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The 100-year-old scientist who pushed the FDA to ban artificial trans fat (washingtonpost.com)
154 points by Hooke on June 17, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 86 comments

To me this whole issue boils down to the degree of risk relative to the regulation. It is one thing to say the current evidence shows trans fats are worse for you than other fats, and that is why we require foods that use them to be labeled. It is another thing to ban them.

This just speaks to my overall philosophy on government -- one that I realize many do not share -- but I generally believe in giving adults the freedom to make bad personal decisions. And let's not kid ourselves about the severity of transfats. This isn't a chemical that you accidently inhale once and are dead an hour later. This is a substance that if you consume it throughout your life, increases your risk of other health issues. That does not seem ban worthy.

If all the food producers decide to use the same cheapest ingredient, what help does labeling provide? This story is an example of the government doing what it ought to, helping the people be defended from the bad behavior of corporations and society in general.

There is a larger question of how much harm should a product cause society before the government decides to put a stop to it. I would like the government to have a standard by which any issue is put to the test. The nanny state doesn't bother me as much as its arbitrary selectivity and application.

> If all the food producers decide to use the same cheapest ingredient, what help does labeling provide?

But in what world is that true? In any grocery store you can get food that is organic or non-organic, GMO or non-GMO, with sugar or sugar-free, with fat or fat-free, kosher or not kosher, vegan or non-vegan. We consumers have more food choices today than we've ever had in the past. To claim that "all food producers" will just "use the same cheapest ingredient" is a straw man.

Unfortunately, this isn't true. In many non-privileged areas you may have supermarkets like c-town, associated, fine-fare, or other non-boutique supermarkets that mostly stock mainstream products from mainstream food producers, as such they usually have very limited selections of organic and non-GMO foods, if any. So unless rules like these are passed, those groups are reliant on companies changing their behaviors based on market trends (such as rice krispy treats removing high fructose corn syrup from their boxed product). Worse, even in those cases most large food producers tend to roll out the "healthier" products specifically to the privileged areas, leaving the non-privileged with "worse" product.

I think issue of limited (and bad) food options has less to do with government regulations and more to do with the economics of those areas.

Apparently you've never been poor or lived in a food desert.

Poor people can't buy Organic non-GMO things; they're not affordable. If we ban this, they stop consuming it. Later in life we aren't picking up the tab for their health issues.

It just makes good economic sense and it's moral, too.

I think the "known to the state of california to cause cancer" warnings are on so many things that they are effectively meaningless. So that's probably an example of a required warning that has little effect.

> If all the food producers decide to use the same cheapest ingredient, what help does labeling provide?

The only way that would happen is if consumers all decide to prefer the cheaper ingredient. Based on the number of higher end grocery stores and restaurants I've seen open within the last few years, I don't see that as likely at all. After all, a lot of food producers have already willingly decided to ditch trans fat.

>This isn't a chemical that you accidently inhale once and are dead an hour later. This is a substance that if you consume it throughout your life, increases your risk of other health issues. That does not seem ban worthy.

On the contrary, there is an argument to be made that this is exactly the type of substance which is ban worthy. Obviously dangerous substances need not be banned, because their harm is enough to deter use. While less obvious, slow to damage, substances will not see less use without regulation.

less obvious, slow to damage, substances will not see less use without regulation

If you went to your supermarket a year ago (before the ban) you'd have a hell of a time trying to find margarine. Consumers demanded trans-fat free products and got them, even without government intervention.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that government regulation has a lot of problems and should be used judiciously.

However I think when it comes to the food supply and what people are eating I think a laissez faire approach is dangerous simply because of the incentives involved. On one hand you have the big food producers whose incentive is to maximize profits by doing two things: using the cheapest ingredients to make the most appealing products. The nutritional value of the food doesn't enter into the equation at all really, at most it's the perception of the nutritional value as a marketing property of the food. On the consumer side you have people who want something convenient and tasty, and who will have to make quite a conscious effort to pursue nutritional soundness that runs contrary to their immediate lizard-brain response to whatever food is available.

Given this reality, I think it's foolish to assume that the best science is going to make it to the forefront and be generally reflected in public awareness and the food supply. Especially considering the volume of bogus "science" that is funded and filtered by companies like Coca-Cola in order to post-hoc justify their cash-cow products.

If health care costs weren't socialized (they are) and if people were educated (they aren't) and if food always came with accurate labelling (it doesn't [1]) then I'd agree with you. But ultimately each individual does not have time or intelligence to research the heck out of each different field. I'm broadly a libertarian too, but we don't live in a free and intelligent utopian world yet, so let's just ban the transfats and radioactive paints and save everyone some trouble.

[1] 0.4 grams of transfat rounds down to 0, and restaurants are not required to track it.

Navel-gazing: from a public health perspective, aren't widely-prevalent 'creeping' factors of the leading killer in the US the low-hanging fruit to ban?

After decades of artificial trans fats being advertised as being healthier than fats of animal origin, with restaurant chains being forced to switch to trans fats, I find this to be quite funny. And then people wonder about the French paradox ... well, it's because you've been fed with lies.

are you sure you mean "artificial trans fats" and not "unsaturated fats" which in fact are healthier than saturated fats (which are primarily from animal origin).

Yes, I'm sure.

> which in fact

I love it when people talk about facts. There is no correlation between the use of saturated fats and cardiovascular disease, as those same dieticians which led us to believe otherwise have now changed their own story ...


Pertinent quote - "In comments recently submitted to USDA and HHS, the Academy supports the DGAC in its decision to drop dietary cholesterol from the nutrients of concern list and recommends it deemphasize saturated fat from nutrients of concern, given the lack of evidence connecting it with cardiovascular disease."

I don't think the correlation is in serious dispute.

I'm no dietitian, but going by https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturated_fat_and_cardiovascul... I don't see evidence for the "distinct and growing lack of scientific consensus" claimed in your link. The majority opinion still seems to be to prefer polyunsaturated fats over saturated fats.

You must not have grown up in one of millions of households where margarine was touted as healthier than butter

> it's because you've been fed with lies

Really, really good spoken!

I myself started distrusting many scientific claims. One day, all fats are bad for you, the other day only specific fats are bad and the next day, having to few fats are bad ...

And those fats are not the only "fads" that are around ... Today "xyz" is good for you ... tomorrow, who knows ...

EDIT for the downvoters:

I did not say, that all scientific claims are bullshit, but I want to say, that particularly some "scientific" claims paid by some big corporations might to be taken with a grain of salt! There are just to many people interested in "scientific" justification.

Depends how you look at it. Being old, I grew up with a set of dietary guidelines before they were mostly reversed in the USA in 1970s and 1980s. Since then, most Americans have become obese. I have not.

What you're seeing now is the unraveling of a set of mistakes made in the 1970s and 1980s, and we're getting closer to what my English mother and grandmother thought.

Try reading up on John Yudkin vs Ancel Keys. Keys' 1970s "Seven Countries" study was bullshit. Yudkin was right, and was treated despicably.

That is basically, what I wanted to say: Don't go with every fad and not with every "scientific" study. Some scientists are still trustworthy of course ... but as with politicians, not everybody is a person of integrity.

> with restaurant chains being forced to switch to trans fats

Really? Do you have any details?

I commented on this yesterday.

The Center for Science in The Public Interest engaged in a media campaign to pressure restaurants to switch from animal derived fats (like lard and beef tallow) to vegetable derived fats(like Crisco).

They used their influence to push a policy change that was more harmful to the public health than the status quo. Now, this same group has used their influence to push a policy change that directly reverses the one that they championed 30 years ago.

I understand that our view of things changes as we gain new information but the thing that irritates me about this is that there was no mea culpa involved, no admission that they got it wrong last time. They just went full speed ahead with no acknowledgement of their role in the current state of affairs.

Yes, in the 1980s most fast-food outlets have switched to trans fats over night due to being attacked in the media for using fats of animal origin.

While true, this phrasing may be a bit misleading. The concern at the time was that saturated fats were bad, and unsaturated fats were not as bad. But the unsaturated fats (think regular vegetable oil) is liquid at room temperature instead of a gel, and has different cooking characteristics.

But the process of hydrogenation turns that liquid (at room temp) oil into a form that is closer to the traditional animal fat oils (i.e., lard). It also happens that the hydrogenation produces as a byproduct a small amount of trans fat contamination (this was never the goal, to produce trans fats -- it is a hard to avoid side effect of hydrogenation). And at the time, the trans fats byproducts weren't thought to be as harmful as saturated fats, esp since they make up such a low percentage of the overall product. Of course, now science knows more, and corrections are being made.

Edit: Is my understanding above correct? I.e., is it the goal of hydrogenation to produce a more solid form of oil, and the trans fats are a byproduct? Or is it the trans fats that actually solidifies the oil?

    I.e., is it the goal of hydrogenation to produce
    a more solid form of oil, and the trans fats are
    a byproduct?

They switched to vegetable oils, not to trans fats.

Hydrogenated vegetables oils are the primary source of artificial trans fats in food. And McDonald's themselves readily admits they used to use trans fats in their fryers.

> For example, we switched to a cooking oil in our restaurants that reduced artificial trans fat in most of our fried menu items

> The fast-food giant already has demonstrated that it can eliminate trans fats when required. In Denmark, the company switched the oil it uses to make French fries to one that doesn't have any trans fat.

1. http://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/your_questions/our_food/are-y... 2. http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/stories/2006-12-06/why-mcdonalds...

This is interesting context going back to the 50's - much longer than the whole restaurant chain thing in the 80's (I think?):


There's only one solution: the government should ban lies.

His book worth a read: "Cholesterol is Not the Culprit: A Guide to Preventing Heart Disease"


Inspiring to read about anyone taking on the FDA to improve our food supply and the nation's health. Especially impressive considering that we're talking about a person 100 years old.

Goes to show age is not necessarily a barrier to productivity and creativity. Maybe it's fair to describe Dr. Kummerow as a kind of "geek" in his field. It follows that by all means we should honor old geeks, it doesn't serve our interests very well to discard them at 50 which I'm told is a current trend.

Article is a nice juxtaposition too, since just a few hours ago there was mention here of an article about diet and obesity. No doubt consuming substantial quantities of artificial trans-fats contributes to the health consequences of obesity if not obesity itself.

50 appears to be the number? When I was 30, I thought 50 was ancient. My doctor tells me 50 is when health problems start to climb the graph. I can tell you this 50 came too quick for myself. I'm not sure if being reminded 50 is old on a daily basis is good for the soul, or mental health? I'm thinking about disconnecting from all media, and advertising. They really bash the 50 and over crowd?

I was very scared of death in my 20-40's. I'm now 50 and I don't fear death like did when I was younger. I just don't want to die in agony like my father did. My father died of liver cancer, and it was beyond hell. I would not wish that pain he went through on my worst enemy. And yes--a Hospice nurse said it was 'just the natural process of death--'. The doctor came to the house once--I think?

I don't have a point other than the fear of death lessens as you get older. If you are reasonably healthy man in your 20-40's don't ruin your life ruminating about death. I did!

Oh yea, my generation is not my father's. There's no need to call me "Sir". I was born in the 60's. We are not my father's generation: We don't take ourself's seriously. We don't need to be doated on. We still look at the world as if we were children; meaning we don't trust the grown up's(the one's usually in charge), and dislike authority figures--abuse of authority. My generation was raised by beatings of orange Hot Wheel tracks, by Hippie/conservatives (father--conservative know it all. Mother--a hippie who was in need of therapy). We grew up and learned from our parents mistakes. Please don't lump my generation with all the others. We are just as lost and confused as most of you--just chronologically older. Sorry, about my neurotic rambling. I'm 50 alone, scared, and close to being homeless.

Join the club. http://jacquesmattheij.com/Fifty

I wouldn't sweat it too much, just ignore the number and keep pushing.

Cutting all advertising out of your life is a suggestion I'd heartily recommend, I did that many years ago as much as I could (outdoors it's a bit harder).

I don't understand why your country allows dogs to die in peace but does not grant humans the right to choose their own end. Here it is normal that someone says: "Ok, lets end it." And the morphine is increased slowly while you don't eat and drink. The fact that there is no evolutionary pressure to make death less painful does not mean your should experience the full effects of it. I mean your country does offer painless births (something my country is very hesitant in, I have no idea why, oh cultures...)

You answered your own question - because they are dogs. We also do not allow people to crush other people they consider pests, like an ant or a fly. Human life is considered of higher value than insects or dogs.

Perhaps I should clarify that "someone" means the person him or herself. Would you really say no looking someone you love in the eye while they ask you to end it?

Personally? Yes. I could not kill someone.

If you equate "relieving from unbearable suffering" with killing you must also equate not doing this with torture imo.

You value your own morals over the request of another, equal human being. To me that is your fundamental human right and I will not judge you for it. But I could not live with myself knowing that I denied someone I love their strongest wish while there is no cost to me personally. I'd feel incredibly selfish.

Just curious, would you actively stop someone in unbearable pain form killing her/himself or would you stop them? Would you help set up a machine to help someone kill her/himself?

Again, not judging, just loving this discussion and I'm willing to change my mind.

Could it be that the reason you fear death less as you get older is because you have done more in your life?

Or maybe because you know that certain things, if not done by now will most likely not be done in your life, and so the burden of "things left to do" is lesser as well.

I still fear death in that, like I said, I have many more things to do in life, but I've also known older people, even older than you, that fear death as well for this very same reason so not sure if this would be a potential reason or not, but I find it interesting.

PS. Sorry to hear you are going through a bad time :/

> I'm 50 alone, scared, and close to being homeless.

Would you like to elaborate?

Well if he's 100 year old and still active enough to do lobbying, he probably is doing something right diet-wise...

(Did you know that the guy who invented LSD died at 102?)

You're probably kidding, but just in case people take this seriously: this is a prime example of survivor's bias. A literal one, even.

Survivor bias is ignoring the invisible failures in your correlation analysis. What we have in regards to health research is the opposite. Every single study I heard about is about (preventing) causes of death.

What you're saying is, essentially, that this guy's age should be ignored because his longevity is due to luck. But I haven't seen anything that rules out other possibilities.

You're right, but:

> What you're saying is, essentially, that this guy's age should be ignored because his longevity is due to luck.

That is absolutely not what I was trying to say. Sorry for the confusion. I was responding to the "look, he's old! let's see what he did to get there," comment: it's a form of survivor bias.

It's not about this man, or his life choices. Rather, it's about us, looking to survivors for lessons on survival.

Wikipedia has a good page on it:

Survivorship bias, or survival bias, is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that "survived" some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. The survivors may be actual people, as in a medical study, or could be companies or research subjects or applicants for a job, or anything that must make it past some selection process to be considered further.


Kidding? LOL!

102†. Albert Hofmann survived. Will you?


Maybe just luck, along with good diet and exercise. He looks better than my grandpa did at 70.

Longevity is very hereditary.

Again, longevity is highly hereditary.

Like others said, beware selection bias. On the other hand, when someone gets to 100 there is a big chance someone did not do something wrong too often. In other words, if you do wrong things (diet, etc) your potential chances to get to 100 will drop significantly.

This sort of thing is why so many have decided to preemptively reject GMO foods. After so many failures, anything artificial in food is guilty until proven innocent.

Engineered food really has a terrible record. With the exception of a few early successes with nutrition enrichment (e.g. iodized salt) and sterilization/pasteurization, most of what we've done with food has been neutral to negative in outcome.

Part of the problem might be the incentives. Food is a brutal margin-crushing business. Food engineering is not being pursued with the goal of making food more nutritious or safer. The primary goal is to find ways to offer cheaper, inferior food at the same price -- to remove value from the product in such a way that the customer does not notice. Making food more addictive (junk food) is also an objective. "Heroin is the ideal product" as the saying goes.

With those objectives it's not surprising that "artificial" food has such a horrible reputation. It's effectively a synonym for food engineered to be superficially addictive but devoid of quality.

It's worthwhile to note that iodized salt and pasteurization were in fact undertaken with the goal of making food safer or curing a nutritional deficiency.

What about the trans fat already in our arteries ? Is it going to stay in our arteries for ever?

It's partly mentioned in the article:

> Later, he conducted a study showing that rats developed atherosclerosis after being fed artificial trans fats. When he removed the substance from their diets, the atherosclerosis disappeared from their arteries.

The body will eventually burn it for energy.

from plaque on the wall of arteries?

Yes? Did you have some special reason to italicize the word arteries?

First of all I am talking about the trans fats themself, and plaque is not made from the trans fats themself. Those fats will be burned for energy over time and vanish.

If you want to talk about the results of the trans fats, those too will reverse over time if the health of the person improves.

Do you have a source? There have been many clinical trials looking at cholesterol reducing drugs and their effect on plaque size.

Even with pharmacological intervention, reducing plaque size is really tough. The plaques are not just made of fat, but fibrosis tissue, immune cells, etc.

The trials are looking for a drug that does that without lifestyle changes.

There are tons of studies that show that better lifestyle helps, it's just most people can't do it. Not eating trans fats is one small change that will help, that is also easily done.

There are tons of studies that show that better lifestyle helps

Help reduce plaque size? I'd be interested to see those studies!

Help reduce heart attacks, which is what really matters.

Some studies for plaque reduction: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3872716/ http://atvb.ahajournals.org/content/19/8/1956.short http://atvb.ahajournals.org/content/15/7/827.short

There were also studies that show better diet stabilizes the plaque, preventing it from causing problems.

If you want to find more studies: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=plaque+regression

New insights into the possibility of plaque regression have been elicited by the ASTEROID, REVERSAL, and SATURN studies that utilized intensive statin therapy and demonstrated plaque regression in majority of study patients. However, these trials showed less than 10% regression in overall plaque volume only, which may not explain CV event reduction.

You've changed your claim. First you said a healthy diet will reduce plaque volume, now you say it just helps reduce heart attack rates.

Even the studies you cited only show minimal plaque volume reduction (so small it's questionable if it helps at all) and only with intensive pharmacological therapy.

Some white blood cells will calcify and stick to arteries. The process can be reversed, but it is very slow.

Yeah, couldn't they have also banned intravenous trans fat? :)

>first published his research warning about the dangers of artery-clogging trans fats in 1957

It amazes me these things take so long when the evidence is pretty clear. I see the UK government still hasn't banned the things although most supermarkets and fast food chains have dropped them. I wonder if in the age of the internet that problems that kill probably tens of thousands of people will get dealt with in less than 55 years?

What's more amazing to me is how fast junk science gets adopted. Perhaps people hear/believe what they want to hear/believe.

The FDA's dietary guidelines (aka Food Pyramid) were based mostly on junk science, and their adoption correlates with the rapid growth in obesity in America.

Vested interests (politicians, the food industry, even health organisations) make it very hard to overturn them once they're adopted. It would cost the food industry money and everybody else loses face if they have to admit they screwed up.

It's a lot simpler just to let tens of millions of Americans become obese and many thousands die of heart disease.

In passing, Denmark banned trans fats in 2003 and has seen a "70% fall in cardiovascular disease deaths". http://www.euractiv.com/sections/health-consumers/denmark-se...

Minor nitpick: The food pyramid wasn't a product of the FDA, it was a product of the USDA. Also the classic food pyramid was "overturned" a couple times, now it is a plate. You are right though, money and outside influence are involved, sometimes exclusively. Honestly, I don't think the USDA should be telling us what to eat in that way because we know that humans can survive and even thrive on a very large variety of diets.

Story time. Growing up I used to see the food pyramid posted on the walls everywhere - school, after school programs, etc. I became concerned that I wasn't eating enough bread due to looking at it all the time. One day I went home and tried to eat something like 12 slices of (white) bread. This is of course a really silly thing to do.

Many thanks for the nitpick: yes, it was USDA ;-)

Denise Minger's book on the topic, Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined Our Health, is better than I expected...


Always follow the money.

For those interested, there's a documentary underway where Kummerov is one of the interviewees: "On the back of a tiger" http://www.perceivethinkact.com/.

I suppose if I want good health it's worth listening to the guy who made it to 100.

What do you guys think about the fact that the current head of the FDA (edit: I am referring to M. Taylor, deputy commissioner of food and vet.) has spent a lot of his career working with Monsanto?

On one hand, we want someone running the FDA who has experience with the food industry. (Just as we would probably prefer having a manager who has spent time in the trenches coding).

On the other (tin foil hat) hand, has the food industry placed a 'friend' in charge of the people that should be regulating them?

You could argue that the best people to fight the bad guys are recruited from the bad guys, or former bad guys. After all, Frank Abagnale Jr was recruited by the FBI to catch check forgers.

> After all, Frank Abagnale Jr was recruited by the FBI to catch check forgers

He wasn't put in charge of the FBI though and I'd assume he had heavy oversight.

Insiders dominate pretty much every major government agency of consequence that deals intimately with the private sector.

Treasury, SEC, FDA, FCC, etc. They're all stocked full of cross-overs, that go from private to public and back or vice versa.

I don't think there's anything tin foil about it at all. It's de facto how the system works. I don't think it guarantees how a person will regulate, but it does probably trend toward heavy bias.

The alternative is what we have in infosec: the folks in charge of 'cyber' in the govt don't have a clue, because they have no background or connections to the 'industry' or technology at all. And it's a total disaster.

The FCC guy surprised us all though.

So we're banning trans-fats because they are unhealthy and cause heart issues for the people whom directly consume them?

But smoking is A-OK even though it harmfully impacts people around the smoker and not just the smoker?

I do not find "because it is unhealthy for you" a compelling enough reason to ban something that tastes good and provides a convenience (storage) if we aren't going to be consistent with the logic of "its banned because its bad for you".

my take: [Optimistically] It's because heart disease is the #1 premature cause of death while lung disease is just #3 (though the percentage gap is much wider than their positions suggest) and therefore a good target for helping society at large through regulation[1]

[Pessimistically] the #1 cause of poor health conditions is heart disease, and therefore the medicare/medicade cost is too high for the govt to foot the bill, so they're finally regulating. :P


Smoking causes more cancers than just lung cancer. Cancer is the #1 cause of premature deaths - although that's including all 200 odd sum of cancers, not all smoking related.

For a more fair comparison you would have to sum together the cancers it is linked to, then factor the number of deaths of those cancers that were smoking-related. Which makes the math a bit trickier:


Not to mention there are non-death but still health-related issues that add up medical expenses. Which is a bit harder to quantify.

Also, as mentioned prior, other people suffer because of smokers from second-hand smoke. I feel strongly about this because I grew up with asthma and almost died at age 6 from an asthma attack that developed because of my father's smoking.

Smoking can kill the people around you. Eating transfats won't (unless they're sharing your food).

Don't be obtuse on purpose. Of course smoking is bad for you. Smoking related diseases kill millions of people world wide every year.

Banning trans fats as nothing to do with smoking.

I'd argue you're the one being obtuse on purpose. I explained very clearly the connection between Banning A and Not Banning B for C reason when C is a shared reason.

>I do not find "because it is unhealthy for you" a compelling enough reason to ban something that tastes good and provides a convenience (storage) if we aren't going to be consistent with the logic of "its banned because its bad for you".

If they want to ban transfats because it is unhealthy for me with little to no benefits - I want them to ban smoking because it is unhealthy - and not just for me but for the people around me with little to no benefits.

If their reason for banning A (transfats) matches with banning B (smoking) and both are leading causes of death (C), have large medical expenses for Americans (C), are unhealthy with little/few/no health benefits (C), then it logically follows that if you ban A you should also ban B for C.

Because they are not banning B for reason C - I do not see that as a compelling enough reason to ban A because it not compelling enough to ban B; and A and B are equivalent issues for reasons C.

The answer is, of course, they profit vastly off B because of taxes. If they are profiting off of the deaths of Americans, wheres the problem?

Dude looks like he's 30 years younger.

I hope there's a laugh out there for some of you ... =|

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