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Pepsi Teams up with White House to Whitewash Worthless Snacks and Sodas

PepsiCo claims to be "investing in a healthier future for people and our planet." But how is that possible when their top-selling products include Mountain Dew and Doritos?

When, back in February, First Lady Michelle Obama formally announced her Let's Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation, only one food company released a press release on the very same day in glowing support -- PepsiCo.

In many ways, PepsiCo has been touting itself as an industry leader. The company's corporate tagline is "Performance with Purpose," broadly described as "delivering sustainable growth by investing in a healthier future for people and our planet."

But how can a company whose top-selling products include Mountain Dew and Doritos make such claims?

Beyond Soda

When most people think of PepsiCo, they think of the soda that is the main competitor to Coca-Cola. In fact, many people mistakenly refer to the company as Pepsi or Pepsi-Cola, but soda represents one part of the company's growing portfolio of products.

PepsiCo formed in 1965 through a merger of Pepsi-Cola with Frito-Lay. Since then, the marriage of salty snacks with soft drinks has been a key to the company's success, and sets it apart from Coca-Cola, which still only owns beverages.

With revenue topping $43 billion last year and 198,000 employees worldwide, PepsiCo is the largest U.S.-based food and beverage company and the second largest food company in the world, after Nestle.

Here's how the company is divided:

  • Pepsi-Cola: carbonated beverages such as Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Sierra Mist, and "energy drinks" such as Amp, and the water brand, Aquafina
  • Gatorade: the ubiquitous "sports drink" and Propel fitness water
  • Frito-Lay: snack mega-brands such as Lays, Doritos, Tostitos, and Cheetos
  • Tropicana: America's favorite OJ and other fruit juices
  • Quaker: Quaker Oats, Life cereal, and granola bars

The Good, the Better, and the Fun

The company prides itself on a wide portfolio of products they break down into good-for-you, better-for-you and fun-for-you. Really, this is what they call them.

Here is how CEO Indra Nooyi explained the categories in a recent interview with Fortune:

If I look at our portfolio, I think you can classify them into three groups: 'fun-for-you foods' like Pepsi, Doritos, Lays, and Mountain Dew, "better-for-you" products like Diet Pepsi, PepsiMax, Baked Lays, Sobi Life Water, Propel, and "good-for-you" products like Quaker, Tropicana, Naked Juice, Gatorade.

The fun-for-you products and even the good-for-you products probably come as no surprise. But where things get pretty murky is in the middle category. In the world of PepsiCo nutrition, drinks like Diet Pepsi are "better-for-you" because they have zero calories. Perhaps that's a measure of something, just not of good nutrition. Nor does the number of calories alone make one product better than another.

I asked Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of Food Politics (among other books) what she makes of PepsiCo's 3-tiered approach to its products:

PepsiCo is famous for leading the way to find health reasons to sell junk food. "Fun-for-you" is a brilliant way to spin "bad-for-you." "Better-for-you" raises the question, better than what? It's great the company isn't claiming these products are health foods but I think PepsiCo is on a slippery slope in these categories.

Moreover, that Nooyi places the entire line of Gatorade products in the "good-for-you" category is especially troubling. Most health experts say that except for marathon runners and tri-athletes, the made-up category of "sports drinks" -- mostly sugar water with artificial coloring -- is really unnecessary.

And to promote these products in schools, where kids are barely getting any exercise these days, is downright shameful. As Professor Nestle put it, "Since when is Gatorade equivalent to orange juice in its health benefits?"

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