Phil Sokolof, 82; Used His Personal Fortune in Fight Against High-Fat Foods

Times Staff Writer

Phil Sokolof, a self-made millionaire and anti-cholesterol crusader who spent millions of his own money waging a nearly two-decade battle against fast-food chains, food processors and dairies, died Thursday. He was 82.

Sokolof, founder of the National Heart Savers Assn., had been in good health but became ill Thursday and died at a hospital, his daughter, Karen Sokolof Javitch, told Associated Press. The cause of death was not immediately available.

A number of Sokolof’s campaigns are credited with helping spur notable changes.

Several fast-food chains switched to vegetable oil after he called attention to their use of beef tallow to cook French fries. And many large food processors stopped using highly saturated coconut and palm oil in crackers and cookies after another of his ad campaigns.


After McDonald’s and other fast-food chains switched to a lower-fat cooking oil, Sokolof ran a series of congratulatory ads. McDonald’s reportedly said its changes were the result of ongoing research and not Sokolof’s ads.

Sokolof, who survived a near-fatal heart attack in 1966 at the age of 43 and took cholesterol-lowering drugs, sold his Phillips Manufacturing Co. in 1992 to devote all his time to his anti-cholesterol crusade, which he launched in 1985.

He generated national attention by buying full-page ads in newspapers around the country.

“McDonald’s, Your Hamburgers Have Too Much Fat!” one headline proclaimed. Another said: “We Can’t Continue to Deep-Fry Our Children’s Health.”

In 1995, he took out full-page ads attacking the dairy industry for labeling 2% milk “low fat.”

“Would You Let Your Child Eat 9 Strips of Bacon a Day?” the headline read. The ad depicted an overweight, smiling woman with a milk mustache and the boldfaced warning: DRINK SKIM MILK! DON’T DRINK 2% MILK!”

“The point of this campaign is to make the American public aware that 2% milk is not low-fat and it shouldn’t have that label,” Sokolof told The Times.


That campaign cost him $500,000 for ads in 40 newspapers, but his message had a residual effect: It spurred calls from major newspapers, “The Phil Donohue Show” and a live appearance on NBC’s “Today,” whose host, Bryant Gumbel, introduced the man from Omaha as “America’s No. 1 Cholesterol Fighter.”

Sokolof, who spent about $15 million on his crusade over two decades to spur Americans to eat healthier foods, ran a $2.5-million commercial during the 2000 Super Bowl urging Americans to take cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Born in Omaha in 1922, Sokolof worked in his father’s fruit market until he was 17. After graduating from high school, he went on the road singing with big bands. Decades later, he received a standing ovation when he sang a parody of “Young at Heart” at the Omaha Press Club Gridiron show.

“They were amazed I could sing so well,” he said.

After a decade on the road as a band singer, he returned to Nebraska, where he entered the construction business. In 1955, after designing a lightweight stripping for drywall, he launched his firm, Phillips Manufacturing Co., which made him a millionaire.

Sokolof’s 1966 heart attack came as a total shock to him.

As he told the Chicago Tribune in a 1991 interview: “I was thin. I did the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises every day. I ran a mile every day -- under seven minutes. My blood pressure was low. I didn’t smoke. I knew how to handle stress. I had a wonderful wife and happy marriage. I was a millionaire many times over.”

But, he told The Times in 1995, he loved hamburgers, hot dogs, tamales and other high-fat fare.


“If it was greasy, I ate it,” he said. “My cholesterol count was 300.”

He reportedly later lowered his count to 150. And after recovering from his heart attack, he told the Chicago Tribune, he resolved to become an amateur cardiologist by reading everything he could about heart disease.

After forming Heart Savers, Sokolof conducted the first citywide cholesterol tests in Grand Island, Neb. “We tested 8,500 people in five days and we turned people away,” he said. He later went to Capitol Hill and tested more than 10,000 congressional staff members and members of Congress.

Frustrated by not receiving answers to letters asking food manufacturers to remove highly saturated coconut oil and palm oil from their products, Sokolof launched the first in his first series of hard-to-ignore newspaper ads in 1988: “The Poisoning of America!”

In the 1995 interview with The Times, he credited his wife, Ruth, for trying to help others.

Ruth Sokolof had glandular cancer for many years, yet she not only raised their children, Steven and Karen, but taught the blind and disabled and helped found a school for blind children.

“She made me a more caring person,” said Sokolof, who lived alone after her death in 1982.

Sokolof viewed as his greatest achievement a series of ads in 1990 that backed federal legislation by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) requiring nutritional labels. Waxman acknowledged last year that Sokolof’s ads helped gain public support for the successful legislation.


“He was a one-man show,” Waxman said. “He cared, and he was willing to fight for what he believed in.”

Sokolof told the Dallas Morning News in 1992 that he had “enough money to carry on my campaigns as long as I am able. I’ll never retire. I’ll be working until they carry me out feet first.”

His daughter told Associated Press on Thursday: “He tried to do good in this world, and I think he did prove that one man can do something.”