When the makers of Twinkies (Continental Bakery) have become born-again oat bran disciples - can a McGood-For-You be far behind?

Robert E. Kowalski certainly hopes so. Kowalski, who is just finishing a publicity tour for Continental Bakery's Oatmeal Goodness Bread, is author of "The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure," which has sold over one million copies and has been No. 1 on non-fiction bestseller lists for over 52 weeks.Kowalski suffered a heart attack at age 35 in 1978 and underwent a triple bypass. But even though he quit smoking, began a low-cholesterol diet and exercised regularly, his cholesterol remained at a dangerous 284 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl). In just six years Kowalski was told he needed a second bypass.

During the two months before his second by-pass operation, the medical writer ate absolutely no red meat, not one egg, no butter and drank only skim milk. Yet his cholesterol only decreased to 271 mg/dl. So following surgery, Kowalski decided to research medical journals and scientific literature to find a way to reduce cholesterol without drugs or a lifetime diet of brown rice.

He found his personal "cure" in two natural substances: the B vitamin niacin and oat bran. His regimen included 500 mg. of niacin (timed release) three times a day and 50 grams of oat bran found in three of his homemade oat bran muffins. In just eight weeks, Kowalski's cholesterol fell to 169 and the resulting New York Times No. 1 bestseller would change his career from writing about someone else's medical discoveries to chronicling his own.

Kowalksi holds bachelor's degrees in journalism and biology, a master's degree in communications and physiology, and has completed all but the dissertation for his doctorate in physiology. "I am happy as an author to write about the work of others. I know I am making a contribution, but it's still someone else's ideas. Now, virtually no one in the country is unaware of my work in cholesterol," Kowalski said in an interview.

If you don't believe that, try finding oat bran in your local grocery store. "Quaker Oats reps told me I had caused a bran shortage on three continents," Kowalski recounted. Because of the explosive demand, Australia, the United States and Britain cannot keep oat bran in the stores.

Kowalski explained that oat bran is a more concentrated source of bran fiber and more efficient than oatmeal in removing cholesterol. Dr. James Anderson at the University of Kentucky department of medicine stumbled across the cholesterol-lowering properties of oat bran while trying to find a food to control glucose levels in diabetic patients and reported the finding in medical journals. But it took Kowalski's book to make oat bran a household word.

A word to the wise about packaging. Kowalski made the discovery that many items are being marketed with oat bran as an ingredient to catch the consumer's eye - all the while using the cheaper tropical oils with a long shelf-life that actually cause cholesterol to rise.

"Food manufacturers who use coconut oil, palm oil or palm kernel oil in their products and then advertise them as being `cholesterol-free - made with vegetable oil' are guilty of deliberate consumer deception. Those tropical oils are actually more saturated sources of fat than lard or butterfat," Kowalski warned.

He said to beware of Kellogg's Cracklin' Oat Bran and Quaker Ohs, Carnation Coffee Mate, Pepperidge Farm baked goods and Stove Top stuffing mixes because of tropical oil use. A quick check of labels of six stuffing mixes showed all used palm oil. It pays to read the small print. Ralston's new cereal "Bran News" is made with wheat bran (the fiber in wheat bran is insoluble and does not work to remove cholesterol the way soluble bran fiber does) that is listed as the fourth ingredient and it is also made with coconut oil. On the other hand, Kowalski is pleased that Bisquik no longer is made with lard.

But for all the personal joy of his lower cholesterol count and the wild success of his book, Kowalski has a great worry hanging over his head. "If you think we've seen the worst of heart disease, you ain't seen nothin' yet," he said. "Some 62 percent of our children have at least one risk factor for heart disease. We're seeing autopsy results on accident victims who, at the age of 11, had clogged arteries. Too often a kid sits on his ever-expanding bottom, playing Nintendo while eating potato chips and then eating a fast-food dinner of hamburger and fries. We may start seeing this generation having coronaries in their 20s," Kowalski said.

Kowalski's son, Ross, was tested at age 7 and found to have an elevated cholesterol level. Ross's 4-year-old sister Jenny didn't have a cholesterol problem but her weight was well above average. After discussing the problem, the Kowalskis made some changes in their children's diets and lifestyles that left Ross no longer at risk and Jenny slimmed down. The children eat the healthy foods their parents prepare for them and have learned to avoid the pitfalls of fast-food outlets.

"Would you believe that a fish sandwich at McDonald's has only one ounce of fish in fat-soaked breading? And the McNuggets, says Kowalski, ". . . those little balls are formed with chopped chicken skin and chicken fat and then drowned in an ocean of beef tallow. The result is a meal that's 60 percent fat." But Kowalski gives kudos to Burger King for Chicken Tenders made from portions of chicken breast deep-fried in vegetable oil, and Denny's even offers omelets made with Egg Beaters. Kowalski doesn't ban his children from an occasional trip to McDonald's - he just encourages them to eat hamburgers.

Kowalski's latest book is "Cholesterol and Children: A Parent's Guide to Giving Children a Future Free of Heart Disease." He recommends sending children to school with a bag lunch. "Because of tray waste, school lunch programs have started offering chicken nuggets, pizza and tacos. While one segment of government, through the National Institutes of Health, tells people to avoid fats and cholesterol, the U.S. Department of Agriculture feeds kids eggs, cheese and fatty sausages for breakfast," Kowalski said.

Advocating a checkup with one's personal physician while making lifestyle changes for health, Kowalski also warns that children should not take niacin. Cutting back on the amount of fat in our diet and including more of the soluble oat bran fiber will have many health benefits.

- Above, Kowalski recommends an oat bran muffin recipe to follow. He also offers a quarterly newsletter with the latest cholesterol research as well as recipes and suggestions for healthy eating. For information, write to: The Diet-Heart Newsletter, P.O. Box 2039, Venice, Calif. 90294.

Kowalski's Basic Oat Bran Muffins

2 1/2 cups oat-bran cereal

1/4 cup chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans or even peanuts)

1/4 cup raisins (or dates, currents or whatever)

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 cup brown sugar or 1/4 cup honey or molasses

1 1/4 cups skim milk

2 egg whites or egg substitute for two eggs

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl combine the oatbran cereal, nuts. raisins and baking powder. Stir in the brown sugar or liquid sweetening. Mixthe milk, egg whites and oil together and blend in with the oatbran mixture. Line the muffin pans with paper baking cups and fill with batter. Bake 15 to 17 minutes. Test for doneness with a toothpick; it should come out moist but not wet. Makes 12 muffins.

Store in a plastic bag to retain moisture. Keep the muffins in the refrigerator if they will not be consumed within 3 days, as they contain no preservatives.