Is PepsiCo Getting in the Health Food Game?

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What if major food corporations used their formidable resources for good? Good nutrition, that is. That’s the driving principle behind PepsiCo’s new New Haven–based research laboratory.

At the lab, located in a research park near Yale University, a team of white-coated scientists are studying nutrition with the goal of making junk food healthier. But is this really a revolution or a savvy public relations move?

At the same time PepsiCo announced the new lab, which opened earlier in 2010, it also announced it would award an unrestricted $250,000 five-year fellowship for students at Yale Medical School’s M.D.-Ph.D. program who are researching nutrition and obesity-related diseases.

In an article in the Hartford Courant, journalist William Weir described the activity at PepsiCo’s new lab:

Placing a greater emphasis on science, Pepsi hired Mehmood Khan in 2007 as its chief scientific officer. Khan, who had worked as an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, has set such goals as reducing sodium and added sugar by 25 percent in key products and reducing saturated fat by 15 percent.

Before the new lab opened, Khan says, Pepsi scientists had found a way to reduce salt on chips by reducing the size of salt crystals. They dissolve on the tongue faster, so more salt is tasted even though there is less of it. The New Haven lab doesn’t have specific breakthroughs to boast of yet, or at least not any they can talk about publicly.

“There’s stuff in the pipeline that should be coming out soon, maybe next year,” says Mark Pirner, head of the lab and director of the company’s clinical and scientific development strategy.

For now, the PepsiCo scientists are focusing on the impact of nutrients on the human body. Weir writes:

[Q]uestions about food abound. [Eric] Milgram, [senior fellow at the lab], points to the many claims made about “superfoods” like the acai berry, which has been touted as fighting cancer cells and alleviating diabetes.

“You can think of us as a sort of the ‘Myth Busters.’ ” he says. “We can now profile that fruit and let you know what’s in there. We can take someone, have them ingest that, and see what’s going on biochemically.”

How the findings will inform the company’s formulation of beverages and other processed foods remains to be seen, but the company says its new scientific endeavors are in line with other moves to sell better-for-you foods: PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division now offers sunflower seeds, and the company bought part of Sabra, which makes hummus.