PepsiCo vows to cut salt, sugar, and fat: Is Big Food getting healthy?

In March, PepsiCo Inc. announced that it was setting goals to substantially reduce the amount of sodium, sugar, and fat in its products over the next decade. Other Big Food companies like Kraft Foods Inc., ConAgra Foods Inc., and the Campbell Soup Co. have also recently vowed to make healthier products. CHW editor Emma Tsui briefly explores where this wave of industry health consciousness is coming from and how people are reacting to it.

On March 22, 2010, PepsiCo Inc. announced that it was setting goals to substantially reduce the amount of sodium, sugar, and fat in its products over the next decade. Specifically, the corporation hopes to cut the average sodium per serving in some of their brands by 25% by 2015, and to reduce average saturated fat and added sugar by 15% and 25% by 2020. Called “Performance with Purpose,” the initiative also seeks to increase the whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds available among PepsiCo’s products, as well as to improve the corporation’s commitments to environmental sustainability and the health of its workforce.

PepsiCo’s global food and beverage business includes not only Pepsi-Cola, but numerous other familiar brands like Frito-Lay, Tropicana, Dole, Gatorade, Tazo teas, and Quaker, the maker of oatmeal, which is considered to be the company’s leading healthy food brand. Other Big Food companies like Kraft Foods Inc., ConAgra Foods Inc. (maker of Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, and Slim Jim products, among others), and Campbell Soup Co. have also recent publicly vowed to improve the healthfulness of their products by reducing their sodium content.

So where has this wave of industry health consciousness come from? PepsiCo emphasizes the dual objectives of responding to consumer preferences and improving the health of consumers in their decision to improve the healthfulness of their products. “Consumers are heading toward ‘good-for-you,’” MSNBC quoted PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi as saying during the recent investor meeting. Not only that, but as a limited liability corporation, Nooyi has said that it is important for companies like hers to recognize, “…if we are operating with a license from society, we owe that society a duty of care.” More cynical observers speculate that PepsiCo, like other food companies, is trying to avoid government regulation, which might set tougher standards and impose sanctions for violations. As one commentator noted, “Considering the vast resources large companies like PepsiCo, Kraft, and Campbell Soup Co. have at their disposal, these firms are wise to invest [in] research and development now, rather than scrambling later to avoid congressional hearings and even government regulations.”

Though reducing sodium, fat and sugar in processed foods may seem like an encouraging sign for the public’s health, there’s no doubt that PepsiCo’s interest in health is closely tied to its enduring interest in profit. “We believe that a healthier future for all people and our planet means a more successful future for PepsiCo,” Nooyi noted in the company’s press release. MSNBC added that PepsiCo’s portfolio of healthier or “good for you” products currently earns them approximately $10 billion (approximately one-fifth of their total revenue), and indicated that Nooyi estimates that this amount will grow to $30 billion within the decade.

But what impact can we expect these kinds of changes to have on health? Reaction to news of the “Performance with Purpose” initiative casts doubt on its health benefits, and responses to the company’s work to create what reporters have dubbed “designer salt” have been particularly skeptical. In these studies, by altering the shape of the salt, PepsiCo researchers have been able to increase the percentage of salt that dissolves on the tongue and is tasted, so that less salt can be used. In response to this news, the New York Times pointed toward the need to reduce consumption of snack foods, writing, “It’s not enough for snacks to have artificial sugar and new-fangled salt. High-tech or not, we also have to eat less of them.” Hemi Weingarten of the Huffington Post was in agreement, but blamed the marketing practices of PepsiCo and other major corporations in addition to consumer behavior. “So long as mega-corporations continue to manufacture and sell snacks as their main line of business, people will be encouraged by their aggressive marketing to consume more and more snacks and less real foods,” he wrote.

By Emma Tsui, Postdoctoral Fellow at the City University of New York School of Public Health at Hunter College and editor at Corporations and Health Watch.

Photo credits:

  1. wallyg
  2. roadsidepictures