NPR Story
12:40 pm
Sun May 25, 2014

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

Originally published on Mon May 12, 2014 2:58 pm

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

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

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

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.