Retired professor, 98 years old, still in the trenches to ban trans fats
Chicago Tribune (IL)
URBANA, Ill. _ Year after year, University of Illinois biochemist and professor Fred Kummerow pedaled his bicycle 4 miles to work, a Swiss cheese sandwich and apple stuffed in a brown lunch bag inside his briefcase.
Now, two months shy of his 99th birthday, Kummerow has moved to a stationary bike for exercise, but he still likes his Swiss cheese with lettuce on rye, with fruit and whole milk _ and he still loves to work.
An emeritus professor of comparative biosciences, Kummerow has spent 60 years studying lipid biochemistry, challenging common views of the dietary factors that contribute to heart disease and sudden cardiac death. Although he officially retired from the university in 1978, he has no intention of quitting work until he's "done."
"The way I look at life is that you only have a few minutes and so you might as well make the most of it. Ask yourself why you were put on this Earth. What are you here for? Then do it," says the man considered an enduring marvel in the academic community. "What I wanted most out of life was to find an answer to heart disease." Kummerow believes he found that answer years ago. Now, from the quiet solitude of his Urbana, Ill., home, and with occasional visits to the Burnsides Research Laboratory he dedicated on campus in 1963 (and inaugurated with a lipid symposium), he keeps plugging away to get everybody else to believe it.
It's not eggs or cholesterol that are your heart's enemy, he argues. It's trans fats _ those fats generated by the hydrogenation of oils. He is still determined after all these years to get trans fats banned from the American diet and has challenged the Food and Drug Administration to do so. Go ahead and have your eggs, milk, meat and cheese within reason, Kummerow advises. But eliminate all of the trans fats in your diet.
"I don't buy the cholesterol theory," he says. "Not eating any foods that contain trans fatty acids is your answer to heart disease."
The American Heart Association says abnormal cholesterol levels can "put you at risk" for heart disease, heart attack or stroke. The association, on its website, also suggests limiting trans fats.
Kummerow now moves about in a wheelchair but still uses a walker in his home as part of his exercise regimen, which for many years included a daily 30-minute swim at lunchtime. While age has slowed his step, his mind is sharp, and he's determined to prolong his own life and the lives of others.
Most of his hours are spent doing research and putting finishing touches on the second edition of his 2008 book, "Cholesterol Won't Kill You But Trans Fat Could," which he wrote with the help of his daughter, Jean Kummerow. He also is energetically completing a portion of a scientific journal article in collaboration with medical doctors nationwide.
Kummerow said he has had 460 papers published in peer-reviewed journals, along with two books he's written and six chapters for others' books. His work took him and his wife, Amy, who died in July 2012, to 32 countries.
Hector DeLuca, professor emeritus of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, is amazed by Kummerow.
"I have high respect for Fred. ... I think he has a lot of good argument against the cholesterol dogma," said DeLuca, widely known for his research on vitamin D. "I don't know of a single person at all who has worked and has published at that age. ... That's stunningly outstanding."
Kummerow is most proud of his January article in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Disease in which he details his research findings indicating that fried foods, powdered egg yolk, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, excess vegetable oils and cigarette smoke are the greatest causes of heart disease.
Lawrence Berliner, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Denver, describes Kummerow as an "amazingly energetic scientist who has been devoted to the study of heart disease."
"He is great at organizing and enlisting collaborators to share ideas," Berliner said. "While some of his hypotheses were considered controversial, he was probably ahead of his time."
Jean Kummerow, a Minneapolis psychologist, is most proud of her father's "dogged approach to being concerned about people's nutrition."
"He published about trans fats in 1957 and really kept at it until other people came around and started seeing them as bad," she said. "I think people will eventually put cholesterol in a new light as they did trans fats, thanks to him and his work.
"I don't know how many of us would hang on that long and keep working away at it."
Kummerow's challenge now is getting lab funding. He was recently informed that he has enough money to keep his lab with three researchers up and running until November, so finding a source to meet the annual $300,000 budget is a priority. He is not paid "a penny," he says, by the university or through grant money.
"As long as I can bring in the money, I can use the laboratory," he said. "I use a lot of money. Research is not cheap."
Kummerow's voice grows louder, like a guy hawking T-shirts on a street corner: "If you know anyone who has money and wants to lower their taxes, I'm the guy to give it to. I'll use it for grants. I've always come through before."
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That's a fact, said University of Illinois President Robert Easter, a nutritionist who met Kummerow more than 40 years ago when the two published a few papers together.
"Fred's pretty incredible. He just keeps going," Easter said. "I think he's an example of an individual who is truly passionate about the work he does. He has a genuine interest in the health of people and has dedicated his life to that in a very productive way.
"I am aware of no one who is currently working at this age, but that's not to say that there isn't someone. It isn't uncommon for professors following retirement to continue their involvement in research often with funding from various sources ... and, work until they are incapacitated."
Easter has no doubt that Kummerow will find needed funds. "He's very frugal, very cautious of how he spends the money."
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Kummerow learned frugality at a young age. He was 9 when his family moved from Germany to Milwaukee, he said. His father worked in a factory, and during tough times, Fred supported the family on the $5 a week he made from a paper route. Years later he went to night school and worked by day, he said.
A family friend bought him a chemistry set at age 12. And when he attended the Boys Technology and Trade School in Milwaukee, the faculty offered three years of chemistry, he recalls. He was hooked. His academic degrees, culminating in 1944 with a biochemistry doctorate, were earned at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Some may trace his longevity to good genes. His mother lived to 97. But he credits exercise and a healthy diet. "And that includes meat, cheese and eggs," he says forcefully. He still reads nutritional labels on packaged foods.
He and his wife kept a large vegetable garden and raised their children on a diet of meat, potatoes, vegetables and fruit, Jean Kummerow said. "And always butter. Never margarine. And we drank milk. No soda pop.
"And when we would go out to dinner," she said, "Dad would always quiz the waitress about how things were prepared. He wanted it broiled, never fried.''
Kummerow worked 60-hour weeks, fortunate, he said, to have an independent wife with her own interests. Amy, to whom he was married for 70 years, was on the Champaign County Board and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. House and Illinois Senate seats as a Democrat. Fred's role in her campaigns, Jean Kummerow recalled, was to serve nutritious meals to the volunteers.
The father of three and grandfather of three refrains now from advising others on their diet unless they ask him directly. But he is quick to tell you to skip the fries and pop if you are stopping at a drive-thru on the way home.
Despite his research and efforts, much of the medical community is still focused on using drugs to lower cholesterol levels and less focused on trans fats, he says. "Yes, it's frustrating."
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In simple terms, he believes cigarette smoke and trans fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils interfere with fatty acid metabolism. That interferes with the production of a compound called prostacyclin, which normally prevents blood clots by keeping blood fluid. That interference can lead to heart attacks and sudden death.
In 2009, Kummerow filed a petition with the FDA to ban trans fats from processed foods. The FDA requires labeling all food products that contain trans fatty acids, but Kummerow notes the agency allows foods with fewer than 0.5 grams in a serving to be labeled as zero grams. He said that is misleading because people may be getting more trans fats in their diet than they realize.
Mohamedain Mahfouz, a professor with a doctorate in biochemistry who has worked in the lab with Kummerow for more than 25 years, said it's not just that the man is "very brilliant and has an amazing memory. It's that he never quits. He wins."
"Several years ago he said he would work until the end," Mahfouz said. "It is that inability to give up that has created this man."
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