On this particular day, the wiry old bespectacled gentleman prepares himself a lunch centered on a piece of leftover steak. He adds a bit of lettuce, tomato, avocado and some squash he's cooked up. Squash, he says, is a good source of fiber, which you need to carry your food through your intestinal tract. He adds a glass of milk. He always has a glass of milk at breakfast, at noon and at night. He starts each day with a fried egg. The egg contains all of the amino acids that you need, he'll tell you. He also believes in the importance of exercise every day and in keeping the mind busy, to not sit there and do nothing except semi-watch TV but to engage in something that "tickles" the brain.
His diet may seem a bit old school to some, but this man, Fred Kummerow, has long been ahead of his time — or ahead of time in general. Kummerow turned 100 years old last October. A professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, he was one of the first to discover a link between trans fats in processed foods and heart disease. It's taken the scientific community a half-century to ultimately accept his findings.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced it will implement a nearly zero-tolerance ban of partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of trans fats. Food companies will be given three years to phase them out of their offerings.
For more than 100 years, trans fats have been an integral part of the U.S. food system. While their prevalence in processed foods has been chipped away by regulations starting in 2006, they are still in full force in many popular products on the grocery shelf today, including frostings, microwave popcorn, packaged pies, frozen pizzas, margarines and coffee creamers. These "killer" products remain on the shelf despite the fact that trans fats are well-established as a major contributor to heart disease in the United States. The FDA estimates that the ban will prevent as many as 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease per year.
"Kummerow knew about trans fats starting in 1957, but the establishment juggernaut rolled on," Geoffrey Cannon, an international adviser at the World Cancer Research Fund, said in reaction to the FDA announcement. "He knows that the issue is not just trans fats; it is hydrogenation, a process that remains crucial for the production of energy-dense, fatty, ultra-processed products."
In its ruling, the FDA listed partially hydrogenated oils as no longer being "generally recognized as safe." The Institute of Medicine had already concluded there is no safe level for consumption of them, a stance the FDA cited in its reasoning.
Kummerow immigrated to the U.S. with his parents when he was 9, moving from Germany to Milwaukee to flee World War I. During the Great Depression, after high school, he landed a job at a brewery bottling plant and ended up earning enough money to attend night school at the University of Wisconsin. He went on to get a doctorate in biochemistry. His interest in trans fats began in the 1950s with the study of arteries of people who had died of heart attacks.
In 1975, Kummerow began looking at the impacts of food on pig arteries and found that feeding pigs a heavy diet of artificial fats led to a dangerous buildup of plaque. His findings showed that saturated fats were not, as believed, necessarily the culprit in cardiovascular disease. That same year, he argued against trans fats in front of the Federal Trade Commission. His testimony was dismissed because he was a chemist and not a cardiologist. In 2009, he wrote a petition to the FDA, complaining that its labeling requirements, which let labels read "0" for anything containing less than a half-gram of trans fats, gave license to food companies to essentially lie about the contents of their products. He recommended that trans fats be banned. The FDA did not respond.
A few years later, he was contacted by an attorney who offered to sue the agency on Kummerow's behalf. In November 2013, the FDA issued its first preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not "generally recognized as safe" for use in food. The agency did not cite Kummerow's lawsuit as playing a role in its decision.
Though his work regarding trans fats is now widely accepted, his views on cholesterol continue to draw some criticism within the medical community. In his view, it's perfectly fine to eat cholesterol-dense cheese, meat, butter and eggs, as long as they're part of a healthy lifestyle that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains and exercise.
"You need some saturated fat, but you don't have to load yourself up. You got to eat a balanced diet. You've got to eat so much protein, so much fat and so much carbohydrate and plenty of vegetables and fruit. And milk. That's the best kind of diet," he told a News-Gazette reporter in February.
Though he retired in 1978, Kummerow continues his research and publishes studies that challenge the status quo, most recently working on causes for Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Kummerow's wife, Amy, died of Parkinson's in 2012 at age 94.
"I wasn't trying to have a long life, just trying to eat right and learn about diet and heart disease. And I think I've shown a few people some things," he told Men's Journal.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is heralding the elimination of trans fats as the single most important change made to our food supply.
Though this modest man is taking neither bows nor credit for his unwavering work, he should be viewed as a national hero of the first order.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.