The chemist who got trans fats out of America’s diet
In the 1950s, biochemist Fred Kummerow realized that Americans were being fed a lie. At the time, most doctors believed that saturated fats from animal products like meat and cheese were a key cause of heart disease, thinking they increased people’s levels of artery-clogging cholesterol. Kummerow’s research at the University of Illinois led him to a different conclusion. He analyzed diseased arteries from two dozen people who had died of heart attacks and found they were filled with artificial trans fats—which were used to extend the shelf life of cookies, crackers, and other foods. Kummerow spent the next six decades fighting an often lonely battle to get trans fats banned. In 2015, the FDA finally declared trans fats unsafe for human consumption. “Science won out,” said Kummerow, then 100 years old.
Born in Berlin, Kummerow moved to the U.S. “with his family when he was 8, and grew up in Milwaukee,” where his father worked in a factory, said The Washington Post. He became interested in science after receiving a chemistry set for his 12th birthday, and went on to earn a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1943. Early in his career, Kummerow helped develop a cure for pellagra, a disease that killed 100,000 Americans between 1900 and 1940. Pellagra “was caused by a vitamin deficiency, which Kummerow solved by adding niacin to grits and other foods.”
Kummerow maintained his lab at the University of Illinois until he was 101, said the Chicago Tribune, and “never was convinced that cholesterol was a major factor in heart disease.” Into his 100s, his daily diet included several glasses of whole milk and a breakfast of eggs scrambled in butter.