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. . . And Phil Sokolof

January 22, 1989

In 1966 a Nebraska metal manufacturer named Phil Sokolof suffered a severe heart attack, becoming one of the more than 1.5 million Americans stricken that year. Sokolof, then 43, was lucky; he survived. He also went on to make a lot of money, and to develop an interest in the link between diet and heart disease. A few years ago Sokolof founded the National Heart Savers Assn., for which he supplies almost all the funding. Late last year the association bought full-page newspaper ads that accused major food-manufacturing companies of "poisoning" consumers by using coconut and palm oils in many of their products. The ads drew a lot of public and corporate attention; at least one food company threatened a lawsuit. Now, though, the threats have disappeared. Phil Sokolof has pretty much won his crusade.

Last week Sokolof announced that he had been told by General Mills, Ralston Purina, Borden, Pillsbury and Quaker Oats that they would soon start replacing the coconut and palm oils in their products with vegetable oils containing unsaturated fat. Earlier four other food companies--Kellogg, Sunshine Biscuits, Pepperidge Farm and Keebler--had said that they would stop using the tropical oils. Coconut oil, palm oil and palm-kernel oil don't themselves contain cholesterol, but--like beef tallow, lard and butter--they are saturated fats. The consensus of health authorities is that consumption of saturated fats causes the body to produce more cholesterol than it needs, raising the risk of heart disease. Sokolof says that his goal is to extend lives by doing what he can to reduce this risk.

Tropical oils became attractive to food companies because they are cheap, produce smoothertaste and texture, and promote shelf life. Sokolof was by no means alone in attacking them. The American soy industry has run ads in food-industry publications for the last few years citing the health dangers of oils high in saturated fat. The ads seem to have been effective. Palm-oil imports have dropped significantly. At the same time, various popular health publications have written about the risks of all saturated fats--including tropical oils.

Some nutritionists contend that removing tropical oils from crackers, cookies, coffee cakes and other snack foods will produce no more than a minor reduction in the overall consumption of saturated fats. Probably they are right, but the answer to their argument is that making the American diet healthier is and will remain an incremental process involving education, product substitution and moderation. So every bit of risk-reduction helps. A lot of food companies have been quick to find palatable alternatives to the tropical oils. The big losers are the Third World countries, Malaysia most notably, that have come to depend on the U.S. market for their tropical-oil exports. Here is a problem where American private or government-sponsored research to find alternative uses for tropical oils would be most welcome.

Meanwhile, a modest but still significant shift toward healthier snack-food products is under way. A lot of considerations have gone into the decisions to make that shift. Pretty clearly one of them was the campaign, truly a cry from the heart, that Phil Sokolof sponsored. In our big, complex and bureaucratized society, here was indeed a case where one person made a difference, and where an idea had definite and beneficial consequences.

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