In the May 16 edition of The New Yorker, John Seabrook delves into the ways that PepsiCo is working to reposition itself in light of the global obesity crisis. “Snacks for a Fat Planet” is bookended with the author’s interactions with Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s C.E.O. Nooyi argues that it’s not enough for the company to make snacks that taste good, but also be “the good company.”
Nooyi is clearly a leader who understands the huge potential for corporate good, both for the bottom line and for society. She also sees that the health crisis created by obesity does not bode well for the future of PepsiCo’s profits, no doubt a factor in the company’s efforts to make healthier products. Earlier this year, the company began making a number of Frito-Lay products with natural ingredients. They also have plans to reduce the amount of sodium and sugar in their products by 25 percent by the year 2015, under guidelines created by Derek Yach, the former World Health Organization cabinet director.
PepsiCo’s removal of artificial coloring and their reduction of sodium seems encouraging, considering the company’s vast market share. But Seabrook’s article shows that PepsiCo’s plans to make “better for you” snacks and beverages revolve around new technology, huge research facilities and the development of new additives. Although the company is moving towards using “all natural” products, these products will still be highly processed. It’s also worth noting that because the term “all natural” is in no way regulated, it is one of the most common and abused packaging gimmicks.
Reading through the article, it seemed to me that many of the changes are token gestures, not meaningful improvements in the nutritional quality of PepsiCo’s products. “When you make something that is full of sugar and chemicals, it doesn’t take much to make it a little better,” Ann Rosenstein, the author of Diet Myths Busted: Food Facts Not Nutrition Fiction wrote me. “But healthier isn’t necessarily healthy! Going from an 80% junk food product to a 60% junk food product still makes food junk.”
Perhaps my conclusion is too easy, a knee-jerk reaction from someone who spends her days thinking and writing about healthy food. There are certainly plenty of nutrition experts who argue that we shouldn’t eat pre-packaged, processed foods at all, from those espousing the Paleo diet to those who favor the raw diet. However, this does not reflect the way the vast majority of Americans eat.
“Unfortunately we are a snack machine society, so until that changes I think it’s great that companies are attempting to make things healthier,” said Jessica Forbes, MS CCN. “Even if I don’t necessarily agree on how they are doing it.” Forbes said she’s wary of foods containing lab-engineered chemicals. “I believe if it doesn’t exist in nature in some form, then we shouldn’t be eating it!”
Stacy Goldberg, R.N. and Chief Nutritionist of Daily Gourmet, agrees that we should eat foods that come as directly from nature as possible. “The challenge is that’s not always reality.” Goldberg explains that while eating natural, whole foods will have more benefits in the long run, eating better snack foods can have immediate benefits for individuals who are not going to make such a radical change. “If someone’s consuming a large amount of sodium and they’re getting it from their snack foods, they may in fact be better off choosing a product that’s lower in sodium because their blood pressure is so high.”
Seabrook reports that one of the new substances that PepsiCo will soon be using in its U.S. products is a “15 micron salt,” a new kind of salt that contains 25 to 40 percent less sodium than the current formulation. I can’t help but wonder, what exactly does it mean to create a new salt? How will the body break it down? Many of the experts I spoke with also seemed skeptical of the new molecule. “We don’t know the long-term effects,” said Goldberg. She has similar concerns about Splenda, which is used in a large number of PepsiCo products, including Pepsi One, all Propel beverages, Diet Mountain Dew and Amp Energy. “We don’t have any clinical research studies behind them with long-term data to show what are the effects of these new particles or these new creations that they’re coming up with.”
Dr. Sasson E. Moulavi, M.D. and Medical Director of Smart For Life, is similarly cautious. “We don’t know what they’re going to do” in the body he said. “What [PepsiCo] really should be doing is cutting the salt down without adding anything else instead of it.”
Dr. Moulavi is a particularly interesting person to talk about the nutrition of processed foods with, because his company has created a weight-loss program that’s centered around prepackaged, portion-controlled cookies, bars and shakes. “If you can see the ingredients in it, then generally it’s minimally processed and it’s generally good for you.” He argues that there a number of natural additives that companies like PepsiCo could use to improve the nutritional quality of their snack foods, instead of simply replacing sugar and salt with substitutes that are not used by the body. He cites ingredients such as flax seed, fish oil, blue green algae and pomegranate extract, which can all help the body perform essential functions.
Forbes also suggested a number of ways that snack foods could be made with ingredients that would better serve the body. “If I could design my own snack machine contents, it would contain food bars made from raw nuts or nut butter with dried fruit and honey or whole stevia, root vegetable chips fried in coconut oil or olive oil (to me the unhealthy fat is just as much an issue as sodium), and high protein items like salmon jerky that contains enough natural spices to not require a ton of salt.” That’s a long way from Nooyi’s concept of “drinkified snacks” and “snackified drinks,” supposedly healthy products that would be so heavily processed that the original food would undergo a material change of state.
Dr. Moulavi also argued that companies need to be more honest about portion sizes. “They’ll say a portion is a handful of chips, or seven chips, or they’ll give a very small number of grams. Companies have to become truthful and make their portions realistic.”
Everyone I spoke with agreed that consumers need to read the ingredients list on packaged foods before purchasing them, despite any claims made on the front of the package. “I think it’s always important to know what you’re putting into your body, and into your children’s bodies,” said Goldberg, who also advocated for more transparency on the part of food manufacturers. “Use the company as a resource. Go to Pepsi, go to Nestlé, go to whatever company, ask them, ‘What is this food?’ and ‘How is it created?’ As a consumer, I think you’re entitled to that information.”