PepsiCo's nutrition priority

by Keith Nunes
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In March 2010 PepsiCo, Inc. announced a set of ambitious global nutrition goals, which range from increasing the whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and low-fat dairy ingredients in its product portfolio to reducing the average sodium per serving in key global food markets by 25% by 2015 and reducing the average saturated fat per serving by 15% by 2020.

More importantly, PepsiCo management has challenged its product developers and sales force to generate $30 billion in sales from better-for-you products by 2020, a $20 billion increase from where sales of healthier products are today for the company.

Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer at PepsiCo, said at the time of the nutrition initiative announcement, “We believe that a healthier future for all people and our planet means a more successful future for PepsiCo. These commitments are shared by all of our businesses and reflect our focus on profitable, long-term growth and will guide us as we continue to build a portfolio of enjoyable and wholesome foods and beverages for consumers around the world.”

The announcement draws considerable attention to the work of George A. Mensah, vice-president of global nutrition, research and development for the company. It is his job, as well as the rest of PepsiCo’s Global Nutrition Group, to drive nutrition innovation within the company.

Led by Mehmood Khan, a former Mayo Clinic endocrinologist, the Global Nutrition Group is charged with delivering breakthrough innovation in the areas of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and functional nutrition and to deliver nutritious products to global markets.

Dr. Mensah joined PepsiCo as director of heart health and global health policy in 2009 after nine years at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In an interview with Food Business News, Dr. Mensah outlined some of the challenges PepsiCo faces as it seeks to expand its position in the health and wellness category and communicate to consumers the role of a proper diet in maintaining their health.

“One has to be very humble about this,” Dr. Mensah said. “It is not just the consumers who don’t have the right (nutrition) information. The professionals also may not have the right information.

We have to pay attention to how we get the message out.

“Given the rapidity that new scientific information comes out I don’t think we are always as clear as possible. It may be as simple as communicating balance, as in how many calories a person takes in and how many they expend. With heart disease the message may become more complicated as you try to communicate risk factors and try to tell people to keep track of them.

“At PepsiCo we have found a very strong partnership with the media can go a long way. We may be experts at making foods, but we are not experts in communicating.”

Focusing on heart health Heart health is a particular area of focus for Dr. Mensah and he sees several positive developments related to the issue.

This past December, in “Heart disease and stroke statistics — 2011” published on-line in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, the group reported that the death rate from heart disease declined 28% from 1997 to 2007, the most recent data available, and that the death rate from stroke has fallen 45%.

During the same period, the total number of inpatient cardiovascular operations and procedures increased 27%, according to the study. The estimated total cost from heart disease and stroke in the United States for 2007 (including health expenditures and lost productivity) was $286 billion.

“The mortality rate going down is good news; however, the fact that the burden of disease is so high indicates that we may have won a battle against mortality but have not won the war against heart disease and stroke,” said Véronique L. Roger, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and chair of health sciences research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Heart disease and stroke remain among the leading killers of Americans, together accounting for one in every three deaths each year.

“We’re seeing a decline in deaths for both, particularly for stroke. We can attribute much of that to improved quality of care, with heart and stroke patients getting the care and treatment they need to live longer. But unfortunately the prevalence of these diseases and their risk factors are still high. We need to energize our commitment to strategies that can prevent disease in the first place.”

In his role with PepsiCo, Dr. Mensah is focusing on prevention and developing products that may improve heart health. But he also views communication as an important tool in promoting prevention efforts.

“More often than not the information that gets promoted is the bad news,” he said. “Literally, on a daily basis, there is worrisome news about heart disease. But what does this do other than scare people?

“From time to time we need to highlight the good news. When you look at the death rate related to heart disease and how it is declining, that is some good news, and we are seeing a further decline. Most heart attacks are preventable and seeing that decline shows that efforts to address public health are working.”

He cited two other examples he views as positive regarding heart disease, including the gradual decline in blood cholesterol among consumers throughout the world, and that half of the people in the United States who are being treated for high blood pressure have it under control.

For younger consumers, however, knowledge about the risk factors for heart disease may be falling on deaf ears. A survey of consumers conducted by Quaker Oats, a division of PepsiCo, and published in February, revealed that nearly two-thirds of Americans, 61%, are unaware that the risk factors for heart disease may begin before adulthood. Forty-two per cent of the survey respondents aged 18 to 24 also said heart health information is overwhelming.

In September of this past year Quaker Oats launched a new marketing campaign that highlights the healthy aspects of its product line. In addition, the company enlisted Bob Harper, a fitness trainer and co-host of the television show “The Biggest Loser,” as its spokesperson.

Dr. Mensah views such messaging efforts as critical to promoting the basics of a healthy diet.

“It goes back to the conversation we had about good news and bad news,” he said. “Sometimes we highlight the bad news and that scares people. The scientific evidence shows a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains increases life expectancy. As we build these products we need to make sure the message of how they are beneficial reaches consumers.”

Dr. Mensah said getting such messaging to consumers is challenging in a difficult economy.

“I think most people know what the value (of a healthy product) is,” he said. “But the reality is when individuals have to make a choice between buying food that may promote health, paying rent or taking on a whole host of other competing priorities it becomes difficult to see the value. In some cases it may not even be a lack of knowledge, but the consequence of difficult economic times. We have to do our very best to continue to produce tasty, nutritious products that are affordable and accessible.”

Opportunities in prevention

In reviewing the advances that have been made in improving heart health, Dr. Mensah pointed out that the major reasons are related to scientific advancements in treatments such as drug development or surgery. He views the real opportunity for further declines to be in prevention and changes in lifestyle.

“As we provide ways for consumers to adopt healthier lifestyle changes we hope to see additional gains in improving public health,” he said. “This may be done by increasing the nutrition of our products everywhere we sell them. Efforts like reduction in sodium, saturated fat and providing nutritious options will all play a role.”

As the company moves forward in its product development efforts, Dr. Mensah said it will take a two-prong approach by adding nutrients that have a positive effect on health and reducing those that may have a negative effect, such as sodium and saturated fats.

“This is really a balancing act,” he said. “We are very cognizant of the science, but we also have to be mindful of taste. Creating a healthy product no one wants to eat isn’t going to get us where we want to go.”

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