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Fred Kummerow, Hero of the Trans Fat Battle

Fred KummerowLast week, 102-year-old Fred Kummerow died with arteriosclerosis, a disease that he had spent most of his life working to prevent:
• He was the first researcher to show that trans fats in margarines and many prepared foods cause plaques to form in arteries, with a paper published in Science in 1957.  At age 100, he was finally successful in suing the FDA to ban trans fats from our foods.  Trans fats have been linked to 100,000 deaths in the U.S. each year from heart attacks. 
• He showed that LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream is harmful only after it has been oxidized. 
• He was one of the first scientists to propose that it is not the saturated fat or cholesterol in meats, dairy and eggs that cause heart attacks.  Now it appears that other components of these foods may be responsible for their links to heart attacks, strokes and various other diseases.  
• He also showed that the "healthful" vegetable oils could become unhealthful when oxidized or damaged by high temperatures during processing or cooking, 
 
A Life in Science
Kummerow was born into poverty in Berlin, Germany on October 4, 1914, just after the start of World War I.   He remembered that his family didn't have enough food to eat, so his mother would put him and his brother to bed during the day so he wouldn't burn calories by being active. When he was eight, his laborer father chose to come to America, rather than to remain in Germany and be at high risk for starving to death.  A relative got his father a job in a cement factory in Milwaukee.  
 
At age 12, he received a chemistry set that sparked his lifelong passion for science.  He was able to go to the only high school in Milwaukee that offered three years of chemistry classes.  At age 25, he was graduated from the University of Wisconsin and four years later he received his Ph.D. in biochemistry.  In his first job at Clemson University in South Carolina, his research helped prevent thousands of deaths from pellagra, a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin B3. After World War II, he showed that he could prevent frozen packaged chicken and turkey from turning rancid by changing the feed that was used to raise them.  In 1950, he was appointed professor at the University of Illinois and worked in his lab there for 67 years, until a year before his death.  He authored more than 460 articles in scientific journals. 
 

He Was Right and the "Experts" Were Wrong
For more than 60 years, the so-called experts have preached that eating cholesterol and saturated fats caused heart attacks.  Today, most of these experts agree with Kumerow that dietary cholesterol and dietary saturated fats are not main causes of heart attacks, but that the culprits may actually be: 
• a lifetime of trans fats in processed foods (now being legislated out of our food supply) 
• rancid or damaged polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oils removed from plants
• something other than saturated fats and cholesterol in mammal meat
• refined carbohydrates, particularly sugar added to foods and drinks
• foods cooked without water, particularly fried foods
• not eating enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts. 
 
His Battle Against Trans Fats
In 1957, Kummerow showed that the plaques in diseased arteries are filled with trans fats, which are manufactured from hydrogen-treated oils used in processed foods such as margarines, pastries and breakfast cereals (Science. 1957; 126:698–699).  He then showed that feeding trans fats to rats caused plaques to form in their arteries.  Next he showed that removing trans fats from the rats' diets reversed the plaques.  He then convinced Walter Willett at Harvard to include trans fats in the landmark Nurses Study to show for the first time that trans fats are linked to heart attacks in humans.  However, it took more than 30 years for scientists to accept his major breakthrough.   Thirty-seven years later, in 1994,  the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to require trans-fat content of foods to be listed on their labels, and it took 12 more years (2006) for that law to be passed.  In 2009, 97-year-old, Fred Kummerow petitioned the FDA to ban artificial trans fats altogether.  In 2013 Kummerow sued the FDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to force them to ban partially-hydrogenated fats from all foods.  On June 16, 2015, the FDA gave manufacturers three years to remove trans fats from prepared foods, and on June 18, 2018, it will become illegal to add trans fats to foods.  
 
Oxidized LDL Cholesterol 
LDL cholesterol is a large molecule in your bloodstream that contains cholesterol and triglycerides inside a coating of fat and protein.  Dr. Kummerow claimed for years that LDL levels are harmful only after the LDL is oxidized (Am. J. Cardiovasc Dis, 2013;3(1):17–26).  After all, close to 50 percent of people who suffer heart attacks do not have high blood levels of LDL cholesterol.  Furthermore, Dr. Kummerow also stated for more than 50 years that the high temperatures of cooking without water, particularly when frying, causes unstable polyunsaturated fats to become oxidized to increase risk for cancers and heart attacks (Am. J. Clin. Nutr.,1979;32:58–83).  
 
His Longevity and Cause of Death
He certainly knew of the benefits of, and ate lots of, fruits ,vegetables, whole grains and nuts and he correctly avoided fried foods and margarine.  However, at age 89, he had heart bypass surgery to treat arteriosclerotic blockage of the arteries leading to his heart.  His research showed that dietary cholesterol and dietary saturated fats did not cause heart attacks, so he ate eggs, butter, milk, cheese and meat.  Today, many authorities agree with him that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol may not be harmful, but that these foods do appear to increase heart attack risk, possibly  because of other components in them such as Neu5Gc , or lecithin and choline which are used by intestinal bacteria to form TMAO.
 
By age 100 he was taking no medications and still had his encyclopedic recall for names, dates and scientific concepts. He had previously taken medication to lower his cholesterol, but he stopped it because it caused muscle pain, and he ended up using  a wheelchair.  His wife of 70 years had died at age 94 in 2012.  He kept his lab at the University of Illinois until a year before his death, and in his later years he switched his research focus from heart disease to Parkinson's (the cause of his wife's death) and Alzheimers.  When he heard that the FDA had finally banned trans fats, he said "Science won out."
 
October 4, 1914 – May 31, 2017
June 11th, 2017
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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