Scientist who raised early warnings about trans fats dies at 102

Dr Fred Kummerow fought the food industry and prevailing medical practices for decades.
Dr Fred Kummerow fought the food industry and prevailing medical practices for decades.

WASHINGTON • Dr Fred Kummerow, a scientist who fought the food industry and prevailing medical practices for decades until his early warnings about the dangers of trans fats were finally vindicated, has died at his home in Urbana, Illinois. He was 102.

His death on May 31 was announced by the University of Illinois, where he was a long-time professor. The cause was not disclosed.

Dr Kummerow, who maintained a research laboratory until he was 101, was a biochemist who specialised in the study of lipids, or compounds containing fats. He also had an interest in the study of nutrition.

In the 1950s, Dr Kummerow began his long and often contrarian study of heart disease. His research focused on the accumulated fats in blood vessels. At the time, most doctors believed that saturated fat from animal products such as meats, butter and cheese were the principal culprits in producing harmful amounts of cholesterol, which could lead to heart disease.

Dr Kummerow questioned that assumption as early as 1957, when he published his first paper about the dangers of trans fats, also known as trans-fatty acids. Most trans fats are created through an industrial process in which hydrogen is added to vegetable oils, making them solid at room temperature.

"Partially hydrogenated" oils can be stored longer without spoiling and can be used in margarine, for deep-fat frying and in countless forms of processed foods.

To Dr Kummerow, they were "a diet of sudden death".

He reported his findings in hundreds of papers, but his research was ignored and denigrated for years. His studies of heart disease were often dismissed because he was a mere chemist and not a cardiologist.

In 1968, Dr Kummerow recommended that the American Heart Association urge the food industry to reduce or eliminate trans fats. His ideas slowly caught on with other scientists, but the Food and Drug Administration made no official recommendation until 2015, after Dr Kummerow sued for a ruling in 2013. He was then 98.

His daily diet included a breakfast of eggs scrambled in butter. He drank three glasses of whole milk a day and regularly ate meat and cheese, along with fruits, vegetables and grains. He avoided processed foods and french fries.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'Scientist who raised early warnings about trans fats dies at 102'. Print Edition | Subscribe