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Trans Fats Take Another Heart-Health Hit

Pioneering researcher makes key discovery about the downside of hydrogenated oils at the age of 94
by Craig Weatherby and Randy Hartnell

Last week, we heard from friend and tireless health advocate Ted Miller… a trained fats chemist and community farmer among other things… who's still incredibly active and vital after turning 90 six years ago.

(We provided Vital Choice Salmon Oil for a preliminary diet-health study initiated by Ted and conducted by Scott Rice, Ph.D., M.D.… see “Fish Oil Pioneer Picks Vital Choice Salmon Oil.”)

Key Points
  • Trans omega-6 fats block production of a key blood-flow regulating agent called prostacyclin.
  • Finding follows discoveries that “trans” form omega-6 fats reduce absorption and metabolism of healthy “cis” form omega-6 fats, which indirectly cuts production of prostacyclin and other blood flow regulating agents.
  • Trans omega-6 fats are already proven to raise blood cholesterol, fat, and inflammation levels and promote artery calcification.
Ted follows fats-and-health research, and he's alerted us to a new finding about the negative effects of the trans fats found in most packaged foods.

Trans fats are created when vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated to increase their shelf life and hardness.

Cities across the country have banned trans fats from restaurants, while food manufacturers are now required to disclose its trans fat content… and have been trying to eliminate them in order to please health-conscious consumers.

These move are reactions to very strong evidence that the large amounts of trans fats in the average American diet
which is high in processed and packaged foods made with trans fatsharms cardiovascular health and raise death risk.

As it turns out, the newest bad news about trans fats comes from another nonagenarian: Fred Kummerow, a 94-year-old emeritus veterinary biosciences professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dr. Kummerow has spent nearly 60 years studying lipid (fat) biochemistry, and published his first trans fat research in 1972.

His early findings made him a long-time advocate for a ban on trans fats… someone decades ahead of his time, whose findings were ignored far too long.

Now, he reports finding that trans fats interfere with blood flow in even more ways than he's discovered in the past decade.

This finding from Dr. Kummerow's lab reveals a new way in which trans fats gum up the cellular machinery that keeps our blood flowing smoothly.

New findings add to trans fats' cardiovascular crimes [?]
Dr. Kummerow describes the two main causes of heart disease1) sudden blood clots in the coronary arteries, and 2) atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in the arteries to the point where it interferes with blood flow.

“The arteries of someone who dies from atherosclerosis look like old scrub boards as a result of the formation of plaques,” Kummerow said. “They look corrugated, and this plaque buildup continues to the point where it will stop blood flow.”

It's been known that trans fats promote many key risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including interfering with the regulation of blood flow.

But as Dr. Kummerow said, “This is the first time that trans fatty acids have been shown to interfere with yet another part of the blood-flow process. This study adds another piece of evidence to a long list that points to trans fats as significant contributors to heart disease” (UIUC 2009).

The new study reports that omega-6 trans fats reduce the amount of prostacyclin needed to keep blood flowing. Thus blood clots may more easily develop, and sudden death is possible.

What trans fats do to cardiovascular health
Polyunsaturated omega-6 fats normally come in the curved, “cis” form in which they are essential to human life and health.

But the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils found in many processed and packaged foods contain omega-6 fatty acids in an unnatural “trans” form, in which they become straight and behave more like saturated fats.

Like saturated fats, trans-form omega-6 fats raise levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels: factors which can contribute to heart disease

Trans omega-6 fats exert other harmful effects, such as increasing triglycerides and Lp(a) lipoproteins.

Trans omega-6 fats are also associated with increased inflammation in the arteries, caused by the damage that trans-forms omega-6 fats cause within the cells lining our blood vessels.

And trans omega-6 fats have been found to change the composition of cell membranes, making them leakier to calcium.

Inflammation, high LDL cholesterol, and calcified arteries are the signature ingredients of atherosclerosis.

Trans omega-6 fats also hurt health by competing with natural “cis” omega-6s for absorption into our cell membranes.

And, as Dr. Kummerow showed in earlier research, trans omega-6 fats interfere with an enzyme that converts the most common dietary omega-6 fat - linoleic acid (LA), which predominates in the most commonly used vegetable oils - into the critical omega-6 fat called arachidonic acid (AA).

This interference matters because omega-6 AA is needed for the production of prostacyclin (a blood-flow enhancer) and thromboxane (which regulates the formation of blood clots needed for wound healing).

While some in the food oil industry believed this problem could be overcome simply by adding more natural, “cis” form omega-6 LA fat to partially hydrogenated fats, Kummerow's team reported in 2007 that extra LA did not overcome the problem.

“Dietary trans fats inhibited the synthesis of AA from LA, even when there was plenty of LA available,” he said at the time.

Where do trans fats come from? Are food labels misleading?
Trans omega-6 fats are made through hydrogenation, which involves bubbling hydrogen through hot vegetable oil in the presence of heavy metals, changing the arrangement of double bonds in the omega-6 essential fatty acids in the oil and “saturating” the “unsaturated” carbon chain with hydrogen.

(This process also destroys virtually all of the few omega-3 fats found in the vegetable oilssoy, cottonseed, sunflower, safflowermost commonly hydrogenated for use in margarine, frozen foods, and shelf-stable packaged foods.)

Because double bonds are rigid, altering them can straighten or twist fat molecules into new configurations that give the fats their special qualities, such as the lower melting point of margarine that keeps it firm at room temperature.

Omega-6 fats in their trans form displace natural “cis” form omega-6 fats, which the body needs for a variety of functions critical to good health, including regulation of blood flow.

Unfortunately, it took decades for researchers to notice the cell-level pathologies that result from modern diets high in processed foods and trans omega-6 fats.

Fred Kummerow believes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's new requirement (begun in 2006) that trans fats be included on food labels is inadequate and misleading.

Anything less than one-half gram of trans fats per serving can be listed as zero grams, Kummerow said, so people are often getting the mistaken impression that their food is trans fat-free.

“Go to the grocery store and compare the labels on the margarines,” he said. “Some of them say zero trans fat. That's not true. Anything with partially hydrogenated oils in it contains trans fat.”

“Partially hydrogenated fats can be made trans fat-free,” Kummerow said. “The industry would be helped by an FDA ban on trans fat that would save labeling costs, medical costs and lives.”

  • Kummerow FA, Mahfouz MM, Zhou Q. Trans fatty acids in partially hydrogenated soybean oil inhibit prostacyclin release by endothelial cells in presence of high level of linoleic acid. Prostaglandins Other Lipid Mediat. 2007 Nov;84(3-4):138-53. Epub 2007 Aug 6.
  • Kummerow FA, Zhou Q, Mahfouz MM, Smiricky MR, Grieshop CM, Schaeffer DJ. Trans fatty acids in hydrogenated fat inhibited the synthesis of the polyunsaturated fatty acids in the phospholipid of arterial cells. Life Sci. 2004 Apr 16;74(22):2707-23.
  • Kummerow FA, Zhou Q, Mahfouz MM. Effect of trans fatty acids on calcium influx into human arterial endothelial cells. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Nov;70(5):832-8.
  • Kummerow FA. The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them. Atherosclerosis. 2009 Mar 19. [Epub ahead of print]
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Trans fats hinder multiple steps in blood flow regulation pathways. June 16, 2009. Accessed at