In the Wake of Hurricane Florence: How Genetic Tools Can Prevent Ecosystem Damage

Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolinas

Hurricane Florence was devastating to much of the Carolinas. The flooding that ensued destroyed not only homes and livelihoods, but greatly affected animal agriculture. The effects of Florence resulted in the deaths of millions of animals and caused massive overflows or “overtopping” of animal waste, particularly from swine production facilities. North Carolina is the nation’s second largest producer of swine, and the 9.7 million pigs who call North Carolina home produce nearly 10 billion gallons of waste annually. The damages from Florence are disastrous not only from an economic perspective, but also from an environmental one.

In livestock production, lagoons are large basins primarily used for the treatment of animal wastes. Rather than simply being a collection site for waste, proper care of a lagoon involves “feeding” the lagoon with microbes that help degrade the waste into usable fertilizer. However, during massive flooding events the volume within these lagoons can quickly rise and overflow. This disrupts the waste treatment process and exposes the environment to large quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus, or even pathogenic material derived from animal wastes. According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, at least 32 lagoons have overtopped due to Florence, and another 61 lagoons have sustained structural damage or are close to overflowing.

An imbalance of nitrogen and phosphorus in any body of water contributes to a condition called eutrophication, in which excess nutrients allow for blooms of algae or plant matter. As these photosynthetic organisms flourish, they cause drastic changes to their environment. Algal blooms can be especially damaging, as many algae produce compounds which quickly reach toxic levels, algal overabundance clouds the water, and their rapid growth utilizes carbon leading to an increase in the pH of surrounding water. Eventually, algae change their own environment so extensively that they quickly die off, leading to subsequent microbial breakdown of the dead algae, which depletes oxygen. This rapid removal of oxygen then produces a “dead zone”, which is unsustainable for most life.

While nitrogen and phosphorus can be detrimental to the environment in large quantities, these are still very necessary components of any animal’s diet. Nitrogen and phosphorus are used as building blocks to produce DNA, proteins, and other compounds necessary for the growth. Therefore, agricultural production will need to find ways to provide these necessary building blocks while also preventing an excess of them in the environment. Thankfully, animal science research efforts have produced a unique potential fix!

Several years ago, researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada developed an animal designed with the world in mind: the Enviropig! The Enviropig is a transgenic animal, meaning its genome has been edited to contain a gene from a different species. In the case of the Enviropig, a bacterial-derived gene for the enzyme phytase is expressed in the pigs’ salivary glands, allowing the animal to break down more of the phosphorus in its diet. With more phosphorus broken down into a form the animal can digest, less phosphorus winds up in pigs’ waste, meaning less phosphorus contributes to eutrophication. A win for the pigs, now able to get better nutrition from their diet, and a win for humans and the environment, as we are able to produce and enjoy a more environmentally sustainable product. While the initial work on this project was put on hold in 2012 due to public scrutiny of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a team of researchers in China developed their own version of an environmentally-conscious pig earlier this year. This new animal is able to break down greater amounts of both phosphorus and nitrogen from its diet, reducing their abundance in animal wastes.

Neither animal has been approved for use in the United States yet, but they both hold enormous potential to reduce the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. While the Enviropig and similar transgenic animals cannot yet solve every environmental issue, had they been mainstream prior to Hurricane Florence, perhaps there would be less concern with regard to ecosystem health after the flooding. Natural disasters are as unpredictable as they are unfortunate and dangerous; however, genetic tools such as these could provide one additional safeguard to protect the environment and public safety for the future.

Livestock, such as pigs, can be genetically designed to help protect the environment!

Peer edited by Joanna Warren.

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Diet Soda: Providing Insight into a Rare Metabolic Disorder

Diet Coke is advertised as a sugar free alternative to regular Coke Cola, using aspartame as a sweeteners

Have you ever read the Nutrition Facts on a diet soda or sugar-free gum? If so, you might have noticed a bolded sentence that reads: PHENYLKETONURICS: CONTAINS PHENYLALANINE. In the U.S., this sentence is present on every commercially available medicine, food, or beverage that contains the artificial sweetener aspartame. Often, this warning goes unnoticed, partly because it is nestled quietly at the foot of the list of ingredients and partly because it only applies to 1 in every 10,000 individuals in the United States. Nevertheless, this subtle message is essential for this subset of consumers.


Typical nutrition facts label for a product that contains phenylanaline

Phenylketonuria  (Phe·nyl·ke·ton·uria)

Those people are “Phenylketonurics,” or people with a rare metabolic disorder called Phenylketonuria (PKU). PKU is a genetic disorder that results in the inability to convert the amino acid phenylalanine (Phe) into the amino acid tyrosine (Tyr), both essential amino acids that are found in most protein. Phe’s most important biological function is its role as a precursor to Tyr, which is involved in many processes such as the synthesis of neurotransmitters. Without the ability to convert Phe to Tyr, there is less Tyr available for the synthesis of dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (all important neurotransmitters) and Phe can accumulate in the brain, resulting in local metabolic dysfunction. PKU can result in severe developmental complications and mental retardation if left untreated. Fortunately, PKU can be successfully managed by abiding by a strict low-protein diet, avoiding foods that contain sources of phenylalanine such as meats, fish, dairy, and nuts.

Now, you might ask, “How does PKU have anything to do with the Nutrition Facts on my Diet Coke?” Good question. The answer lies in the chemical structure of the aforementioned artificial sweetener, aspartame.

Image Credit: Blaide Woodburn

Aspartame, an artifical sweetener in Diet Colas, is broken down into phenylalanine, methanol, and aspartate

Aspartame, sold under the brand name NutraSweet, is a dipeptide that contains the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame is rapidly hydrolyzed (i.e. split in two by water) into its respective amino acids in the small intestine, serving as a source of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Thus, it is important to communicate the presence of aspartame in all artificially sweetened products, especially since the products that usually contain aspartame (soft drinks, candies, etc.) are not typical sources of phenylalanine.

Yet, nutrition labels aren’t just important for Phenylketonurics. With the increased incidence of heart disease, it’s more important now than ever to understand the nutritional value of the foods you’re eating. But, do not fear! Stay up to date on some of my upcoming articles for The Pipettepen and Nutrition at UNC and Translational Science where I’ll outline the basics for healthy eating and overall wellness!

Peer edited by Amanda Tapia.

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No Fermentable Foods? Yes Please!

Created by Kaylee Helfrich

Many foods aren’t allowed on the low-FODMAP diet.

No bread. No sugar. No rice, potatoes, corn, soy, milk, onions, garlic, chocolate, processed meats, or alcohol. Is this a starvation diet or a method of torture? Actually, this is a diet with a 7086% success rate in relieving the symptoms of a disorder that is notoriously difficult to treat. This diet is called the “low-FODMAP” diet, which is short for “restriction of Fermentable Oligosaccharide, Disaccharide, Monosaccharide, and Polyols in the diet”. Thank goodness for the FODMAP acronym to prevent that mouthful of words!

The low-FODMAP diet treats a disorder called Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is characterized by stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, and general gastrointestinal discomfort. According to Dr. Miranda van Tilburg, an associate professor in medicine from UNC-Chapel Hill who studies IBS, people with IBS often have a very low quality of life. “Those with IBS frequently miss days of work and school, and anxiety and depression are very common as people worry about future symptoms and how those symptoms will impact their life,” she says.

IBS is a common disorder with a global prevalence of 10-20%. It is clinically diagnosed based on certain symptoms. Unfortunately, the exact cause of IBS is unknown, but it is thought to be triggered by multiple issues including changes in gut motility, increased sensitivity of intestinal nerves, bacterial growth in the small intestine, intestinal inflammation, and psychological factors. Although medicines exist to treat IBS, they do not always provide adequate relief and often cause unwanted side effects. Instead, a combination of diet, exercise, and even hypnotherapy often provide more relief with fewer side effects.

A large component of treatment for IBS is diet management. Tilburg points out a few well-known triggers of IBS symptoms, including spicy and fatty foods, along with incompletely absorbed carbohydrates. The low-FODMAP diet specifically addresses the latter dietary component.

What are FODMAPs, and how can a diet low in FODMAPs treat IBS symptoms? FODMAPs are carbohydrates, such as lactose, fructose, and sugar alcohols, that are difficult to absorb in the small intestine. When the FODMAPs are not absorbed, they produce intestinal water and gas. For various reasons, those with IBS often have more difficulty when consuming FODMAPs than other people.

Created by Kaylee Helfrich

FODMAPs can cause gastrointestinal discomfort via 2 methods.

The mechanism behind FODMAP-induced discomfort is twofold. First, when FODMAPs are not fully absorbed, they remain in the small intestine and attract water, which enters the small intestine in a process called osmosis. This leads to bloating as well as increased water delivery to the large intestine, which can cause diarrhea. Second, incompletely absorbed FODMAPs can be fermented by intestinal microbiota, leading to gas, which causes pain, bloating, and general discomfort.

Consequently, for some people with IBS, a diet low in these offending carbohydrates can be beneficial. In fact, six randomized controlled trials have shown benefits for IBS patients who consume a low-FODMAP diet. However, this diet is very restrictive concerning which foods can be eaten, so people can have trouble adhering to the diet if they are not properly supported by clinical guidance.

One question that many people ask is: how can someone follow a diet that cuts out virtually all of the delicious foods that are normally eaten? Although this diet is restrictive, it offers a good chance at relief for people who have usually lived with pain for years. And this diet is not meant to be followed forever. Tilburg explains that “every person’s case of IBS is unique, and every person will have different foods to which they are sensitive.” So after following the low-FODMAP diet for 2-6 weeks to reduce the food-induced symptoms, the excluded foods are slowly added back, and the patient is monitored by a dietician for adverse symptoms. If a certain food increases symptoms, then it is removed from the diet and other foods are tried instead.

Although it may seem impossible to go without your favorite chocolate cake or garlic bread, people with IBS often welcome the chance to reduce their symptoms, even if it requires a sacrifice of ice cream and deli sandwiches.

Peer edited by Alexandria Mullins.

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Cinnamon, Bam! Photo Credit:

Many of us associate the holiday seasons with the smells of cinnamon.

Well the holiday season is upon us. Our calendars and days are now filled with shopping, travel, and social gatherings with friends, family, and loved ones. As the temperature outside turns cold, we turn to many of our favorite treats to fill our bellies and help keep us warm. Our mouths water as we think about all of the delectable items that line our kitchens and tables. I can picture it now… a warm fire keeping the room nice and toasty, glass of wine in hand, friends and relatives conversing and catching up and of course, avoiding awkward conversations with Uncle Gary. All while hovering around various piles of unknown cheeses, meats, and delicious stacks of sweets. And If you’re lucky, you may even find a warm, sticky stack of homemade cinnamon buns. As it turns out, these may be just the thing to reach for to help burn off some of that unwanted extra “padding” that comes with all of those holiday favorites.

What’s that you say? Cinnamon buns burn fat? Well before you go eating the whole tray, it’s not really the cinnamon buns themselves that may help burn fat, but the cinnamon for which they are named. It tastes great, you can use it in all sorts of dishes, and it accelerates fat loss. I’m a fan of all of those things. Now, you probably find yourself asking, where can I learn more about this awesome spice? Well, look no further my friend, I am about to lay enough cinnamon-spiced knowledge on you to guarantee that you can bore your friends and family to tears with your cinnamon information stream at your holiday gathering. You’ll be less popular than Uncle Gary.

Cinnamon contains a compound known as cinnamaldehyde. Cinnamaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical found in the bark of cinnamon trees that gives cinnamon both its characteristic flavor and odor. A recent study shows that cinnamaldehyde can even help burn fat by increasing metabolism and your body’s ability to breakdown fat! I know, it’s pretty magical. Now before you go running around stabbing cinnamon trees with a spout, there’s a few things you should know. Primarily that you have to fly to Sri Lanka, which is expensive but totally worth it since it’s a beautiful tropical island in the Indian Ocean. And you can even stay at a place called Cinnamon Bey, which looks like this picture I found of it on the interweb. Pretty sweet, huh? (See what I did there!)

Sri Lanka is located off the southeast coast of India.

Anyway, the purest source of cinnamon-derived cinnamaldehyde is the Ceylon Cinnamon tree (say that several times fast while jamming a sticky bun in your face!). Also known as, the “True” Cinnamon tree, which is named after the historical moniker of its native country, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). The country still produces and exports up to 90% of the world’s true cinnamon. The other 10% comes from Seychelle and Madagascar, which are equally far and equally awesome as travel destinations. However, there are six species of cinnamon sold commercially around the world. So If you prefer the regular stuff found cheaply at most grocery stores, then you will have to head to China or Southeast Asia for the most common variant, cassia, which is considered to be less, um, “Top-Shelf”.

The cassia variant is cultivated on a larger scale and is coarser than ceylon cinnamon. It also has a higher oil content and contains more cinnamaldehyde, which gives it a harsher, stronger, spicier flavor than Ceylon cinnamon. Huh? Wait, you thought more cinnamaldehyde might equal more fat loss? You are correct my friend, but before you book that ticket to Guangdong and attempt the cinnamon challenge for the thirtieth time, you should know that the Cassia variety also contains coumarin, which is not found in the Ceylon variety. Coumarin is a naturally occurring blood thinner that can cause damage to the liver in high doses. So, take your pick, though if you really want that good, pure cinnamaldehyde, the “True” kind, then you better hustle it to Sri Lanka.

However, getting there is only part of the story. Isolating cinnamaldehyde from the bark of the Cinnamon tree is a slightly tricky process that involves some rather unsavory chemicals, the potential of explosions, and a few fancy science machines (namely a mass spectrometer) for pulling the oil out of the bark, to leave you with that tasty, cinnamoney goodness. What? You thought you could just grab a tree and squeeze really hard? No, no, no. That might work for your lemongrasses, aloes and coconuts, but not cinnamon.

Actually, I’m guessing from your weird tree-squeezing thoughts that you take Cinnamon for granted. I mean…your cinnamon disrespect is understandable, since you can buy it pretty much everywhere and it’s almost as prolific as pumpkin spice, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, until recently true cinnamon was extremely rare, since there were no planes or cars…or Amazon, well the internet really…and it only came from one relatively small island in the Indian Ocean. As such, until the 1500’s cinnamon was highly valued and was given to kings and as tribute to gods. Eventually, during the colonial period, the East India Company (the original Amazon) began distributing the spice to the rest of the world and cultivating it on a large scale.

So, cinnamon has been around forever, you say, since remote antiquity and what-not. Great. But what about this cinnamon burns fat thing? First off, settle down. We have arrived, so here’s the details. A recent study from Jun Wu at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute showed that cinnamaldehyde increases thermogenesis, which is the process the body uses to create heat. Thermogenesis can burn a lot of calories and accelerate metabolism, and that results in the breakdown of fat. In addition, cinnamaldehyde can decrease and stabilize fasting blood sugar. What’s even more interesting is that chronic treatment with cinnamaldehyde can reprogram your body’s metabolism, which may serve as protection from diet induced obesity.

Cinnamon is used in a variety of holiday treats including cinnamon rolls and apple pies.

So, cinnamon can burn fat and protect you from gaining it back! Now that is a magical spice. Well, there you go. I’m pretty sure that should be just enough information to cause awkward emotional discomfort to those within ear shot at your holiday festivities. Your shining personality may keep you from being the next Uncle Gary, but at least your cinnamon tales will have him running for the eggnog, which contains cinnamon. Bam! Take that Uncle Gary. No one cares about the length of your ear hair!

And while you’re enjoying your holidays, eating those cinnamon packed delicacies, remember the reason for the season! Be good to each other and have some fun, safe, and cinnamon filled holidays! Cheers!


Peer edited by David Abraham.

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Looking for a New Year’s Resolution? Shrink Your Plastic Footprint!

Plastics are nearly unavoidable. From the plastic bottle of water you grab walking into a meeting to the money in your wallet, plastics are ubiquitous. However, evidence is accumulating that heavy plastic use takes a hefty toll on the environment, especially the world’s oceans, which are the repository of nearly 4.8-12.7 million tons of plastic each year (about five bags of plastic for every foot of coastline in the world). Much of this marine plastic comes from litter that washes down storm drains into the oceans, but it can also be blown from landfills to end up in the ocean. Marine wildlife including fish, birds, seals, turtles and whales consume startling amounts of plastics, not only because these plastics look like dinner but because they often smell like it too. Dangers of plastics to marine animals include entanglement and intestinal perforation or blockage which can cause nutrient starvation—marine animals starving on a stomach stuffed with plastic. Researchers estimate that 90% of sea birds and half of all sea turtles have consumed plastics.

Millions of tons of plastic waste winds up in the ocean each year.

More recently, the alarm has been raised about microplastics, small plastics and plastic fibers less than 5 mm in size. Microplastics can come from the degradation of larger plastics and from washing clothing containing synthetic fibers. Microplastics act like magnets for chemicals the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls “Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic Substances” (PBTs). PBTs build up in the bodies of marine organisms and can harm us when we consume seafood. Though other potential dangers of microplastics to the environment are not clear yet, it has been shown that the decomposition of plastics can release toxic chemicals including bisphenol A (BPA),  a chemical which disrupts hormone balances and may be linked to human health concerns including diabetes, behavioral disorders like ADHD, and cancer. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia have shown that some of the same adverse health effects occur in fish exposed to BPA, indicating a risk to marine food chains and ecosystems.  It is clear that we do not yet know the full impact of plastics in our oceans—but that the dumping of plastic waste into marine ecosystems is not without consequences.

Although some solutions to the plastic crisis have been floated (excuse the pun) including giant plastic-collecting booms which collect large plastic debris in the ocean and plastic-munching bacteria, these approaches are only beginning to be implemented and have limitations. This is where we come in — preventing more plastics from getting into the ocean is an important first step. Simply recycling our plastics may not be enough: one professor of economics cites plastics as one of the least valuable recyclable items due to the high energy and resource costs of processing them. As a result, it is imperative to focus on reducing, rather than recycling plastics.

Here are 100 ways to reduce your plastic use, ranging from reusable coffee cups to making your own deodorant to avoid the use of plastic packaging—an idea that doesn’t stink. Another way to track your plastic use is to accept the Plastic-Free Challenge—a social media challenge that lets you share your commitment to reducing your plastic footprint with all your followers. A good way to get started is to keep track of how much plastic you use and strive to reduce this amount every week. If you want to think bigger than your own plastic footprint, you can call your representatives about measures like plastic bag bans in your city and about funding research for equipping water treatment facilities to deal with microplastic-contaminated effluent. This year, I’ll be making it my New Year’s resolution to reduce my plastic consumption: a small change in habits that can add up. Let’s face it, I was never going to make it to the gym, anyway.

Peer edited by Erica Wood.

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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.

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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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) (Image)

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.

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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Should Coconut Oil be in Your Pantry?

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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Whole Milk, how about that?

Many of us can still remember seeing our favorite pop singers with the perfect milk mustache on commercials for “Got milk?”. Later, in the school cafeteria, we would try to recreate this perfect milk mustache with milk provided by the cafeteria for lunch. Since those seemingly blissful times, much controversy has arisen surrounding milk and its supposed benefits.

Enjoy a glass of milk and cookies! Whole milk may not be an unhealthy option after all.

Milk has always been promoted as a great source of calcium and vitamin D– essential vitamins and minerals for maintaining health. However, the emphasis on these nutrients disregards the high fat, saturated fat, and lactose content of milk. To address these less desirable components of milk, the milk industry has promoted low-fat milk and fat-free milk. Furthermore, governmental nutritional guidelines, like MyPlate, also recommend three daily servings of lower fat options over whole milk. This begs the question: is reduced-fat milk healthier than whole milk? To bolster these low-fat and fat-free options, the sugar industry has biased the answer to this question by promoting research that minimizes the hazards of sugar, and casts fats as the dietary enemy. These influences have contributed to a negative public perception of fats, ideal for promoting reduced-fat milk—reduced-fat milk still has the beneficial nutrients, but no longer with dietary enemy number one: fat.

In 2013, a provocative scientific review, questioned whether the three daily servings of reduced-fat milk was an evidence-based recommendation. Turns out there is a lack evidence to support replacing whole milk with reduced-fat milk based on weight management or cardiovascular disease prevention. Rather, the authors suggest, that consumption of reduced-fat milk might cause harm if sugar or simple carbohydrates are substituted for the fat. The suggestion to replace whole milk with reduced-fat milk relies on the presupposition that consumption of reduced-fat milk will lead to a total reduction in caloric intake. However, reduced-fat foods tend to be less satiating which may lead to additional caloric consumption.  For example, because a snack that includes reduced-fat milk may be less filling than a snack with whole milk, a child eating the reduced-fat snack might compensate for the reduced feeling of satiety by eating more. If these compensatory calories are more than the difference in calories between reduced-fat and whole milk or if they come in the form of refined starches and sugars, the net result of consumption of reduced-fat milk may be increased calorie consumption and increased risk for cardiovascular disease. A low-fat diet, rich in low-fat dairy products, may not only increase hunger but also negatively impact weight loss and cardiovascular health when compared to a higher fat diet.

When considering the benefits of whole milk versus its reduced-fat counterparts, I consider how milk consumption fits into my entire diet. You cannot assess food items as singular entities since they are a part of whole diet; it is important to approach dietary recommendations holistically. This makes generalized nutrition recommendations incredibly difficult to make and easily influenced by entities with vested interests in having their products promoted over others. So, maybe let’s enjoy whole milk in moderation, how about that?

Peer edited by Tamara Vital

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When 2+2 Does NOT Equal 4: Dangers in Reducing Nutrition to the Sum of Its Parts

Modified from Wikipedia images and

Is dinner becoming a subset of chemicals instead of real food?

A researcher is looking at preliminary data from the CARET study when he does a double-take.  He thinks: that can’t be right- people who supplemented with vitamin A have higher frequency of lung cancer and death than people not supplementing with vitamin A. But the data were correct! People taking vitamin A were getting lung cancer more frequently. How could this happen when previous studies had suggested that vitamin A would reduce the risk of lung cancer?

The Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET) and a similar trial (the Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention (ATBC) Study) were conducted because observational studies had suggested that people who consumed more food containing vitamin A had lower rates of lung cancer and death. The CARET and ATBC research groups designed rigorous, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials to investigate if supplementation of one’s diet with vitamin A would reduce the risk of lung cancer in high risk groups such as smokers. However, both trials ended early when it became clear that vitamin A supplementation did not reduce the risk of lung cancer, but in fact may have increased the risk.

The CARET and ATBC studies raised awareness in the nutrition community that individual food components do not necessarily have the same health benefits as whole foods. These trials exemplify the concept of nutrition reductionism, which is the idea that a complicated system of food is simply the sum of its nutrient parts. Unfortunately, we still have not learned from the reductionist studies from the 1990s, and reductionist thinking is still quite common. For example, any person who relies heavily on supplements while consuming a limited diet is using reductionism instead of considering food as a whole entity.  Even when people do not consciously restrict their diet or use large amounts of supplements, they still try to meet guidelines for “good” nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, dietary fiber, and others, while trying to minimize “unhealthy” nutrients such as cholesterol, salt, and saturated fats.

Modified from:

If we take these individual components and mix them together, do we have a strawberry? Can we condense a strawberry into a pill, and will that pill have the same health benefits as a strawberry?

Is thinking about food as simple individual nutrients actually a problem? If we get all the required nutrients, does it matter in what form we consume them? Many food scientists and some nutritionists would say that the nutrients’ sources do not matter as long as they are consumed in appropriate amounts. However, there are issues with this pattern of thought. One problem is that science has not yet identified each component of all foods. For example, scientists agree that there are between 800 and 1000 different compounds in red wine.   Not all of these compounds have been precisely identified, and the compounds in each wine vary, which creates taste differences and diverse nutrient profiles. Some research studies investigate only one compound from red wine, such as resveratrol, and this reduction from hundreds of components into one component results in conflicting research outcomes. While some research shows that resveratrol benefits health by improving metabolic processes associated with aging in mice, other research finds that resveratrol has no impact on human health. And this theme is repeated many times in research, with some studies showing that individual nutrients affect health, and other studies demonstrating that the same nutrients have no health effect. Much of the resulting confusion in the nutrition sciences may result from neglecting to consider the impact of an entire food on human health.  After all, rarely are nutrients consumed in isolation, so perhaps they should not be studied solely as individual components.

In order to escape from nutrition reductionism, two things need to change- how we do nutrition science and how we view nutrition science.

Within nutrition science research, the first issue to address is research design. Research should consider turning from reductionist to “holism,” which considers the whole as a dynamic interaction of its parts and acknowledges that the system has features not contained in the individual parts. Expanding nutrition research from a nutrient-only focus to a broader view of food will require an interdisciplinary approach with integration of fields from computing to food science to public health to epidemiology and many others.

So how can we change our individual view of nutrition while still taking advantage of nutrition research? First, we can recognize that the food industry rarely produces “food,” and instead creates “food products” that are combinations of carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, antioxidants, and other components. Second, we can avoid these food products and instead choose to eat “real food” that naturally contains these components. Third, we should view nutrition research as imperfect and often too focused and understand that research frequently uses individual nutrients to declare a food “good” or “bad” without considering its properties as a whole. And finally, we can decide what to eat from this motto by popular food journalist and activist Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  While this sounds like an overly simplified solution, it at least begins to answer the question of “What should I eat for dinner?”  The answer: not isolated nutrients, but whole foods such as carrots, broccoli, peas, brown rice, and chicken that will provide both a delicious stir fry and many essential nutrients.

Peer edited by Laurel Kartchner and Mikayla Armstrong.

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