Fred A. Kummerow and His Fight Against Trans Fats, Dies at 102

“Trans fats were found to make a product lasts longer on the shelves.” Sue Moores
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Fred August Kummerow, a German-born biochemist known for his 50-year advocacy against trans fats that led the government to ban the use of trans-fat acids in processed foods, dies at 102 last May 31, 2017 at his home in Urbana, Illinois. His crusade prevented an approximately tens of thousands of premature deaths annually. He has been a former professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

A Lonely Crusade

Artificial trans-fats comes from hydrogen-treated oils giving margarine that “easy to spread” properties and longer shelf life of cookies, crackers, icing and the likes, which are commonly in American diets. Trans-fats was declared unsafe for human consumption by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a consequence to the lawsuit filed by Prof. Kummerow against FDA in 2013. The ban was officially announced in 2015 and will fully in  effect in 2018.

Prof. Fred Kummerow is one of the first researchers who hinted that there is a connection between processed foods and heart diseases. It was during his research about lipids at the university in 1950 when he examined the infected arteries from some two dozen individuals who died of heart attacks. Later, he found out that blood vessels were plugged with trans fats.

Trans Fats: Studies and Findings

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Prof. Kummerow had a follow-up study which involved pigs that were on diet full of artificial fats. He discovered later that there is high level of artery-clogging matter in them. Prof. Kummerow published results of his study and findings regarding the effects of trans fats. It was the period when people believed that saturated fats that are found in some foods such as cream and butter caused atherosclerosis.

Prof. Kummerow’s study in the publication Science received massive criticisms and it was dismissed. His opponents claimed that his study was conducted on animals which may have different reactions compared to human beings.

Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, “For many years, he was a lonely voice in the wilderness.” The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a health awareness organization in Washington. The organization started its advocacy on the use of safer oils in food products since 1980.

During an interview in 2016, Prof. Kummerow stated that processed food industry had good partnership with scientists between 1960 and 1970 in their concept of keeping trans fats in the food products of people. He said, “Other scientists were more interested in what the industry was thinking than what I was thinking,” and how he was booed by some food company representatives during his presentation of his study at several scientific conferences.

In due time, he started to gain awareness from some members of a scientific organization. It was Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition – T.H. Chan School in Harvard gave recognition to Prof. Kummerow that inspired the inclusion of analysis of trans fats as part of the program of Nurses’ Health Study and the results were published in 1993.

One of the findings revealed the connection between the consumption of foods with trans fats and heart problems in women. The results gave a new viewpoint in medical and scientific world regarding trans fats.

However, it took another two decades for the study of Prof Kummerow to produce regulatory action from authorities. Hence, the American Heart Association started to give warnings about the effects of trans fats sometime in 2004. It was in 2015, after 58 years when he published his initial findings, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that trans fats were unsafe for human consumption and therefore should no longer be added and used in food products after June 18, 2018. Or, unless a food manufacturer could deliver a substantial scientific proof that trans fats was safe for human consumption. Dr. Willet believed that this regulation of removing trans fats from food products would prevented an estimated 90,000 premature deaths each year.

Dr. Willett also pointed out that trans fats is linked to diabetes. He co-wrote a study in 2001 revealing that a diet with low in trans fats could aid in preventing Type 2 diabetes in women. He said that heart disease was just the “tip-of-the-iceberg”. On the other hand, Prof Kummerow said that saturated fats in cheese, butter and meat might not contribute to the clogging of arteries. This argument at that time was proven true.

Fred August Kummerow: A Profile

Fred A. Kummerow hailed from a poor family on October 4, 1914. His father was a laborer and his family transferred to U.S.A. in 1923 to unite their relatives in Milwaukee. His father landed a job at a cement block factory.

Prof. Kummerow cited that he would have landed into the same fate with his father had he not been awarded a chemistry set from his uncle during his 12th birthday. He said reminiscently, “It opened the world of science to me.”

Later in 1939, this young Fred Kummerow received his chemistry degree from University of Wisconsin and pursued graduate studies in the same university. In 1943, he received his doctorate in biochemistry.

Right after the World War II, Prof Kummerow received contracts by the Army Quartermaster Corps at the time he was conducting a research about lipids at Kansas State University. He was asked to help them eradicate rancidity in frozen chicken and turkey that were being transported to their troops outside the country. Hence, that simple change in the poultry feed gave the possibility of selling frozen poultry in grocery stores.

In 1950, he transferred to University of Illinois where he continued his research on lipids and stayed in the university for the rest of his career.

After the death of President Dwight D. Eisenhower due to heart attack in 1955, the funding for research of heart diseases increased and grants from national Institutes of Health gave Prof Kummerow an opportunity to do a study that led to the discovery of trans fats in “diseased arteries.”

He started to travel often and discussed with scientists in Soviet Union, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. After meetings, he sent official reports to the State Department.

He also initiated his advocacy to discontinue the use of trans fats on food products when he learned that food producers kept on using trans fats on high level even after his findings were supported by other scientists. He then filed for a petition in 2009 with FDA to ban the use of trans fats. However, Prof Kummerow did not receive any response and in 2013, sued the agency. The ruling came in favor of Prof Kummerow in 2015.

Prof Alfred August Kummerow is survived by Max, his son and two daughters, Jean and Kay. He also had three grandchildren and one great-grandson. Amy, his wife for 70 years, died at 94 years old due to Parkinson’s disease.

Take note, Prof Kummerow’s diet included red meat, whole milk, and “eggs scrambled in butter.”

You may also want to read about the unhealthy effects of tonka beans.


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