Fred Kummerow sounded equal parts relieved and content on that Tuesday afternoon in June 2015. The Food and Drug Administration had decided to ban artificial trans fats from the U.S. food supply, finally eliminating a key culprit in the rising rates of heart disease in the nation.
Kummerow, then a 100-year-old University of Illinois professor, had spent nearly six decades warning about the dangers of the artery-clogging substance and fighting an often lonely battle to ban it, and he was finally seeing his work vindicated.
“Science won out,” Kummerow, who sued the FDA in 2013 for not acting sooner, told me that day. “It's very important that we don't have this in our diet.”
Kummerow died Wednesday at his home in Urbana, Ill., knowing that his research likely has saved thousands and thousands of lives.
“Professor Kummerow was a maverick and a trailblazer, and his vision and persistence are, to this day, transforming the American diet,” the university's chancellor, Robert Jones, said in a statement. “We are lucky that he chose to use his intellectual gifts in this way, and that, in spite of decades of opposition and hardship, he never gave up.”
He was nothing if not persistent.
As a young university researcher in the 1950s, Kummerow persuaded a local hospital to let him examine the arteries of people who had died from heart disease. He was startled to find that the tissue contained high levels of artificial trans fat, a substance that had been discovered decades earlier but had become ubiquitous in processed foods throughout the country.
He later showed that lab rats developed atherosclerosis after being fed artificial trans fats. When he removed the substance from their diets, the atherosclerosis all but vanished.
Kummerow first published his research warning about the dangers of artery-clogging trans fats in 1957. He soon began to detail the massive amounts of trans fat in the shortening and margarines lining grocery shelves, and he worked to persuade food companies to lower the content of trans fats in their products.
But despite his growing body of research and his repeated warnings, Kummerow spent decades as a sort of lone voice in the wilderness. His recommendations largely were ignored. Artificial trans fats remained a staple of processed food for decades. Even into the 1980s, many scientists and public health advocates insisted that partially hydrogenated oils were preferable to more natural saturated fats. The food industry was slow to move away from its embrace of artificial trans fats, which were cheaper than natural ingredients, offered longer shelf life and an appealing taste and texture in food.
By the 1990s, more and more studies revealed that trans fats were a a key contributor to soaring rates of heart disease in the country. The advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA in 1994 to require that the substance be listed on nutrition labels — a move the agency put into place in 2006.
As the dangers of trans fat became unmistakable, public opinion also shifted, and food companies increasingly removed the substance from products voluntarily, though it remained in a broad range of foods, from cake frostings to baked goods.
Frustrated by the lack of action, Kummerow — at age 94 — filed a 3,000-word citizen petition with the FDA in 2009, requesting that it “ban partially hydrogenated fat from the American diet.” His 3,000-word petition cited the mounting body of evidence against trans fat.
“Everybody should read my petition because it will scare the hell out of them,” he said at the time.
Four years after filing his petition and hearing nothing, Kummerow sued the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services in 2013, with the help of a California law firm. The suit sought to compel the agency to respond to Kummerow's petition and “to ban partially hydrogenated oils unless a complete administrative review finds new evidence for their safety.”
Three months later, the FDA announced its plans to effectively eliminate trans fats by saying that the substance no longer would be assumed safe for use in human foods. In June 2015, the agency finalized that initial proposal and gave manufacturers three years to reformulate products or to petition the agency for an exception.
Kummerow, who maintained his university lab until the age of 101 and who was known to dip into his own pocket to pay the scientists who worked with him, was more than just a scientist. He also was an outspoken citizen.
A recent Chicago Tribune article detailed how archivists going through his 110 boxes of papers found a man interested not just in studying lipid biochemistry in his lab, but engaged in everything from the national debt to wars to clean energy:
“In addition to one book and 400-plus scientific papers he authored in his career are letters to five U.S. presidents, members of Congress and other people of distinction on topics such as the national debt, the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons and energy. University officials plan to include these letters in the archives because they are indicative of the times in which Kummerow worked and show his personal commitment to the well-being of the people and his country.
“I don't know if it made a difference,” Kummerow says in retrospect. “But it might have.”
There's little doubt that he made a difference. Tom Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tweeted Friday that Kummerow's work had spared hundreds of thousands of lives.
As for his own diet, Kummerow never was convinced that cholesterol was a major factor in heart disease. Into his 100s, he ate eggs and drank whole milk. He avoided french fries, margarine and other fried foods. At his 100th birthday party, he even passed on the store-bought cake someone brought after he noticed it contained trans fat.
“I threw it out,” he later recalled.
There was plenty else to eat.