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Millionaire Health Crusader Poorer But Says Consumers Richer

January 6, 1989

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ A multimillionaire is $2 million poorer, but he’s convinced that American consumers are richer as the result of his one-man quest to rid food of highly saturated tropical oils.

″It’s a story of the little guy against the giant and the giant is backing down,″ said Omaha businessman Phil Sokolof, who spends almost all his time on his anti-cholesterol campaign.

The 66-year-old Sokolof poured $2 million into nationwide newspaper advertising in an effort to persuade the public to stop buying foods high in saturated fat because of tropical oils, chiefly coconut oil and palm oil.

Saturated fats increase blood cholesterol levels, which can lead to heart attacks.

Sokolof has claimed victory over four major food processors - Kellogg’s, Sunshine Biscuits, Pepperidge Farm and Keebler.

Keebler became the latest corporate trophy head in Sokolof’s health crusade when it announced Wednesday that all tropical oil, lard and beef fat would be removed from Keebler products.

Keebler President Thomas Garvin told the Washington Post that the change in his company’s food formulas had no connection with Sokolof’s campaign. He accused Sokolof of sensationalizing the issue.

Brian Dobson, a spokesman for Sunshine Biscuits, made similar comments when he announced last month that Sunshine would eliminate palm oil and palm kernel from its cookie and cracker products.

Kellogg’s vice president Joseph Stewart complained last November that Sokolof’s ads were irresponsible and ″a gross exaggeration,″ but wrote him in December to announce that Kellogg’s had stopped using tropical oils in its ″Cracklin’ Oat Bran.″

Stewart said the change was in response to growing public sentiment against tropical oils, not Sokolof’s ads.

Sokolof, however, said he was confident his full-page ads warning of the ″poisoning of America″ helped put public pressure on the corporations to respond to consumers’ concerns.

″It’s pretty coincidental that four of the majors did that within two months of my first ad, isn’t it?″ he asked.

Sokolof, who blames high cholesterol for a near-fatal heart attack he suffered 22 years ago, said he is honored to be referred to by health news writers as ″America’s No. 1 cholesterol fighter.″

″I think I got that title because it is vacant. There is no Ralph Nader of the cholesterol world,″ he said.

His ad campaign targets foods that are high in saturated fats, yet portrayed as healthful through such label claims as ″no cholesterol,″ ″low- salt,″ ″non-dairy″ and ″made with 100 percent vegetable shortening.″

″You can say it has no cholesterol, but if you eat palm oil and coconut oil, they turn into cholesterol inside your body,″ Sokolof said.

″Amost everyone has known that fatty meats and ... most dairy products are high in cholesterol and saturated fat. But they didn’t know about coconut oil and palm oil. Hopefully they do now.″

Sokolof’s biggest single-day expenditure was $140,000 to place full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

He also advertised in The New York Times and New York Post, but some newspapers, including The Washington Post, objected to the term ″poison″ and refused to run the ads.

His initial advertising blitz in November singled out Kellogg’s Cracklin’ Oat Bran, Sunshine’s Hydrox cookies, Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish crackers, Keebler’s Club crackers, Nabisco’s Triscuit crackers, Procter & Gamble’s Crisco shortening and three non-dairy coffee creamers - Coffee Swirl from Kraft, Carnation’s Coffeemate and Borden’s Creamora.

″There is still a long way to go. Nabisco has 50 products with coconut or palm oil,″ Sokolof said.

Sokolof declined to discuss his wealth, except to confirm he is a multimillionaire and say that the $2 million expenditure has not placed much of a dent in his net worth.

He made his fortune in his father’s Omaha-based construction business, Phillips Manufacturing Co. He founded the National Heart Savers Association in 1985, supporting it largely through his own contributions.

His name became synonymous with the fight against fatty foods after he offered free cholesterol tests on Capitol Hill. His promotional packets include endorsement letters signed by dozens of congressmen and senators.

″People who get involved with our campaign actually feel like they have been misled and deceived by the food giants,″ he said.

″They can go to their food pantry and find three or four of these products and throw them away. ... You and I can’t control world peace, but we can control what we eat.″

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