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At 99, Anti-Trans Fats Scientist Eats An Egg Daily

Dr. Fred Kummerow, the scientist who pioneered the study of the effects of trans fats on heart health in the 1950s, says that cholesterol is unfairly villified -- and that he eats an egg every day at age 99. (Drew McKechnie/Flickr)

Dr. Fred Kummerow, the scientist who pioneered the study of the effects of trans fats on heart health in the 1950s, says that cholesterol is unfairly vilified — and that he eats an egg every day at age 99. (Drew McKechnie/Flickr)

Back in 1957, Fred Kummerow, a nutrition scientist at the University of Illinois, was analyzing the arteries of people who had died of heart attacks.

Kummerow started analyzing the fat in the diseased arteries and soon became a pioneer in the study of heart disease and trans-fats — artificial fats used in processed foods.

At 99 years old, Dr. Kummerow is still conducting research — and eating an egg every day. He joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss his research and what he sees as the unfair vilification of cholesterol.

Interview Highlights: Dr. Fred Kummerow

Fred Kummerow, a 98-year-old emeritus professor of comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois, explains the primary causes of heart disease. His research contradicts commonly held notions about the role of dietary cholesterol. (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)

Fred Kummerow is a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. (L. Brian Stauffer via University of Illinois)

On why trans fats are dangerous to health

“Trans fat was put in the diet in 1910, and it was in the diet until 1965, when I was a member of the American Heart Association committee on fats. And when these fats were eaten by people, they didn’t develop any prostacyclin. Prostacyclin is a component in the blood that prevents the clotting of blood. So if you don’t have any prostacyclin, you can’t clot your blood. And a lot of those people ate a diet of sudden death. That’s one reason for asking the FDA to ban trans fat, and that’s now in process.”

On why he disagrees that cholesterol is dangerous to heart health

“It’s perfectly normal to think that, because when you feed cholesterol to a rabbit, it gets atherosclerosis – that is, the arteries look just like arteries — almost like the arteries of the people who had heart disease. And I had found, in a study I did with — I had about 12 M.D./Ph.D.s from Japan, and we did a complete analysis of what happens in the arteries of pigs, and we started off from even before they’re born until after they were born. And then we had different ages of pigs, and by the time they were three years old, they had exactly the same kind of structure in their coronary arteries as people who had died of heart disease. I got their arteries and they looked at them at the electron microscope level, and they found no differences in their structure. So I knew cholesterol in the diet was not necessary to produce the same kind of change in the coronary arteries of pigs that are present also in the coronary arteries of people.”

On why he eats an egg every day

“The egg contains all of the amino acids that you need. Now, amino acids are present in different foods, but most all of them are present in animal fat, like cheese, beef, pork, eggs, chicken and fish. They are complete amino acids. So if you eat those kind of foods, you will have all of the amino acids that you need to build what is called endothelin cells, and they carry all the functions in the body that cause life.”

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. The Food and Drug Administration is in the midst of deciding whether to ban trans-fats, which are used in all kinds of processed foods. The FDA made a preliminary determination back in November that a major source of trans-fats, partially hydrogenated oils, are no longer generally recognized as safe.

That's a conclusion that Fred Kummerow arrived at decades ago, as a nutrition scientist at the University of Illinois. He was one of the first scientists to discover a link between trans-fats in processed foods and heart disease. He's now almost 100 years old and he's still at it. He joins us from his home in Urbana, Illinois. And Professor Kummerow, let's go back to your initial research decades ago. Once you found this link, how difficult was it to get that message out about the dangers of trans-fats?

DR. FRED KUMMEROW: Very difficult.

(LAUGHTER)

KUMMEROW: Because it wasn't obvious. This trans-fat was put in the diet in 1910, and it was in the diet until 1965 when I was a member of the American Heart Association committee on fats. And when these fats were eaten by people, they didn't develop any prostacyclin.

Prostacyclin is a component in the blood that prevents the clotting of blood. So if you don't have any prostacyclin, you can't clot your blood. And a lot of those people ate a diet of sudden death. That's one reason for asking the FDA to ban trans-fat, and that's now in the process.

HOBSON: But it hasn't happened.

KUMMEROW: Not yet, no.

HOBSON: And it's been almost 50 years.

KUMMEROW: Yeah, well, and on November 8th of last year, they decided that they would ask for a ban, and they gave the industry 120 days to answer. And this is now being looked over by the NIH; all the answers that they received at that time.

HOBSON: Now the prevailing view about heart disease is that cholesterol is a major factor in heart disease. You don't buy that, do you ?

KUMMEROW: It's perfectly normal to think that because when you feed cholesterol to a rabbit, it gets atherosclerosis, that is the arteries look just like arteries, almost like the arteries of the people who had heart disease. And I had found in a study I did with - I had about 12 M.D./Ph.D.s from Japan, and we did a complete analysis of what happens in the arteries of pigs, and we started off from even before they're born until after they were born.

And then we had different ages of pigs, and by the time they were 3 years old, they had exactly the same kind of structure in their coronary arteries as the people who had died of heart disease. I got their arteries, and they looked at them at the electron microscope level, and they found no differences in their structure.

So I knew that cholesterol in the diet was not necessary to produce the same kind of change in the coronary arteries of pigs that are present also in the coronary arteries of people.

HOBSON: And we should say that you've put this to the test yourself. You have an egg, something known to have cholesterol in it, every day for breakfast.

KUMMEROW: That's correct. The egg contains all of the amino acids that you need. Now, amino acids are present in different foods, but most - all of them are present in animal fat, like cheese, beef, pork, eggs, chicken and fish. They are complete amino acids. So if you eat those kind of foods, you will have all of the amino acids that you need to build what is called endothelin cells, and they carry all the functions in the body that cause life.

HOBSON: It must have been difficult to have this information, to have done this research, to have found what you found and been convinced as a scientist that trans-fats were causing heart disease and not have people listen to you.

KUMMEROW: That's correct.

HOBSON: How did you deal with that?

(LAUGHTER)

KUMMEROW: Well, that's a good question. I had to deal with it.

HOBSON: Professor, before I let you go, I want to ask you one thing that many people may be wondering and that I'd like to ask anybody who is able to make it all the way to age 100, which is what is your secret to longevity?

KUMMEROW: Eating correctly. That is eating enough amino acids, that is the eight amino acids, so your liver can make the LDL and HDL that your body needs, that is the animal products. And they should also eat vegetables and fruit.

HOBSON: So what did you have for lunch today?

KUMMEROW: I had a bit of a steak that I had leftover from Sunday, and I had lettuce, tomato, avocado and squash that's cooked up. Squash is a good source of fibers, which you need to carry your food through your intestinal tract. And I had a glass of milk. I always have a glass of milk at breakfast, at noon and at night. And I also exercise every day, even though I'm going to be 100 on October 4th. I still exercise. I believe in exercise every day. And I keep my mind busy.

I think it's very important for somebody who retires to do something that keep his mind occupied and not just sit there and do nothing except semi-watch TV or read something else that does not tickle your brain.

HOBSON: What are you working on now, Professor Kummerow? Is there something that we should be aware of that we might be all talking about 40 years from now?

KUMMEROW: Well, I'm working on what caused Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. I'm working together with somebody who has a compound that might prevent that. But I am not sure about that compound. We're just testing it right now. So I hope that we can solve that, too.

HOBSON: Fred Kummerow, professor at the University of Illinois, one of the pioneers of trans-fat research. Thanks so much for joining us, and have a great 100th birthday.

KUMMEROW: Well, thank you.

HOBSON: And if you want to see a photo of Fred Kummerow, you can go to our website, hereandnow.org. It's so amazing, Robin, to hear somebody at age 99 talk about their latest research that he's just getting started on.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Right, he's just - well, God bless him, and I can't wait to hear what he finds.

HOBSON: Exactly. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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  • bust_a_gut

    I’m not a scientist, but I strongly believe that sugar is much more of an issue than fat in our society.

    In the last 6 months, by ADDING about 20% more fat and ELIMINATING about 90% of previously consumed sugar from my diet I’ve lost 15 lbs. And, I actually cut back a bit on my exercise regimen. I’ve generally avoided the trans-fats, but not exclusively. Most trans-fats I’ve seen (reading food packaging labels) are mixed in with sugar-laden food products.

    Did the past studies, indicating health issues with trans-fats, separate the trans-fats from sugar, or not? Maybe they did, but I would think it would be very difficult to set up a study that simulates what people REALLY eat over an extended period of time.

    Sugar seems to stimulate not only my consumption of more sweets, but other foods as well. I haven’t eliminated sugar completely because baked items (esp. breads) need it. I’ve been aiming for foods that have no more than 14 grams of sugar per serving. The extra fat helps me feel more full.

    • Steve

      Losing weight is great. It makes you look better, feel better, and lowers your risk for disease. There is, however, a distinction to be made between diets which help you lose weight, and diets which are good for long term vascular health.

      That being said, I generally agree with you that sugar is one of the worst things to put into your body, even in the amounts that the government and WHO recommend as okay.

      People lose weight on the Atkins diet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are doing their heart any favors if they ignore the role of trans fats on vascular disease.

      Steven Brooks, B.S., MPH

      • bust_a_gut

        Thanks Steve,

        I agree with what you say too. I’m still eating plenty of carbs, especially those with fiber, “good oils,” and protein.

        It’s just that I’m hyper-focused on the SIMPLE carbs right now. I’ve also been avoiding white bread, white rice and corn because of their relatively high simple sugar content. My exception is one beer (sometimes 6oz.) or glass of wine /day, with dinner, but not every day.

        In reality I eat very little in the way of trans fats. I just don’t worry about it, or the saturated fats, as much as I do the sugar. Maybe that’s because trans fats are pretty rare in my diet. My main point about trans fats was that I usually only see it in packaged AND CHEAPER muffins, doughnuts, etc. in the grocery store, and I don’t buy those. My ADDED fat has come from switching from low fat milk to organic whole milk, and from low fat, high sugar yogurt, to higher fat, low sugar yogurt, and added more nuts, and more real butter instead of margarine.

        Despite being overweight I have always had lower than average cholesterol (both LDL and HDL) and blood pressure. I’m hoping with my next check up to have raised the HDL. Most of my grandparents and their siblings lived well into their 90′s, but none of them were as fat as me.

        Hopefully this clarifies my position on the trans fats issue.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for not giving up Dr. Kummerow!

  • bilbo

    Here’s a thought: like our fingerprints, we all have slightly unique biochemical footprints. I’ve reached an slightly wonderful synchronicity with my body; the results are speaking for themselves. Eat plants but I am ovo-lacto. Fructose is a naturally occurring substance in nature, just don’t abuse the hell out of it. Let them eat cake.;)

    • Jim

      What’s that under the egg in the articles picture at the beginning?
      Jim

      • DonDueed

        Looks like it might be beans, but it’s probably just a stock photo rather than the doctor’s actual meal.

      • Bacon

        Bacon.

        • nonyabizzz

          lol

  • FalkBurger

    “Prostacyclin PREVENTS (emphasis mine) the clotting of blood.” So, without prostacyclin, you can’t clot your blood? Noooooo, that’s backwards. Without prostacyclin, blood can spontaneously clot, forming BLOOD CLOTS (emphasis mine) – and death. I hope the good doctor was just having a senior moment.

    • Kevin F
    • DocB

      Without Prostacyclin your blood WILL clot. With Prostacyclin your blood will not clog. Prostacyclin=no blood clot.

      • FalkBurger

        Thanks for clearing that up. The good doctor made contradictory statements, was my point. He can’t have it both ways, prostacyclin can’t prevent AND facilitate clotting. The swine study statement was so vague it bordered on gibberish.

  • Catherine

    I listened today – loved this segment. I too believe, that sugar is more of an issue than fat – although I elimated all trans fats from our diet several years ago. Hated giving up the bisquick – they were just so easy and relish!

  • TJtruthandjustice

    This guy has a full head of hair, no wrinkles and all his wits – at 99. I’m going to start eating more eggs!

  • BowFarm

    Great, I had eggs and vegetables gathered this morning for lunch. http://wp.me/p44c6k-Pt

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