At 94, University of Illinois veterinary biosciences professor emeritus Fred Kummerow is an extraordinarily busy — and determined — man. Not only is he continuing to conduct research on how trans fats in the diet can harm health, he’s taking on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and sounding the alarm that the federal agency is allowing inadequate and misleading trans fat food labels which are downright dangerous to health.
Last month, Dr. Kummerow filed a 3,000 word petition with the FDA that outlines why trans fats, long a part of the American diet of fast and processed foods, are extremely bad for the human body and why the FDA is doing a rotten job of warning the public about what foods contain these substances. His mission is nothing less than to eradicate trans fats from human consumption. “Everybody should read my petition because it will scare the hell out of them,” Kummerow proclaimed in a statement to the press.
Trans fats (also known as trans fatty acids) are not found in nature. They are made through the chemical process of hydrogenating oils. Sometimes labeled as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat or oil, trans fats are often used in baked goods like doughnuts, breads, crackers, potato chips, cookies, margarine and salad dressings.
So what’s so bad about these processed fats? Plenty. They are known to be a factor in the build up of atherosclerosis, the accumulation of plaque in the arteries that interferes with blood flow, and they contribute to the formation of blood clots in coronary arteries that can lead to heart attacks and sudden death. What’s more, trans fats are now also known to increase low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), the “bad” cholesterol, and to spur inflammation, which has been linked to a host of illnesses from heart disease to cancer.
Dr. Kummerow is no Johnny-come-lately to the field of trans fat research. He began publishing on the subject in 1957. And his crusade against trans fats in food began in earnest in 1968 when he insisted the American Heart Association urge members of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils to decrease the amount of trans fatty acids in shortenings and margarines and to replace them with essential fatty acids. “Even then, there was strong evidence that trans fatty acids increased plasma cholesterol levels,” Kummerow said in the statement to the press.
The food oil industry dragged its heels but finally lowered the trans fatty acid content and increased essential fatty acids in some processed food products. Those changes coincided with a significant decline in coronary heart disease mortality after 1968. However, far too many trans fats have remained in the American diet and heart disease has continued to be a huge killer.
According to Dr. Kummerow’s research, the latest published last month in the journal Artherosclerosis, trans fats displace the essential fatty acids linoleic acid (omega-6) and linolenic acid (omega-3), which the human body needs to be healthy. Dr. Kummerow’s research has also found that trans fats interfere with the function of a key enzyme essential to blood flow regulation.
Faced with enormous evidence showing that trans fats are detrimental to health, the FDA finally required, starting in 2006, that trans fats are listed on food labels — or at least the FDA gave the impression that trans fats had to be listed. Dr. Kummerow says the FDA put in loop-holes that allow food labels to be woefully inadequate and downright misleading. For example, anything less than one-half gram of trans fats per serving is listed as zero grams. Clearly, anyone reading such a label would get the wrong impression that the food product has zero trans fats. And that’s a lie.
So Dr. Kummerow is calling the FDA out on this issue with his petition. He’s given the agency 180 days to respond to the facts he’s clearly listed. “According to American Heart Association data, nearly 2,400 Americans die of heart disease each day,” Dr. Kummerow explained in the media statement. “This statistic shows the importance of a quick response.”
If you’d like to help Dr. Kummerow get the message to the FDA that misleading the public about trans fat is not acceptable, you can read his petition and offer your comments at www.regulations.gov. Under “Enter Keyword or ID,” type the petition docket number (2009-P-0382) and click on “search”. Once you get the results, scroll down the right-hand column and click on “Submit a Comment.” Enter your information on the left and write your comment in the box on the right.
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