Thomas H.Applewhite (1924-2012)

The Author: Gary R. List

Tom grew up in southern California. Shortly after finishing high school he enlisted in the US Navy. By July 1943 he was assigned to the J. Richard Wood (Destroyer Escort 243). His tour of duty covered both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters where his ship performed escort duties to protect merchant ships against German submarines. By the time his ship was assigned to the Pacific the war was winding down so he headed back to the United States where he was discharged in December 1945. Tom had a keen interest in science, so as a veteran he took advantage of the GI bill. He enrolled at the Pasadena City College in 1949 and received a BS in chemistry four years later. In 1954 he enrolled at the California Institute of Technology and received a PhD in plant physiology and organic chemistry. His graduate work was very productive resulting in a number of publications in the Journal of Organic Chemistry and The Journal of the American Chemical Society.

After completing his PhD in 1957 he took a position at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Western Regional Research Laboratory in Albany, California. Over the period 1957-67, he conducted and led research focusing on castor, safflower and lesquerella oils.

In 1967 Tom left the USDA to take a position as Director of Research at the Pacific Vegetable Oil Corporation in Richmond, California. He remained there until accepting a position as Manager of the Edible Oil Products Laboratory at Kraft Foods in Glenview, IL.

Tom joined AOCS in 1959. He served in a number of positions within the Society including the Governing Board ( 1975), Vice President,(1976) and President(1977). His service to AOCS included Associate editor of JAOCS (1967) as well as Editor-in-Chief from 1986-1991. In 1990 the News Journal (INFORM ) was launched with Tom as Editor-in-Chief. He served in that position until he was succeeded by Tim Mounts in 1993. In 1976 Tom was the General Chairman for the world conference on oilseed and vegetable processing technology. In 1992, the conference was held in Budapest with Tom serving as editor of the proceedings. In 1990 the A0CS sponsored a world conference on oleochemicals in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. Tom served as editor of the proceedings. A world conference on lauric oils was held in Manila and once again Tom edited the proceedings. In the late 1970s, Wiley embarked on the publication of a fourth edition of the standard fats and oils textbook Baileys Industrial fats and oils. Editions 1 and 2 were authored by Bailey (1945,1951) while the 3rd remained a single volume authored by a number of AOCS members in 1964. The 4th edition was expanded to three volumes appearing in 1979, 1982 and in 1985. Tom was selected as the editor of volume 3. Books often encounter delays in meeting publication deadlines. Those authors who had the privilege of contributing to volume 3 can attest to the fact that Tom Applewhite ensured that deadlines were met.

Tom received a number of awards including the AOCS Bailey Medal and the A. R. Baldwin Distinguished Service Award. In 1998, AOCS established the Fellows category of membership to recognize those making outstanding service to the society and or contribution to lipid science and technology. At that time honorary members including A.R. Baldwin, Karl Zilch and Thomas Applewhite were recognized as Distinguished AOCS Fellows, all of whom are now deceased.

In addition to his long service to AOCS, Tom was active in the Margarine Manufacturers Association as chairman of the technical committee. He was also a member and advisor to the Institute of Shortening and Oils (ISEO). During his tenure on the ISEO technical committee, the health and nutritional effects of trans fatty acids became a major concern for the edible oil and food processors. Tom became a voice for refuting misconceptions and errors in the literature. At the time, Mary Enig took the position that saturated fatty acids were not nearly as harmful to human health compared to trans fatty acids to which Tom vehemently disagreed. The two argued heatedly at several AOCS meetings. The question of whether trans, saturated, and omega3 fatty acids are harmful or beneficial to human health still remains controversial. In particular, the basis for the diet-heart hypothesis has been that saturated and trans fatty acids raise LDL cholesterol levels which in turn increase the risk of cardiovascular disease while mono and polyunsaturated acids reduce risks. Some researchers have questioned whether saturated acids have been properly treated in numerous mega-analysis ( epidemiological-) studies Likewise the role of trans fats in coronary heart disease remains unclear. The edible oil industry has been criticized for sponsoring trans fat research refuting the negative effects of trans fats on serum cholesterol levels. However, some researchers in academia have reached similar conclusions. The role of cholesterol in coronary heart disease has been questioned by Ravsnkov who agrees that elevated cholesterol levels correlate with heart disease mortality but maybe just a marker for other causes. His writings are listed in further reading.

Nearly 40 years have passed since Applewhite addressed the role of trans fats in human nutrition. Since that time thousands of publications have appeared in the literature many of which support his previous conclusions based on a careful review of literature existing at the time. Nonetheless, trans fat nutrition labeling became law in 2003. The costs of reformulation of foods were estimated by FDA to be considered but deemed justified by the saving of lives and related medical costs to heart disease. Data show that deaths` (/100000 all age groups) from heart disease in the US have decreased steadily over the period 1950 to present. Many factors may account for this trend including dietary guidelines for fat intake, reductions in smoking, emphasis on exercise-physical fitness, vastly improved medical procedures /diagnosis, cholesterol monitoring, statin drugs etc. If we compare death rates from 1980 to the present, dietary guidelines, statin drugs, and trans fat labeling show no marked effect other than a steady predictable decrease (plot log CHD/100000 vs Years 1950-2013). In 1983 Applewhite stated, “ that the consequences of not considering all evidence are confusing to the public, a loss of credibility by the medical and scientific communities and undermining the validity of scientific evaluations in the eyes of the public and the media as well.” In 1981 Tom wrote in part “These authors, as have others, appear to talk interchangeably and collectively of trans monoenes, or trans dienes, and cis-trans or trans cis dienes as trans-unsaturated fats. This is sloppy science and only confuses and misleads less informed readers. We would urge that such discussions center on the correct lipid classes as they undoubtedly differ in their physiological activity or lack thereof.” In 1999, Lichtenstein showed that indeed different forms of trans fats have variable effects on serum lipoprotein cholesterol levels.

Several landmark studies on dietary lipids are worth noting. Prior to 1990, the FDA took the position that insufficient data precluded regulation of trans fatty acids. However that same year Mensick and Katan (Unilever) reported a study that indicated trans fatty acids alter the ratio of LDL and HDL serum cholesterol differently when compared to saturated acids In other words trans acids increase levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower HDL (good cholesterol) compared to saturated acids. Although the report raised new concerns with regards to the health effects of trans fatty acids, several aspects of the study design indicated caution in extrapolating the results to the American diet since the amounts of mono, polyunsaturated, saturated, and trans acids were not representative of US dietary intakes. In the Netherland study, in particular, intakes of trans acids were considerably higher compared to the US.

With support from the ISEO and USDA, Judd (1994) conducted and reported a study very similar to the Netherland study although the diets were in line with those consumed in the US. The diets included an oleic, a moderate? a high trans (NOT CLEAR) and a saturate. This study essentially confirmed Mensick and Katan’s results as did a study reported by Lichtenstein.(1999)

Schleifer has been critical of industry meddling in trans fat research including suppression, control, or discrediting or damning (Is this correct?) scientific findings of their products and technologies. The tobacco and pharmaceutical companies were cited as examples. He asserted that food companies and food trade associations routinely attempt to undermine damaging scientific claims. However, he failed to mention the popular press and radical consumer groups who are using questionable science to promote their agendas. When results from industry (Mensick ) , Government (Judd), and Academia (Lichtenstein) are in excellent agreement this can hardly be criticized as meddling. These studies have shown that saturated and trans fatty acids both raise LDL levels to nearly the same extent while total serum cholesterol levels and triglycerides are only slightly increased.

Notes and Further Reading

  • Applewhite elected chairman of the technical committee of the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers JAOCS, 54, 15 A, 1977.
  • Applewhite, AOCS presidents inaugural address. JAOCS ,54, 557 A, 1977.
  • T, Applewhite, Letters to the editor. Lipids 16, 703 -704, 1981.
  • AOCS Candidates for 1977-1978. JAOCS, 54, 72 A, 1977.
  • The following quote is attributed to Dr. Tom Applewhite “To lead one must first serve.”
  • J. Hunter and T. Applewhite. Isomeric fatty acids in the US diet: Levels and health implications Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 44, 707 -717 1986. Also Reassessment of trans fatty acids in the US diet ibid 54, 363-369, 1991.
  • T. Applewhite. Nutritional effects of hydrogenated soybean oil. JAOCS, 58, 260-269, 1981.
  • T. Applewhite. Trans isomers serum lipids and cardiovascular disease: Another point of view Nutr. Rev. 51, 344-345, 1993.
  • T.Applewhite. Nutrition effects of isomeric fats: Facts and fantasies. In Dietary Fat and Health, Ed., E.G.Perkins and W.J. Visek AOCS Press Champaign IL 414-424, 1983.
  • U. Ravnskov. The questionable role of saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in coronary heart disease. J. Clin.Epidemiol. 51 443-460 1998
  • U. Ravnskov. A hypothesis out-of-date: The diet-heart idea J.Clin. Epidemiol 55, 1057-1063, 2002.
  • U. Ravnskov. Atheroscelrosis caused by high cholesterol? Qu. J.Med. 95 397-403, 2002.
  • U. Ravsnkov. The cholesterol myths: Exposing the fallacy that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease New Trends Publishing Washington DC.2000 305 pages
  • R. Hoenselaar. Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease: The discrepancy between the scientific literature and dietary advice. Nutrition. 118-123, 2012.
  • D. Schleifer. We spent a million bucks and then we had to do something: The unexpected implications of industry involvement in trans fat research Bull.of Sci.Technol. 31 460-471, 2011.
  • A. Lichtenstein et al. Effects of different forms of hydrogenated fat on serum lipoprotein cholesterol levels New England J. Med. 340, 1933-1940, 1999. Also Trans fatty acids, plasma lipid levels and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease; a statement for health care professionals from the American Heart Association Circulation 95 `2588-2590, 1997.
  • J. Judd, M. Clevidence, R. Muesing, J.Wittes, M. Sunkin, and J. Podczasy. Am. J. Clin.Nutr. 59, 861-868, 1994.
  • M. Enig. Trans Fatty Acids in the Food Supply: A comprehensive report covering 60 years of research, 2nd Edition ENIG ASSOCIATES, Silver Springs MD, 1993, 215 pages
  • D. Schliefer. The Perfect Solution: How trans fats became a healthy replacement for saturated fats. Technology and Culture. 53, pp 93-119,2012