PepsiCo Focuses on Healthier Fare, but is it Healthier for You?

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I read the following headline and felt hopeful for a moment: Pepsi, Doritos maker to focus on healthier fare. Perhaps one of the giants of the junk food industry (maker of products like Pepsi, Doritos and Lays potato chips) is finally making some real changes and is committing to producing more actually edible food products. And then I read the article. Sigh. “PepsiCo is investing in science to improve nutrition.” PepsiCo is spending a lot of money to figure out how to change the size and crystal structure of salt so that consumers don’t have to eat as much salt but the potato chips will still taste the same. They are also researching more low-calorie and zero-calorie sweeteners. I have a couple of other interesting ideas. Could PepsiCo just commit to using significantly less salt in their products? Perhaps they could take those investment dollars and run some advertising campaigns to alert people about the dangers of high salt intake. In terms of the low calorie sweeteners – we have plenty of those on the market. And the research does not support the fact that artificial sweeteners help people to lose weight. So do we really need another low calorie sweetener to be added to products which are very low in nutrition anyway? PepsiCo has some brands that are healthy options. I am a big fan of Dole fruit cups and raisin boxes for those times when a piece of fresh fruit is just not available. And Dole bagged salad greens are a nutritious, convenient choice too. My challenge for PepsiCo would be to ask them to truly focus on healthier fare. I wonder what it would be like if giant food conglomerates like PepsiCo focused their resources almost entirely on real food. Producing real food, marketing real food and educating about real food. Imagine if their “fun for you” label that they apply to foods like potato chips and soda, could be replaced with “unhealthy for you”. There really is not much fun about obesity, diabetes, heart disease and strokes. All of which can be the end product of a diet high in salty, fatty and sugary foods. PepsiCo’s incredible worldwide reach could be used to expose people to low cost, healthy, whole foods. And their incredible marketing strategies could be utilized to encourage a diet that really does support long term health and vitality. As easy as it would be to blame everything on companies like PepsiCo, that really is not the whole story. These companies do need to be profitable and they rely on consumer demand. A colleague shared an experience with me which was enlightening. Several years ago at a small meeting on obesity research attended by academic and a few industry scientists, there was lively discussion about how the food industry was contributing the obesity epidemic. At one point, a scientist from PepsiCo spoke up in frustration. She said, “I understand that some of the products we market contribute to obesity, but here is the crux of our problem. In the same quarter last year, we introduced low-fat/low-calorie menu options at Taco Bell and double-cheese, double-meat stuffed pizza at Pizza Hut (Note: both Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are owned by PepsiCo). For the next several quarters, profits at Pizza Hut went up while profits at Taco Bell went down, in parallel with diverging consumer ratings of our new menu options. So how can we possibly offer healthier foods when every time we do, we lose money because people don’t want them?” We can ask PepsiCo to do their part in terms of putting their resources behind healthy food options, but we need to support their healthier decisions with our dollars. It is our responsibility as consumers to purchase healthy foods – and as importantly – to not buy unhealthy choices. That’s the most effective way for us to influence decisions made by companies like PepsiCo so that they can still be profitable but not at the expense of our health. _____ Originally published at: Sandi Kaplan, MS, RD is a co founder of Zing Bars and the Associate Director of Clinical Development and Support at Free & Clear, Inc. Free & Clear specializes in web-based learning and phone-based cognitive behavioral coaching to help employers, health plans and state governments improve the overall health and productivity of their covered populations.