Born in Germany, Kummerow’s family moved to the United States when he was 8; they settled in Milwaukee, Wisc. His uncle gave him a chemistry set for his 12th birthday. “It opened the world of science to me,” Kummerow said, and in 1939 he received a degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, then a Ph.D. in biochemistry there in 1943. He studied lipids — fats, glycerides, and such. During World War II, he got an assignment from the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps to figure out why poultry couldn’t be frozen without it turning rancid. It was the food being fed to the birds, he decided. They were mainly fed linseed meal back then. He experimented with different feeds, and found the birds’ lipids, which make up a little more than one percent of chicken and turkey meat, were reacting poorly to the linseed oil. He advised farmers to feed the birds cornmeal instead, which not only solved the Army’s problem, but allowed for chicken and turkey to successfully be frozen and sold in stores, which is how they’ve become the primary meat in American diets. Meanwhile, the idea that what one eats could have a major effect on the fats in the body led Kummerow, now at the University of Illinois, to study the human diet and what effect it has. In the 1950s he studied the arteries of people who had died from heart disease, and was shocked to find huge fat deposits. It wasn’t the fat from meats and butter, though, but rather hydrogenated oils that made processed foods more shelf stable. These so-called “trans fats” were killing people, Kummerow realized. He published his findings in 1957, in the journal Science.
Nutritionists were skeptical: surely “everyone” knew it was the fats from red meat that was a problem, not trans fats. No, Kummerow, argued, moderate amounts of red meat and butter are fine in a diet. The debate raged for decades. To prove his contention, Kummerow was able to get trans fats included in the Nurses’ Health Study, which started in 1976 and tracked 116,000 nurses to assess their diets, exercise, and disease risk factors. The results took more years, but by 1993 the study showed a clear link between trans fats and coronary artery disease, and other scientists estimate that trans fats caused about 90,000 premature deaths — per year. With that clear connection, Kummerow started fighting with the Food and Drug Administration, trying to get them to ban trans fats. The FDA dragged its feet, even after the Center for Science in the Public Interest jumped on board, petitioning in 1994 that the FDA at least require trans fats to be mentioned on food labels. The FDA didn’t grant that petition until 2006. The American Heart Association started warning about the dangers of trans fats in 2004. Still the FDA did little, until 2013, when Kummerow sued the government over its inaction. He was 98 years old at the time, but was ready for the fight. “Artificial trans fat is a poisonous and deleterious substance, and the FDA has acknowledged the danger,” he declared. The FDA backed down: it took them three months to write the directives, but the agency gave food manufacturers three years to get it out of food. That deadline is June 18, 2018. It took 58 years from his initial discovery, but “Science won out,” Dr. Kummerow declared. He died on May 31, at his Illinois home. He was 102, and never gave up eating red meat, and eggs scrambled with butter.