60 Years Fighting Trans Fats

L. Brian Stauffer / University of Illinois Board of Trustees

In his laboratory at the University of Illinois, Dr. Fred Kummerow keeps a macabre stash of human misfortune: a ziplock bag full of the calcified and fat-choked arteries of heart attack victims. For the 99-year-old scientist, they are irrefutable evidence that processed foods will kill you. “We’re destroying our arteries every time we eat these foods,” says Kummerow. “Each year, 325,000 people die from eating this stuff. It’s been going on since artificial fats were first created in 1909, and it has to stop.”

Some of the most pressing health problems in the United States, Kummerow argues, are the result of artificial fatty acids, or trans fats, that are produced when vegetable oils are hydrogenated, basically cooked to saturation – as they are in margarine, frozen dinners, and fried fast food. The trans fats in such foods have been shown by numerous studies, many pioneered, inspired, or published by Kummerow, to trigger the two main causes of heart disease: blood clots in coronary arteries and atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Trans fats also displace essential fatty acids (like omega-3) that the body needs for controlling blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain.

“Fred Kummerow knew about trans fats starting in 1957, but the establishment juggernaut rolled on,” says Geoffrey Cannon, an international adviser at the World Cancer Research Fund. “He knows that the issue is not just trans fats – it is hydrogenation: a process that remains crucial for the production of energy-dense, fatty, ultraprocessed products.”

This past November, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged Kummerow’s lifetime of research, proposing a rule to ban all trans fats from our foods, a move he has been urging for decades. “What’s more important: to have nice, smooth margarine or to not kill people?” asks Kummerow. Feisty and sharp, with an encyclopedic recall from a life’s work in lipids research, he remains a major force in a discipline he founded – studying the link between processed foods and heart disease. Kummerow now gets around in a wheelchair, and has had to give up his daily swims, but his intellectual output remains muscular.

Though he retired in 1978, in the past two years Kummerow has published four influential studies. His latest paper continues to challenge the status quo, arguing that an excess of polyunsaturated vegetable oils like corn, soybean, and sunflower – the ones some experts argue are safe alternatives to the saturated fats found in animal products – can harden the arteries.

Kummerow, who eats an egg each morning and drinks three glasses of whole milk a day, says we worry too much about cholesterol. “Cholesterol is not the enemy everyone thinks it is,” he says. While most of us are focused on our LDLs, or “bad cholesterol,” the real problem, he says, is any cholesterol or fat in oil that has been oxidized, which happens during deep frying. The oxidized lipids, says Kummerow, lead to heart disease by depositing calcium on artery walls and thickening blood flow, a contributor to heart attacks and sudden death.

In Kummerow’s controversial view, it’s perfectly fine to eat cholesterol-dense cheeses, meats, butter, and eggs, as long as they’re part of a healthy lifestyle that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and exercise. He also frequently blasts the notion that egg whites are better for us. “People eat egg whites and think that’s healthy because they’re leaving behind the cholesterol in the yolk,” he says. “But they’re missing nine amino acids in there that help build cells, and vitamins and minerals your body needs.”

Though his trans-fats work is now widely accepted, Kummerow’s cholesterol-is-good approach still draws plenty of ire. Dr. Robert Eckel, an endocrinologist and former president of the American Heart Association, who helped draft national lifestyle guidelines that warn against excess cholesterol intake, says saturated fats are a huge killer in the U.S. “There is a direct link between saturated fats and heart disease that is supported by observational data,” says Eckel.

Kummerow’s life and career are full of such provocations to orthodoxy. His parents fled World War I, moving from Germany to Milwaukee when he was nine. During the Depression, after high school, he landed a job at a brewery bottling plant and ended up earning enough money to attend night school at the University of Wisconsin. He went on to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

In 1975, Kummerow began looking at the impact of food on pig arteries and found that feeding them a heavy diet of artificial fats led to a dangerous buildup of plaque. That year, he argued against trans fats in front of the Federal Trade Commission when it was discussing the effect of eggs on the diet. “They ruled out my testimony because I was a chemist, not a cardiologist,” says Kummerow.

“He has been very tough and brilliant and ahead of his time, and he has struggled for that reason,” says Dr. Mohamedain Mahfouz, a biochemistry professor who has worked in the lab with Kummerow for more than 25 years. “Not everyone has agreed with him.”

Still, Kummerow’s campaign against trans fats has paid off. In 2009, he wrote a petition to the FDA, complaining that its trans-fat labeling requirements, which let labels read “0” for anything containing less than a half gram of trans fat, allow food companies “to lie.” This year the FDA, after concluding there is no safe level of trans-fat consumption, may finally ban trans fats in the food chain altogether.

For Kummerow, that’s almost as big a milestone as his upcoming 100th birthday in October. “I’m still doing what I love – research,” says Kummerow, whose wife, Amy, died of Parkinson’s in 2012 at age 94. “I wasn’t trying to have a long life, just trying to eat right and learn about diet and heart disease. And I think I’ve shown a few people some things.”

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