PepsiCo, Snack Foods, and the Obesity Epidemic : The New Yorker

A good look at big food R&D, as it moves towards personalized nutrition: PepsiCo, Snack Foods & the #Obesity Epidemic

PepsiCo takes stock of the obesity epidemic.
MAY 16, 2011

Nevertheless, collaborating with crystal technologists in Munich, PepsiCo was able to develop “15 micron salt,” a new kind of salt that produces the same taste curve as the salt the company has been using—a pyramid-shaped crystal known as Alberger salt—but contains twenty-five to forty per cent less sodium. PepsiCo first used the new salt on its Walker brand of chips, which it sells in the U.K. By the end of 2012, 15 micron salt will be flavoring many of the Lay’s plain chips made in the U.S.

The samples that are approved by the robot are further refined and analyzed and, eventually, incorporated into test batches of drinks and snacks that are presented to human tasters. But this is not merely a question of deciding what tastes good, or comparing one kind of taste with another; PepsiCo is also trying to understand how product descriptions like “healthy” or “good for you” might affect the way things taste. The company has conducted fMRI studies to test the hypothesis that calling a product “healthy” may lower taste
expectations in the brain. In one study, a forty-calorie beverage was described as a “treat” to people just before they tasted it, and then the same beverage was called “healthy” and offered to the tasters again. The tests showed that people who scored high in reward sensitivity—i.e., those who are easily satisfied—found the beverage labelled “treat” to be more satisfying, while the people who scored low in reward sensitivity found the “healthy” beverage to be more satisfying.

We went down the hall to a conference room where Jonathan McIntyre, a biochemist who came to PepsiCo from DuPont, and several staff members had set up the tasting. The first phase was a “triangle tasting” of three experimental mid-calorie colas that PepsiCo has been tinkering with, which contain about half the sugar of blue-can Pepsi. In front of us were three trays, each bearing three small sampling cups filled with cola, and some salted crackers, a water glass, and a spit glass. The contest between Nooyi and me, on which we would be scored, was, in each round of tasting, to pick out the experimental cola from two regular Pepsis.

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