In our increasingly health-conscious society, a new fad diet seems to pop up every few years.

One message, however, has remained throughout: saturated fats are bad.

While doctors, nutritionists and researchers have known for a long time that saturated fats contribute to some of the leading causes of death in the United States, they haven't been able to determine how or why excess saturated fats, such as those released from lard, are toxic to cells and cause a wide variety of lipid-related diseases, while unsaturated fats, such as those from fish and olive oil, can be protective.

To find answers, Columbia researchers developed a new microscopy technique that allows for the direct tracking of fatty acids after they've been absorbed into living cells.

The technique involves replacing hydrogen atoms on fatty acids with their isotope, deuterium, without changing their physicochemical properties and behavior like traditional strategies do.

By making the switch, all molecules made from fatty acids can be observed inside living cells by an advanced imaging technique called stimulated Raman scattering (SRS) microscopy.

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