Health Crusader Targets Nabisco in Latest Battle Over Use of Tropical Oils

Times Staff Writer

An Omaha millionaire who led a successful campaign to get several major food processors to stop selling foods made with saturated fats, Wednesday accused giant Nabisco Brands of “turning up its nose” at American consumers by refusing to do likewise.

Phil Sokolof made the comments after his National Heart Savers Assn. placed newspaper advertisements targeting Nabisco products--including a number of popular brands of cookies and other snacks--that contain the so-called tropical oils (coconut, palm and palm kernel oils) and lard. Saturated fats raise cholesterol levels in humans, contributing to the risk of heart attacks.

The ads mark the second time that Sokolof’s group has used the nation’s largest-circulation newspapers to accuse food manufacturers of “poisoning America” by making foods with tropical oils and lard. Sokolof, who made his money as a metal manufacturer, suffered a heart attack about 23 years ago and has become a crusader for changes in Americans’ diet.

His group’s first ads, which appeared late last year, spurred palm oil importers to launch a multimillion-dollar counterattack in the media, charging “powerful private interest groups” with a “smear campaign” designed to eliminate competition.


In Wednesday’s ads, the association noted that “11 food giants” have agreed to eliminate the tropical oils from all of their products. However, it added, “we are sorry to report that Nabisco Brands Inc. still markets over 30 products containing palm and or coconut oil and over 30 more containing lard. . . .The American public deserves better from its largest food processor.”

Nabisco, a unit of Atlanta-based RJR Nabisco, said in response that it actually has far fewer products than the ad claimed that contain saturated fats and that Nabisco has not ignored consumer demands for foods without the fats.

‘Moving Quickly’

“We made a commitment some time ago. We have been making lots of changes,” Henry Sandbach, Nabisco’s vice president for public relations, said in a telephone interview.


The company has removed tropical oils from all crackers except the Triscuit brand, he said, and will discontinue the practice of spraying a “small amount” of coconut oil on Triscuits within a month. However, some crackers, including Ritz and Premium saltines, will still be made with lard. Also, the Oreo cookie formula continues to use lard.

Sandbach said that although the company has not made sweeping changes, it continues to study means of changing formulas to use ingredients other than those containing saturated fats. “We’re moving as quickly as possible,” he said.

Food manufacturers frequently adjust food formulas because of changes in the prices of ingredients, analysts said, but they are reluctant to make wholesale changes that might alter the taste of a popular product, such as the Oreo cookie. Throughout the controversy, Nabisco has said it is concerned about tampering with a taste that it believes depends on the use of certain fats.

For Nabisco to make major changes anytime soon would “take some pretty footwork” simply because of the sheer size of its product line, said Stephen M. Carnes, an analyst with the investment firm of Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood in Minneapolis.

Sandbach said the recent $24.88-billion acquisition of RJR Nabisco by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. will not be a factor in considering food formula changes.

Sokolof’s crusade has been a boon to the American Soybean Assn., which started the campaign against tropical oils after such imports to the United States began to grow rapidly about three years ago. Despite the increase in imports, tropical oils have never accounted for more than 3% of the fat in the American diet.

However, citing warnings from health experts that Americans should reduce consumption of saturated fats, soybean producers urged food manufacturers to substitute soybean oil, which is lower in saturated fats. However, the soybean group has not addressed the lard issue because many of its members also raise hogs.

The stakes are high for soybean producers because soybean oil accounts for 35% of the value of the American soybean crop even though only 18% of the crop is used to make oil.


The stakes are perhaps higher for nations that export tropical oils. Malaysia, for example, exports about $2.4 billion a year worth of palm oil, accounting for more than 10% of its gross national product.