Professor Fred Kummerow passed away on May 31 at his home in Urbana, Ill at age 102. He ate butter, red meat and eggs cooked in butter, along with plenty of fruits and vegetables. He avoided margarine, french fries and other fried foods, along with cookies, cake and crackers which contained artificial trans-fats. He conducted research in his nutrition science laboratory at the University of Illinois up until his death. he authored the book Cholesterol Won’t Kill You, But Trans Fat Could: Separating Scientific Fact from Nutritional Fiction in What You Eat
Fred warned the American public and scientists in the 1950s about the dangers of artificial man-made trans fats. His research was largely ignored and criticized by the food industry and by scientists who were funded by the food industry for decades. Despite mounting evidence in both animals and humans that artificial trans fats dramatically increased the risk of heart attacks, strokes, peripheral vascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and probably several forms of cancer, the FDA ignored his pleas to address the issue. In 2009 Professor Kummerow filed a petition with the FDA to ban the use of trans fats. Although federal law required that the FDA respond within 180 days to such a petition, the FDA remained silent. In 2013, approaching the age of 99, Professor Kummerow sued the FDA. Two years latter in 2015 the FDA declared that artificial trans-fats were unsafe and should be eliminated from the US food supply by 2018.
Through his lifelong work, Professor Kummerow has produced a policy change that will likely save hundreds of thousands of lives.
What are trans fats and why have they been in our food for 7 decades?
Although there are some forms of natural trans fats which are safe for consumption when consumed in whole foods, artificial trans-fats are produced by placing unsaturated fat (such as corn oil, soy oil) under high pressure and high temperature conditions and adding hydrogen in the presence of a metal catalyst. These fats were introduced to many American foods because they dramatically extend the shelf life of foods and give a pleasant mouth texture to a variety of processed foods. They remain in many foods still on the shelves today. You cannot rely on labels such as “NO TRANS FATS” OR “TRANS FAT FREE” because food companies are allowed to make this statement as long as the amount of trans fats does not exceed 0.5 grams per serving. No amount is safe!
The Institute of Medicine, on July 10, 2002 declared manufactured trans fatty acid (TFA) a serious danger to the health of our nation with a: “tolerable upper intake level of zero.” This means there is no safe level of consumption. Despite that strong statement in 2002, it has taken the efforts of an elderly professor, including a lawsuit, to bring the FDA around to finally address the issue.
But it is not over yet, you can bet that the food industry will try to delay the implementation of the ban or possibly even argue against the overwhelming science that supports such a ban.
In the meantime read labels. If any food item contains “partially hydrogenated” oil of any kind or “hydrogenated oil” of any kind it contains trans fats. These foods are typically foods you should not be eating any way because they usually also contain added sugar, refined flour and/or refined easily oxidized inflammatory “vegetable” oils. They are not whole foods and therefore should not be consumed for many reasons. But if you want to eat cake, cookies, crackers, bread, or any other processed foods, beware and read the ingredients so as to at least avoid trans-fats.
You can read about Fred Kummerow, his life and research at these sites:
Fred A. Kummerow, scientist who raised early warnings about trans fats, dies at 102 – The Washington Post
Fred A. Kummerow, an Early Opponent of Trans Fats, Dies at 102 – The New York Times
Fred Kummerow, U. of I. professor who fought against trans fats, dies at 102 – Chicago Tribune
Fred also studied the effects of a oxysterols and oxidized low-density lipoprotein (OxLDL) both of which contribute to atherosclerosis. In a 2013 publication Professor Kummerow stated
“levels of oxysterols and OxLDL increase primarily as a result of three diet or lifestyle factors: the consumption of oxysterols from commercially fried foods such as fried chicken, fish and french fries; oxidation of cholesterol in vivo driven by the consumption of excess polyunsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils; and cigarette smoking.”
Yet the American Heart Association continues to recommend increased consumption of polyunsaturated fats from the likes of corn oil, soy oil, cottonseed and similar oils. I have discussed the problems with that advice here and here.
So the next time you avoid trans fats by reading food labels, think of Professor Kummerow who brought light to some very dark areas in the history of nutrition and food in the US.
Eat clean, live clean, and enjoy.