Try This: Who the Heck is Fred Kummerow?

Remember when Big Tobacco got doctors to endorse cigarettes…only for society to later find out that smoking causes lung cancer?

What about Vioxx—the anti-inflammatory drug that claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 Americans before being withdrawn from the market for its clear link to heart attack and stroke?

It’s safe to say the “experts” don’t always know what’s best; nor do they have the information they need to guide the public in the right direction. It takes a long time and a lot of pressure from everyday people and trailblazers to push positive change forward.

This week, I’m sharing the story of one of these trailblazers and how his work has helped protect the lives of tens of millions of people. For decades, people called him crazy, but today, he’s celebrated as a hero.

I’m talking about none other than the fascinating life and work of Mr. Fred Kummerow.

His story begins as a biochemistry PhD student at the University of Wisconsin. His research in pellagra and fatty acids eventually landed him a job as a professor and researcher at the University of Illinois, where he received NIH funding to explore the chemistry of fats.

Kummerow and his students studied the autopsies of 24 patients who died of heart disease and made a shocking discovery—every single one of their arteries was filled with fat. But not just any kind of fat—it was a special type of manmade fat called trans fats. 

In 1957, Kummerow published his findings in the journal Science, making a strong case for the role of trans fats in the development of coronary artery disease. But his research went largely ignored. The question is, why?

Early Dietary Guidelines and Doctors’ Mind-Boggling Stance on Fats and Cholesterol

At the time, doctors and scientists believed that cholesterol and saturated fat were the cause of heart disease and advised Americans to minimize their intake and to use margarine and shortening instead of butter. That seems absolutely nuts today, but remember—this was pre-Fred Kummerow.

Oils like margarine and shortening are made through a process called hydrogenation—where vegetable oils are converted into solids to improve their shelf life, texture, and spreadability for making baked goods, fried foods, and snack foods—and are cholesterol-free, cheaper, and have a longer shelf life, making them easier and more profitable for food companies to work with. (So you can see why Big Food wasn’t exactly looking to dispel the conventional wisdom.)

Kummerow Sounds the Alarm about Trans Fats 

In the early 1970s, Kummerow continued to grow his evidence on the artery-clogging dangers of trans fats. His proof-of-concept study using pigs revealed that a diet rich in margarine increased heart disease risk more than a diet rich in cholesterol. These findings led him to strongly caution against trans fats in Americans’ diets.

Kummerow appeared before the Federal Trade Commission in 1975 to issue a warning about trans fats. But because Kummerow wasn’t a doctor AND he disagreed with conventional wisdom, he wasn’t taken seriously, and his warning fell on deaf ears.

Plus, Fred believed the food industry was in cahoots with scientists, claiming, “Other scientists were more interested in what the industry was thinking than what I was thinking.” He believed that was one reason why it took so long for the call to remove trans fats from people’s diets to grow legs…but it eventually would.

Momentum Finally Starts to Shift

Decades later, Kummerow’s theory finally caught the eye of someone who could take his research to the next level—the Harvard professor and lead researcher behind the Nurses’ Health Study, Walter Willet.

Willett included trans fats in his dietary analysis of over 85,000 women. The results, published in The Lancet in 1993, corroborated the link between trans fat and coronary heart disease (CHD), revealing a staggering 50 percent higher risk in women with the highest intake.

From the study abstract: 

“Intakes of foods that are major sources of trans isomers (margarine, cookies [biscuits], cake, and white bread) were each significantly associated with higher risks of CHD. These findings support the hypothesis that consumption of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils may contribute to occurrence of CHD.”

This was big-time, folks. A whopping 30 years later, Kummerow’s work was finally making headway, and so began the long and winding road to change…

The 20-Year Fight to Ban Trans Fat for Good

The next year, word got out. The Center for Science in the Public Interest sued the FDA to include trans fats on nutrition facts labels, and in 2003, the FDA finally made it so. Around this time, the American Heart Association also began to warn about the health risks of trans fats.

With the public now in the know, companies voluntarily began to reduce their use of trans fats in their food products. Still, the FDA refused to eliminate trans fat from the food system entirely despite a stockpile of research exposing their harms.

At the age of 94, Kummerow had had enough. He filed a petition for the federal ban on partially hydrogenated fat in 2009. Not surprisingly, the FDA, yet again, was silent. Four years later, in 2013, Kummerow (now 98!) sued the FDA for failure to act on his petition.

Finally, three months after the suit was filed, the FDA announced that trans fats were not recognized as safe for use in any food and gave food manufacturers three years to phase them out of their food products. The WHO also jumped on board, calling for the global removal of trans fats by the year 2023.

Kummerow passed away on May 31, 2017. Although he didn’t get to see the fruits of his labor go on to make a global impact, he had a massive effect on the public’s perception of saturated fat and cholesterol vs trans fat as it relates to heart disease, and his work continues to inspire scientists to dispel conventional wisdom.

So, What Can We Learn from Fred’s Story?

  1. We can’t sit around and wait for those in charge to make changes to the system before we start making changes for ourselves. It took the FDA 25 years to ban trans fat because there was “not enough evidence” to confirm their harms.And yet, after nearly five decades of research, it still took another 10 years for action to take place. It’s not uncommon for the industry to fight like hell and slow down action on issues like this.
  2. We need to take a smart precautionary approach when it comes to our health. When there’s strong emerging evidence to suggest that a food or toxin could cause serious harm, it’s up to us to weigh the costs and benefits and do our best to minimize or avoid our exposure.Seed oils are a perfect example of this. I recently had a discussion with Jeff Nobbs, who made a strong case for why he believes that seed oils are bad for our health. And I’ve also talked with Simon Hill, who believes that the hype around seed oils is overblown—not because he’s a fan of them, but because he’s worried about which animal fats people will replace them with (a topic for another newsletter).

Personally, I feel like there’s enough concern about seed oils that I’ve chosen to avoid them as best I can in my diet. But I know I occasionally get exposure from eating out or healthy processed snack foods. And that’s okay! I have to live my life, and you do too!

That’s why, for me, a smart precautionary approach looks like this: I don’t cook with seed oils, and I try to stick to brands that don’t use them. When I go out to a restaurant, I personally avoid deep-fried foods but I don’t get super hung up about the seed oils that sneak in from cooking.

With those few changes that work for me, I get the benefit of avoiding seed oils 98 percent of the time without much sacrifice or effort. If the day comes when the data is more conclusive to me or the people I look up to, I will get stricter, but this is perfect for now.

One Last Thing You Need to Know about Trans Fats!

We still have a long way to go for a full-fledged trans-fat prohibition. Yes, the FDA banned their use—but Big Food can still use trans fats in their food products as long as they contain less than 0.5 grams per serving. And if they do, they’re allowed to put a zero on the label. Pretty messed up, right? Even though we’re headed in the right direction, the general public is still being misled in thinking that their food is trans-fat free when, in fact, it might not be. But just remember, in general, the less you depend on ultra-procesed foods, the less exposure you’ll have.

Final Thoughts:

I wish Fred Kummerow was still alive today (RIP) so that I could give him a big hug on behalf of all of us reading today. His story is an incredible example of what it means to fight the good fight and to do our part in pushing change forward so that future generations will have their best chance at living a long, happy, and healthy life.

Here’s to taking charge of your health,
Dhru Purohit

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