Comparative biosciences professor Fred Kummerow, now 100, first reported a link between dietary trans fats and heart disease in 1957. Trained in lipid biochemistry, Kummerow later determined the mechanisms by which trans fats contributed to atherosclerosis in patients with heart disease. In 2009, he petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban trans fats from the American diet. Four years later, when the FDA had not responded to his petition, Kummerow filed a lawsuit to force the agency to make a determination on his petition. Three months after the lawsuit was filed, the FDA announced a “tentative determination” that trans fatty acids “are not generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for any use in food.” This month, the FDA is expected to revoke the GRAS status of trans fats. Kummerow spoke with News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates about the action.
What key findings led you to the conclusion that trans fats in food were contributing to heart disease in humans?
I had read a paper in the Lancet in 1952 by H. M. Sinclair that suggested there was a relationship between the consumption of hydrogenated fats and the increased incidence of atherosclerosis. In collaboration with a local hospital, I was able to obtain and examine the arteries of people who had died of heart disease, and I found trans fats in this tissue. This led to my study on rats that developed atherosclerosis in their arteries after being fed trans fats. When trans fats were removed from the rats’ diet, the atherosclerosis disappeared from their arteries.
How long have you advocated for elimination of trans fats from the diet?
Since 1968. At that time I was on a subcommittee of the American Heart Association and found out how much trans fat was in the margarines and shortening that were available from the grocery stores. By pressuring the oil industry, we were able to get the trans fat content in these products lowered from an average of 43 percent to 27 percent. Heart disease also started to decline after 1968.
Why do you think health authorities were so slow to recognize the dangers?
The industry told the health authorities that trans fats were not dangerous. The industry liked the properties that trans fats brought their products. Trans fats added a pleasant texture and extended the shelf life of their products that the public liked.
In your earlier career, you were a professor of food science and human nutrition at Illinois. Speaking from that area of expertise, how difficult do you think it will be for the food industry to eliminate trans fats from their products?
The industry wants us to believe that it is difficult to remove trans fats from their products. They want the FDA to allow them years to make the change. There are already products available to replace trans fats, however. The industry is working on their formulas so that the texture and taste remain the same. Some manufacturers have already changed their products, and those products are on grocery stores shelves now.
When you first petitioned the FDA to ban trans fats, did you expect success?
Yes, because I had the science to prove that it was harmful to people and caused atherosclerosis.