesn’t often bring to mind the subtleties of chemistry. Amazingly, however, a single molecule is responsible for the scent of both lemons and oranges. The next time you notice the fragrant event of your coworker peeling an orange, you can thank the molecule R-limonene for filling the room with the citrus aroma. Lemon-scented household cleaners likely contain the enantiomer molecule, S-limonene, which gives the fruit its fresh scent. Less apparent is the connection between spearmint leaves and caraway seeds. The spicy fragrance of caraway is the result of S-carvone while R-carvone is the source of the unmistakable, refreshing scent of spearmint.

The nose is not the only part of the body affected by the different properties of pairs of enantiomers. When it comes to our diets, the human body processes enantiomers of sugars differently. L-Sugars are often used in the world of diet foods as low-calorie sweeteners. The L-enantiomers of the sweet crystals are equally as flavorful as the D-enantiomers, however the body only digests D-sugars while L-sugars are left to pass straight through the body (though this efficient expulsion from the body is often viewed as a negative side effect to utilizing these molecules as sweeteners).

Cortney Cavanaugh

R-Limonene is the molecule responsible for the scent of oranges while S-limonene gives lemons their fragrance

Some food connoisseurs may argue that the effect of enantiomers on taste and scent are their most striking influence, but the nature of these pairs of related molecules also has a profound effect in medicine. There are several examples of cases in which one enantiomer of a molecule is an active drug (medication that demonstrates the desired effect) while its mirror image molecule has no effect on the body at all. In cases with more substantial consequences, the opposite enantiomer of the active drug may have an adverse effect and ultimately cause more harm than good.

When a splitting headache forces you to reach for a bottle of ibuprofen, what you are actually consuming is a mixture of both R– and S-ibuprofen. In this case, S-ibuprofen is the active enantiomer of the drug that leads to pain relief. R-Ibuprofen, although present in the pill, simply has no effect on the body. In such a case, it is not necessary to ensure that the undesired enantiomer is removed completely from the medication. However, the same cannot be said for the pain relief medication known as naproxen, sold under the brand name Aleve. S-Naproxen will cure your backache, but R-naproxen presents a danger as a liver toxin.

The subtle yet consequential differences between enantiomers of medication extend beyond that of over-the-counter pain relievers. Ethambutol is a drug prescribed to treat tuberculosis. Special care must be taken to ensure that the medication contains only S-ethambutol, as R-ethambutol causes blindness. Similarly, L-DOPA is used for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease while D-DOPA can decrease the white blood cell count of a patient and lead to an increased risk of infection, creating a new problem for the patient all together.

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Exposing patients with the wrong enantiomer of a drug can have devastating consequences

Perhaps the most infamous case of drug enantiomers causing a medical disaster occurred with thalidomide. In the late 1950s, the drug thalidomide was used in Germany as a sedative that worked efficiently to treat morning sickness in pregnant patients. While R-thalidomide demonstrated this desired effect, exposure of pregnant women to S-thalidomide caused devastating malformations in developing fetuses. The widespread use of thalidomide led to thousands of babies being born with severe limb deformities and very short life expectancies. Sadly, even medicating the women with only the R-enantiomer would not have avoided this disturbing outcome due to the fact that the body is actually capable of converting R-thalidomide to S-thalidomide. As a result of the thalidomide case, a significant amount of attention has been placed on studying the influence of different enantiomers on the body and has led to more intense drug regulation worldwide.

While some enantiomer combinations can lead to unique aromas, others have greater consequences associated with human health. In both cases however, it is truly remarkable how influential the difference in the 3D arrangement of atoms in a molecule can be. These non-superimposable, mirror image molecules have proven to be a curse and a blessing in chemistry and their unique characteristics dictate our experiences when interacting with them, even affecting our own personal health.

 

Peer edited by Salma Azam and Aminah Wali.

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How Evolution Gave Us Dragons

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Hiccup and his friendly dragon, Toothless, from How to Train Your Dragon. Credit: Brett Jordan

Whether our favorite characters are trying to train them, ride them, or simply escape from them, there is no denying the prevalence of dragons in popular culture. Dragon myths have existed for centuries in every civilization. In medieval Europe, uncharted parts of maps were supposedly marked with “Here be dragons” to designate danger and the unknown. In contrast, Chinese culture sees dragons as symbols of wisdom and benevolence. It is remarkable that such similar looking mythical creatures popped up separately in various cultures – and there may be an evolutionary explanation.

Dragons are depicted as large, reptilian-like creatures that can sometimes fly and breath fire. But why reptiles and why do they have to be so huge? It has often been speculated that some of the first discoveries of dinosaur or whales bones helped spark dragon mythology. People who discovered these huge bones, which resembled nothing they were familiar with, could have come up with a mythical creature like the dragon to explain them. However, it may not have been the curious mind that spawned dragons, but the fearful one.

In the book An Instinct for Dragons, anthropologist David E. Jones makes the case that a primal fear of predators, such as big cats and snakes, generated the dragon myth. Studies of Vervet monkeys demonstrate that they are especially fearful of three particular predators – lions, eagles, and snakes – and Vervet monkeys have specific cries they make when they spot these predators. Jones argues that this primal fear could have been passed along to humans through evolution. It is not hard to imagine our fearful ancestors combining the body of a snake with something as ferocious as a lion, and tacking on the ability to fly like an eagle, to get a dragon.

https://pixabay.com/en/animal-beast-creature-dragon-2029670/ (left) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinese_black_dragon.svg (right)

A primal fear of snakes, lions, and eagles may have inspired the creation of dragons in Western (left) and Eastern culture (right).

The hypothesis proposed by Jones is an interesting one, but has received criticism. It is nearly impossible to test and as powerful as evolution is, there is also the possibility that the myth was passed from culture to culture through storytelling. With cultures being so isolated for much of history, it would have been difficult for that to occur, but not impossible. And while their huge size would make it impossible for dragons to fly, it is not impossible to imagine that dragon myths will continue to mesmerize people for centuries to come.

Peer edited by Tom Gilliss.

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Crying Over Spilt Milk Substitutes

Milk is a staple food in the American diet that has been expanding its definition for the past few decades. Cow’s milk has been facing increasing competition from plant-based milk substitutes like almond and soy milk. According to the Department of Agriculture, Americans are drinking 37% less cow’s milk today than they were 47 years ago and not surprisingly, milk prices have dipped 40% in just the past few years. It is therefore a convenient time for the dairy industry to ask the question; if it comes from a plant, can you call it milk?

Dairy proponents don’t think so and suspect that consumers are being misled by marketing of nondairy milk, which they believe appropriates milk’s reputation as a nutritious food undeservedly. Their concerns have made it to Washington with introduction of the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which would require the FDA to enforce its original definition of milk as “lacteal secretion…by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows”. If passed, we might soon be seeing almond drink or perhaps ground soybean water at the grocery store.

(Dairy Data) https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/dairy-data/ (Image) https://www.pexels.com/photo/white-brown-cow-234791/

Annual consumption of liquid milk in pounds per person. Source: USDA ERS

It might seem ridiculous to put so much time and energy into policing the name of a product but the truth is that a label can carry a lot of power. We can see this with the clash between the sugar and corn industries. The sugar industry started seeing declining sales with the introduction of the cheaper and more stable high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar extracted from sugar cane or beets was considered natural and when products that switched from using this type of sugar to high-fructose corn syrup started promoting their products as “all natural”, The Sugar Association petitioned the FDA to define the vague term “natural”. This was happening during a time when the demand for natural products was growing and these products were assumed to be inherently healthier than processed products. Although not explicitly stated, the sugar industry wanted to exclude high-fructose corn syrup from being considered natural in order to stay competitive with corn. This clash shows that simple words carry economic power that these industries are well aware of and are willing to exploit.

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How do you take your coffee?

There are similar economic pressures underlying the semantic argument on milk but how important of a factor is a name in driving consumer choices in this scenario? Some people opt for milk substitutes for concerns on sustainability of industrial dairy operations or for animal welfare. For people like me unable to digest the lactose found in cow’s milk, the choice has already been made. Other consumers have dairy allergies, are vegan or just prefer the taste of plant-based milk alternatives. These reasons seem to be independent of any deep-rooted meaning that the term “milk” may hold in the minds of consumers. Personally, I don’t expect to stop buying vanilla flavored almond milk if it was called something else. As the sugar industry was trying to clarify the term “natural”, the dairy industry is similarly trying to regain authority over the term “milk”. However, while there was and still is considerable ambiguity over what is considered “natural”, the idea of milk is pretty clear in most people’s minds. In the fight for the niche market of what goes in your espresso or cereal, plant-based milk alternatives are catching up to cow’s milk. While it’s understandable that the dairy industry would try to mitigate losses, they might be fighting a losing battle here.

 

Peer edited by Chiungwei Huang.

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Thank you to the 2016-2017 SWAC Executive Board

The 2017-2018 SWAC executive board would like to give a big thank you to our 2016-2017 board members who retired their positions this year! The last academic year was a huge success and we could not have done it without you.

These board members worked hard behind the scenes to enhance The Pipettepen and ensure the blog is an awesome source of training for our members and information for our readers. We wish them well in their future ventures.


2016-2017 Executive Board Members

 

Deirdre Sackett: VP/Chief Editor

Deirdre Sackett

Deirdre Sackett: VP/Chief Editor

In her role as VP/Chief Editor, Deirdre ensured that all posts were publication ready and kept the blog up-to-date. She consistently coordinated with both writers and editors to edit and publish all articles.

Rachel Haake: Content Coordinator

Rachel Haake

Rachel Haake: Content Editor

As Content Editor, Rachel worked closely with the writers of The Pipettepen. She maintained an excellent blogging rotation and was an extremely value resource for authors in need of inspiration.

 

 

 

Zan Isgett: Editorial Coordinator

Zan Isgett

Zan Isgett: Editorial Coordinator

As Editorial Coordinator, Zan worked closely with The Pipettepen editors to assign appropriate editors to each piece. Even during her thesis defense, Zan worked hard with the blog editors.

 

 

 

 

 


 

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We’d also like to take this time to introduce our new 2017-2018 board members:

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Erika Van Goethem

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Richard Hodge

Photo Cropped

Sarah Vick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erika Van Goethem: VP/Chief Editor (Treasurer 2016-2017)

As Treasurer, Erika did an amazing job of handling finances and budgeting for SWAC events. She also applied for and was awarded SWAC’s first outside funding source.

Richard Hodge: Editorial Coordinator

Sarah Vick: Content Editor

We wish everyone luck in their new ventures and positions!

 

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Sunscreen: Not Just for Carolina Blue Days!

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Beach trips are a common activity during the summer months. Forgetting to apply sunscreen can ruin an otherwise perfect day at the beach.

Summertime is well underway, and you may find yourself lathering on sunscreen more often – or like me, you may forget you even have a bottle sitting in your bathroom cabinet. But, there are many reasons to keep that bottle within reach.

Sunscreen is particularly important for those with certain skin types. The Fitzpatrick scale is a numerical classification of skin types that have varying responses to sunlight. For example, type I skin is pale/fair that almost always burns and never tans, while type IV mostly tans and rarely burns. However, no matter your skin type, we are all susceptible to sunburns given enough sun exposure.

What causes sunburns in the first place? The same culprit that causes tanning– more specifically, solar ultraviolet rays that reach earth. UVA (320-400nm wavelengths) is more prevalent than UVB (290-320 nm) and can reach deeper layers of the skin, but both types can wreak havoc.  In skin cells (or keratinocytes), UV exposure induces DNA damage and increases oxidative stress. Tanning is a result of increased melanin production by skin cells (or melanogenesis), which absorbs UV rays.  The long-term effects of UV damage on our skin is also known as photoaging – irregular, spotty pigmentation, wrinkling, sagging, and dryness just to name a few. (check out this paper for more).

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UV_and_Vis_Sunscreen.jpg

Two photographs showing the effect of applying sunscreens in visible light (left) and in UVA (right). The sunscreen on the left side of the face absorbs the UV light, protecting the skin from damage, while the skin without sunscreen directly absorbs the UV light.

Sunscreen, like the name implies, blocks UV light from penetrating the deep layers of our skin through multiple active ingredients. Inorganic particulates such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are particularly effective at reflecting UVA and blue light. Other organic molecules absorb UV rays, such as aromatics. Newer brands of sunscreen include compounds such as avobenzone, Helioplex, and Meroxyl SX – all are not only safe, but also beneficial to blocking UV rays on the skin.

Something else to know about sunscreen – that SPF (Sun Protection Factor) written in huge numbers on your  bottle means something after all! Officially, it is a measure of the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays that reach the skin. For example, SPF 15 means that 1/15th of burning radiation from the sun will reach the skin assuming the correct (i.e. thick) dose of sunscreen is applied. So, if you’re Fitzpatrick scale type I skin, it’s likely that you will get a sunburn from one application of SPF 15 sunscreen while your friend, who is type III or IV, does not burn with the same application.

Here are a few tips about picking and using the right sunscreen –

  1.       According to the American Academy of Dermatology, look for a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher that provides broad-spectrum coverage against both UVA and UVB light. The FDA recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher.
  2.       Apply sunscreen anytime you go outside. UV light can still penetrate the atmosphere during cloudy days or in the winter!
  3.       Use the right dose. For an average adult, use at least 1 ounce (about what you can hold in your palm, or in a single shot glass) for all sun-exposed skin.
  4.       Re-apply every 2 hours to remain protected.
  5.       Check that expiration date. The active ingredients in sunscreen degrade slowly over time, and even though newer sunscreens have stabilizers be sure to replace your sunscreen if it’s expired.

 

Peer edited by Christina Marvin.

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How Improv Comedy Can Make You a Better Science Communicator

As scientists, we strive to communicate complex ideas to diverse audiences while seeming both confident and enthusiastic.  No wonder public speaking can be overwhelming and fear-inducing.  Could we all be better communicators if we practiced our improv skills?  

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%22If_I_Were_You%22_Live_Show_at_DC_Improv_2017.jpg

Improvisation comedy can help you learn to better communicate through thinking fast, trusting yourself, and connecting with your audience.

Six-time Emmy award winning actor Alan Alda says yes.  Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers for 14 years, where he interviewed cutting-edge scientists.  He saw so many scientists lapse into jargon-filled lectures that left the audience behind that he saw the need for scientists to be better communicators.  He started a center at Stony Brook University in New York where he teaches doctors and scientists how to talk about complicated ideas.  Alda insists that improvisation skills will not change scientists into comedians, but will teach them to communicate better by thinking fast, trusting themselves, and connecting with their audience.  

Here are some tips that Alda teaches scientists to improve their communication skills through improv.           

  1. Avoid using jargon or buzzwords.  This one seems obvious, but it is easier said than done.  Alda calls it “the curse of knowledge.”  Scientists know so much about a particular research subject that it’s easy for them to forget what it’s like to be a beginner and slip into jargon.  At the 2017 World Science Festival, Alda and comedian Tina Fey hosted a workshop where a scientist explained their research while Tina Fey held a buzzer.  Every time Fey didn’t understand, she pressed the buzzer and the speaker had to think of a new way to explain the concept.  Try this exersice with a friend or family member who isn’t familiar with your research.
  2. Pay attention to your audience.  Alda explains that improv exercises are all dependent on observing other people.  As a young man, Alda made a game of looking into the faces of people and trying to read their minds based on their facial expressions and body language.  He said this was remarkably helpful in allowing him to understand other people.  When you are able to read your audience, you will connect with them, and you can tell if they understand you.
  3. Nonsense will clear things up.  As scientists with a fear of embarrassing ourselves, we feel pressure to say exactly the right thing.  But Alda explains that much of communication is your tone of voice, the look on your face, and your body language.   An exercise he suggests is to practice your entire presentation in gibberish.  This helps you prepare to speak in public because it forces you to improve your nonverbal communication, to engage with your audience and to be more expressive with your body language.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/runneralan/12555388773/in/photostream/

    Alan Alda started the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University for scientists to learn to communicate with the public.

  4. Conquer fear through failure. Improv teaches you to abandon your fear of embarrassment.  Or maybe it just teaches you that if your worst fears come true, you will get through it and live to see another day. Overcoming your fear of embarrassment will not only make you a better public speaker, but will allow you to be more assertive.    

As scientists, we have stories to tell.  Alda’s main point is that improv can teach us to connect with our audience and tell them our story in a way that is understandable and relatable rather than spraying them with information, which will make us all better science communicators.  

Peer edited by Amanda Tapia.

 

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3D Printing: A Technology Revolution and it’s at UNC

In almost any field, particularly those in science and engineering, you encounter revolutionary technologies that promise faster, cheaper, and easier processes. Some of these advances, such as computers, social media, and smart technology, have changed the way an entire generation thinks and interacts with the world. What will be the next great breakthrough to transform the next generation? Many people believe it will be 3D printing.  Continue reading

How to Advocate for Science

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The U.S. Capitol is home to the Senate chamber (left) and the House of Representatives (right). When the flag is flying, that means that Congress is in session.

 

From the careful planning of experiments to the more mundane mixing of coffee, milk, and sugar – or milk, then coffee, no sugar – science is part of our daily lives as graduate students. In contrast, science is far from the daily thoughts of the majority of American adults. Yet, all of us come across questions of scientific interest such as, “How to manage the opioid epidemic?” or “What are the available treatments for sickle cell?” Because the scientific method provides evidence to answer these questions, scientists must participate in the policy-making process by communicating with members of Congress. Engaging with politicians and policymakers can be intimidating if you do not know where to start. Below are four ways to start your path as an advocate for science:

 

  1.       Request a meeting.

Meeting with legislators is the most effective way to advocate for science. If you are unaware of who represents you in D.C., search for your legislator on the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate websites using your zip code. Visit the legislator’s website to request a meeting using the contact form. Otherwise, write down the email, address, and phone number of local and D.C. offices. In your email, explicitly state the purpose of your meeting and the topic or issue you wish to discuss. If you are unsure how to format the letter, click here and here for sample letters.

After the meeting is scheduled, it is time to do your research! Determine if your legislator has appointments in committees relevant to your discussion. Identify the legislator’s position on the issue by browsing the legislator’s voting record on their website or by calling the office and asking a staff member. A useful resource is GovTrack.us where you can track what bill your legislator has sponsored and what legislation are currently under scrutiny. Gather relevant information you would like to add to your discussion including reports and figures.

Dress professionally for the meeting and arrive to the building 15 to 20 minutes before the scheduled time to avoid long lines at the entrance. Limit your conversation to one or two points as meetings last about 20-25 minutes. Remember to maintain a calm and conversational tone throughout. Most importantly, make the discussion personal by sharing your story on how the issue affects you and your district. Before leaving the office, thank the legislator or staff for their time and willingness to meet. After your visit, write a thank you email.

 

  1.       Write to Congress.

After your visit, send a thank you email summarizing the topic discussed. Instead of writing a long email, attach a text document with a bullet list that includes your position on the topic and what you wish the legislator to do. Staff members will likely download, archive, and refer back to the bullet list when writing letters and reports for the legislator. In addition, attach supplementary information that strengthens your position on the topic such as reports and figures. Find a sample letter here. If you did not meet with a legislator, write a short email explaining your concern on a topic and how it affects you and your district. Provide possible solutions to the problem and do not be afraid to highlight what you wish the legislator to do. Remember to include your address, phone number, and email.

 

  1.       Call, every day.

At the end of the day, staff members sort calls to local and D.C. offices by zip code and topic. The top three topics make it to a report that reaches senior staff and the legislator. Therefore, calling offices is an important and easy way to voice your position on current issues. Similar to a face-to-face meeting, limit your conversation to one or two points that you would like to make. Make the call personal by sharing specific examples of how the issue affects you and your district. Avoid ambiguity by clearly stating what you wish the legislator to do. Remember to call your district representative, two senators, and both local and D.C. offices for six calls total.

 

  1.       Get involved.

Learn more about careers in science policy and how to engage effectively with congress by getting involved in the Science Policy Advocacy Group (SPAG) at UNC. SPAG is a student-led organization that enables students, postdocs, and faculty to learn about and advocate for science policy. Use your newly-minted skills at our yearly visits to Capitol Hill and state capitol to emphasize how investment in scientific research benefits North Carolina’s economy. In addition, we visit public schools in rural North Carolina to raise awareness about the federal agencies that support research.

 

As graduate students, we must engage in the policy-making process to cement partnerships between politicians and the scientific community, and to reinforce the connection between policy and scientific knowledge.

 

Peer Edited by Lindsay Walton

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Should Coconut Oil be in Your Pantry?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/chiotsrun/5438923520

Coconut oil is actually not a healthy alternative to butter in cooking. Feel free to use it as a moisturizer though!

Maybe it reminds us of a warm beach vacation. Or sipping a pina colada. But whatever the reason, many Americans are making coconut oil a part of their diet.

But be warned– coconut oil is extremely high in saturated fat. In fact, 92% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated. To put this in context, the fat content of butter is 63% saturated fat.

As a nutrition researcher, I’ve spoken with many Americans about their diets, and lots of people are excited about coconut oil. I’ve heard every claim– it promotes brain health, it helps you lose weight…I could go on. The truth is, the evidence isn’t strong for any of these claims.

It’s time to set the facts straight. Let’s discuss two common “myths” around coconut oil.

Myth 1: Saturated fats from plants are less harmful than animal saturated fats. Many foods contain saturated fat, such as steak, butter, and–you guessed it–coconut oil. Some people claim that plant-based saturated fats are less harmful than saturated fats from animal sources. While differences do exist between plant-based and animal saturated fats, this claim is false. Saturated fats from red meat, butter, and coconut oil all contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, but they contain different numbers of each of these atoms, which makes them chemically different. But that’s where the differences end.

Let’s compare butter with coconut oil. The saturated fat in coconut oil is comprised mainly of a saturated fatty acid called lauric acid (which has 12 carbon atoms, 24 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms). Butter consists mostly of a saturated fatty acid called palmitic acid (which contains 16 carbon atoms, 32 hydrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms). So yes–the saturated fats in coconut oil and butter are different, but they actually have very similar effects on our bodies. Feeding studies show that both lauric and palmitic saturated fatty acids raise our body’s cholesterol levels, which can lead to all kinds of health conditions, including heart attacks and strokes. Additionally, scientists recently combined data from 21 studies on coconut oil and found no evidence that coconut oil should be viewed differently from other sources of saturated fat. Thus, despite the chemical differences, saturated fats have similar effects on our health.

Myth 2: Coconut oil helps you lose weight. The myth that coconut oil helps people lose weight probably comes from a study in 2008 on how the human body processes different types of stored fat. All living things store fat in two types of molecules known as triglycerides: medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). When a human, animal, or plant needs energy, these fats are broken down. The 2008 study by Dr. Marie-Pierre St.-Onge showed that eating oil rich in MCTs can increase a person’s ability to break down fat more than oils rich in LCTs, leading to faster weight loss. Coconut oil contains MCTs, so this is seemingly great news for coconut oil supporters. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find out that the science is much more complicated.

First off, St-Onge’s study used an oil that contained 100% MCTs. But coconut oil contains only 4% MCTs. Therefore, St.-Onge’s study cannot be generalized to coconut oil. And what’s more– St.-Onge published another study in 2017 that showed that small doses of MCTs do not help with weight loss in overweight adolescents.

Additionally, MCTs containing lauric acid (remember, this is the main fatty acid in coconut oil) are heavier than other MCTs. To give you some numbers, the average weight of a triglyceride in coconut oil is 638 grams per mole (g/mol), versus 512 g/mol in other medium-chain triglyceride oils. The heavier weight of the triglycerides in coconut oil means they are broken down by the body differently than other MCTs. (If you’d like a more detailed explanation of this process, click here.) This is another reason as to why many studies on MCTs, such as the 2008 St.-Onge study, cannot be generalized to coconut oil.

Unless you’re using coconut oil to moisturize your skin, it should not be in your pantry. The science shows that unsaturated fats—like olive oil and avocados— remain the healthiest types of fat. So you can indulge in that pina colada periodically, but my everyday advice– let’s ease up on the coconuts!

Peer Edited by JoEllen McBride

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