The chicken thighs, smoked for two hours, then soaked in buttermilk spiked with hot sauce and dredged in flour, turned a perfect golden brown under the stern watch of chef Alexander Talbot. But not one, alas, went into a salivating mouth as soon as it left the bubbling rice bran oil. Rather, it was rushed under a glass “udder” bristling with slender filaments and tended by technicians, who would soon analyse it at a PepsiCo lab in Illinois for the magic that gave it such flavour and crispiness.
Other creations, destined for the same lab, went into Styrofoam containers bedded on dry ice, part of a continuing effort to find new ways to improve the nutritional quality of the giant food company’s products without losing recognisable flavours.
“The challenge facing us and other big food companies today is not easy: To have a great-tasting product without as much salt, fat and sugar,” said Greg Yep, senior vice-president for long-term research and development at PepsiCo. “Chefs have ways of tricking the taste buds that we can use in our products.”
Prodded by consumers, regulators and politicians, major food companies like PepsiCo are under extraordinary pressure to make healthier foods. Kellogg has cut as much as 30% of the sugar in children’s cereals, removed salt from others and increased fibre. Taco Bell last month announced a new Power Protein menu that will include items with less fat and calories, and other companies are rushing to get their products in shape.
While snack sales like those in PepsiCo’s Frito Lay division are still increasing and show no signs of slowing, it and some other major companies have worked to reduce the amount of sugar, fat and salt in products aimed at children.
Yep and PepsiCo’s executive research chef, Stephen Kalil, are on the teams responsible for carrying out the plans of PepsiCo’s chief executive, Indra Nooyi, to improve the healthiness of the PepsiCo portfolio. One of the first products to emerge from their efforts was Quaker Real Medleys, instant cereals made from whole grains and chunks of fruit and nuts. It has a similar amount of sugar as the company’s traditional instant oatmeal, but about half comes from the fruits and the oats; most of the sugar in instant oatmeal
They also have reduced salt in flavoured Lay’s potato chips by roughly a quarter by building flavours first and then turning to other seasonings, Kalil said.