He was in his office when he began to feel a pain in the center of his chest. At first, it wasn't a strong pain, but slowly, it got worse, and then overwhelming. Philip Sokolof understood what was happening. He was only 43, but he knew it couldn't be anything else. He called for an ambulance. At the hospital, they confirmed that he was having a heart attack.
Sokolof wondered how this could have happened. He was not overweight, he did not smoke, he did exercise.Soon, the doctors helped him understand. They mentioned a word he was only vaguely familiar with - cholesterol. His count was 300. They told him it shouldn't be higher than 190. He conceded his nutrition was classic grab-and-run American - foods like hot dogs, chili and hamburgers.
Soon, Sokolof began to change his diet. Gradually, his count came down. Then he went back to work.
Over the years, he turned his building products business into a tremendous success. He became a multimillionaire. He also became an expert of sorts on diet and heart. He wished he could find a way to teach others the things that were helping prolong his own life. But back then, the late 1970s, cholesterol was not the kind of issue anyone cared about.
Then that changed. In 1984, the government came out with a 10-year study that turned cholesterol into a household word. It found that people with a cholesterol count of 265 or higher had a risk of heart attack four times greater than those with 190 or less. Time Magazine ran a cover story on it. People started being careful of such obvious problem foods as eggs and beef.
But Sokolof was convinced a more insidious threat lay in some of the country's most common boxed foods - Quaker, Keebler, Nabisco, Kellogg, Pepperidge Farm. Many of their brands contained what Sokolof saw as the most vicious sources of cholesterol - coconut oil, palm oil and lard. Americans, he knew, swallowed millions of ounces of those a year. What made Sokolof especially angry was what he felt was false advertising. Kellogg's Cracklin' Oat Bran was a stand-out example.
"The consumer is buying oat bran to lower his cholesterol," he would say, "and he's ingesting coconut oil, which is raising his cholesterol. It's a deception."
Sokolof made a decision. He decided to try to make a difference. He took 1 million of his own dollars and started an organization called the National Heart Savers Association.
His strategy was simple. He would send out letters to food companies, quietly lobbying them to stop using tropical oils. He did send out letters. He made follow-up phone calls. He did not get far.
"To them," he recalls, "I was Joe Blow from Podunk."
It left Sokolof with a choice; he could settle for being a quiet voice that didn't get far, or he could try something bold. He chose the second route. He resolved to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on full-page ads in major newspapers like USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. To have impact, he knew his message would have to be harsh. He drew up some of the harshest wording ever to appear in ads of this kind.
"The Poisoning of America," blared the headlines. Below that: "Who is poisoning America? Food processors are by using saturated fats. We implore you to read labels and do not buy products containing coconut oil or palm oil. Your life may be at stake."
Then he listed a dozen typical products.
Scores of journalists wrote about it. The companies retaliated by calling Sokolof irresponsible. But one by one, almost all gave in. They announced they would be eliminating tropical oils from their products.
All except one. Nabisco refused to budge.
So Phil Sokolof spent tens of thousands more on a second round of full-page national newspaper ads.
"The Poisoning of America, Part II," they read. Each went on to hit Nabisco for refusing to do as its competitors had.
I wasn't able to speak with him for long. Other journalists had begun calling from around the country. The pressure was building again. One man, one cause, a big difference.