Paying Respect to Dr. Kummerow

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dr. Fred Kummerow, the key figure behind a lawsuit filed against the FDA to get trans fats removed from processed foods and stop blaming saturated fat for heart disease, died on June 2, 2017, at 102 years old
  • Major news sources acknowledged Kummerow’s patience and resolve as he worked for decades to rid foods of artery-clogging trans fat, which experts say may save as many as 90,000 people a year from premature death
  • Trans fat, found in partially hydrogenated oil, may cause heart disease, as may the consumption of oxidized cholesterol, found in fried foods and, sadly, about 95 percent of the foods Americans eat are processed
  • It took Kummerow’s tough stance with the FDA to get them to concede that trans fats were not safe, with the caveat that unless a manufacturer could present convincing scientific evidence that a particular use was safe, they would be banned after June 18, 2018

By Dr. Mercola

As they say, patience is a virtue, and that's part of what it took for Dr. Fred A. Kummerow to accomplish what was arguably his most important work: spearheading a federal ban on synthetic trans fats in processed foods. It took nearly 50 years of what The New York Times described as his "contrarian" nature to get the job done, and it wasn't an easy task.

Kummerow, a comparative biosciences professor at the University of Illinois, died on June 2, 2017, at the age of 102. He had studied trans fats for decades — long before they were an issue in the minds of food scientists. Despite opposition and even ridicule (such as heckling by industry representatives at scientific conferences, according to his local Champaign, Illinois, newspaper, the News-Gazette1), his tenacity eventually facilitated changes in the American diet that have undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.

Perhaps it was his perseverance in working toward his goal that spurred Kummerow on to centenarian status. He started with a petition targeted toward the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2009. The agency's failure to respond led — just a few months before his 99th birthday — to his lawsuit against the agency in 2013. Two years later, the FDA agreed to start the process of banning all synthetic trans fats from food. The ban is set to go into effect in 2018.

A few brief snapshots of some of Kummerow's most pivotal moments in the fight hint at the importance of this accomplishment: He was both one of the first to suggest an association between processed foods and heart disease, and the key figure behind the FDA lawsuit, which asked the administration to simply be more responsible for the decisions the agency made that could (and did) make or break the health of consumers.

Robert Jones, chancellor at the university, called Kummerow both a "trailblazer" and "maverick."2 Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which began working toward the use of safer oils in foods in the 1980s, noted that "for many years, he was a lonely voice in the wilderness."3

What Are Trans Fats and Why Are They so Bad?

Trans fats, The New York Times explains, are "derived from the hydrogen-treated oils used to give margarine its easy-to-spread texture and prolong the shelf life of crackers, cookies, icing and hundreds of other staples in the American diet."4

If you want to get technical, trans fats are synthetic fatty acids. Kummerow pointed out that trans fats, which are not found in animal or vegetable fats, prevent the synthesis of prostacyclin,5 which studies show your body needs to prevent blood clots from forming in your arteries. The natural result, all too often, is sudden death.

Synthetic trans fats found in partially hydrogenated oil can cause heart disease, as can oxidized cholesterol, which is formed when cholesterol is heated, such as in the case of fried foods. The sad fact is, about 95 percent of the foods Americans eat are processed. The elimination of processed foods (or any foods containing trans fat) may be the single most important change you make in your diet. Here's an encouraging word: Your body can eliminate the built-up trans fats it contains in about a month.

Kummerow was the first scientist to identify trans fat as the true culprit behind clogged arteries, which for years were blamed on saturated fats (and still are, in some circles). The opposition was tremendous. Part of the problem, the News-Gazette reported, was that politics were in play, overpowering a desire for the public to be healthier as a result of governmental food policies. He was quoted in an interview:

"Professor Kummerow said that in the 1960s and 1970s the processed food industry, enjoying a cozy relationship with scientists, played a large role in keeping trans fats in people's diets."6

Kummerow told The New York Times, rather tongue in cheek, that "other scientists were more interested in what the industry was thinking than what I was thinking." Although Kummerow found a direct correlation between heart disease and trans fat consumption in women, which he called the "tip of the iceberg" after finding another disturbing link between trans fat and type 2 diabetes in women, it took another 20 years for the scientific community to acknowledge there might be something to his research.

Early Years: Influences and Opportunities

In a short autobiographical sketch,7 Kummerow outlined details of his life that offer insights regarding his early years, which undoubtedly influenced his work ethic as well as his chosen profession. He was born in Berlin in 1914. In 1923, a relative offered his father a job in a concrete block factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which ultimately helped them escape Germany's growing political turmoil.

He particularly remembered the gift of a chemistry set when he was 12, which he credited to his immediate and passionate interest in food science. Kummerow's school career followed a fairly straightforward path: Milwaukee's Boys Technical School ("because they had a three-year chemistry course"), the chemistry department at the University of Wisconsin in 1936 and graduate studies in the school's department of biochemistry four years later. He explained:

"My Ph.D. research involved identifying the chemistry of a factor in the blood (linoleic acid) that keeps the blood from clotting in the arteries and veins. This is a particularly important factor in today's cardiovascular disease research since that clotting affects the blood flow from the heart."8

In 1945, he was asked by Kansas State University to work on the technology of food storage, especially those containing fat, noting how food containing certain fat goes rancid quickly, an important observation in the throes of World War II. When the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps granted contracts to universities to work on the development of food storage methods in extreme conditions, he gained one of them, as well as a subsequent citation for his work in 1948.

Dr. Kummerow: Tenacious, Contrary and, Ultimately, Right

The citation itself, awarded at Fort Knox, was a stepping stone to his next project as a biochemist at the University of Illinois in 1950 to continue his lipid research, which he continued for the remainder of his long career. Kummerow wrote:

"In 1948, the U.S. Congress created the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and made research funds available on a variety of topics, including diet and health. The NIH was mandated to fund research on cancer and other diseases, but only a few million dollars per year were allocated for heart research until after President Eisenhower's heart attack in 1955.

With money available from NIH grants to study heart disease, I began to work in that field. The effect of cholesterol on heart disease was one avenue of study and was the one I followed. Almost everyone now has heard of cholesterol and its possible link to heart disease, with recommendations (I disagree with) to cut back on eating cholesterol containing foods such as eggs and meat, and saturated fats in foods like butter."9

When Kummerow began studying trans fats in foods in 1957 and documenting his concerns about their negative effects, he was able to show how arteries in heart disease patients literally changed in composition and developed blockages unrelated to dietary cholesterol or blood cholesterol, causing an imbalance in nutrients that can also lead to obesity. The New York Times wrote of Kummerow:

"He had been one of the first scientists to suggest a link between processed foods and heart disease. In the 1950s, while studying lipids at the university, he analyzed diseased arteries from about two dozen people who had died of heart attacks and discovered that the vessels were filled with trans fats."10

Using pigs that had been fed a diet heavy in trans fats in his next study, he revealed the high levels of plaque his porcine subjects' arteries were clogged with. In 1957, while every other scientific institution was blaming the growing number of atherosclerosis cases on saturated fats from foods like cheese, butter and cream, Kummerow published his findings about the dangers of trans fats in the journal Science. It was ignored.

It took Kummerow's tough stance with the FDA to get them to concede that trans fats are not safe, with the caveat that unless a manufacturer could present convincing scientific evidence that a particular use was safe, they would be banned after June 18, 2018. That's 58 years after Kummerow's first findings told the ugly truth about trans fats. Even now, scores of doctors and hospitals erroneously tell their patients that saturated fats are the problem.

But today, Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, is just one scientist who credits Kummerow's research and tireless activism for inspiring his own interest in researching trans fat. It led him to include the topic for further investigation as part of Harvard's highly influential Nurses' Health Study, published in 1993. In fact, Willett believes the push for the trans fat ban will save as many as 90,000 people a year from dying prematurely.

Dr. Kummerow: Perseverance and Passion

An individual as unique and knowledgeable as Kummerow had, like the rest of us, interesting quirks that may have hinted at some of the larger aspects of how his brain worked. For one, he had many interests, the News-Gazette noted. He wrote letters to five different sitting presidents, members of Congress and others he thought might be able to do something about some of the topics that weighed on his mind, such as energy, nuclear weaponry and the national debt.

In his biography, Kummerow recalled being an expert witness for several hearings before the Federal Trade Commission on the topic of cholesterol, reports made to a U.S. Senate hearing on nutrition and the biochemistry of cholesterol, co-authoring more than 460 peer-reviewed scientific papers, editing three books and writing chapters in six other books on the role trans fat plays in heart disease.

He called being made a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the American College of Nutrition, the American Society of Nutritional Sciences, the International Atherosclerosis Society, the American Heart Association Council on Arteriosclerosis, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, and the Council of Clinical Cardiology, and involvement with the American Heart Association a "recognition of competence."

Incidentally, Kummerow noted that his own diet included whole milkred meat and eggs scrambled in butter. After writing his book, "Cholesterol is Not the Culprit: A Guide to Preventing Heart Disease," published just a few years before his death, he summed up the importance of respecting how the body processes food, writing:

"How the body uses food to make what we need to keep going is an incredible, almost magical, process. We — as well as all animals and plants — are not programmed to live forever, but we can certainly increase the number of high quality years of life."11

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