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PepsiCo? Gandhi? Whose revolution are you in?

May 20, 2011 | Tags: Featured , Food , Health | Post comment

PepsiCo? Gandhi? Whose revolution are you in?


There are two recent New Yorker articles about the foundational principles of two very different and very significant revolutions.

Pankaj Mishra’s The Inner Voice (The New Yorker, May 2nd, p.80) is a very thoughtful review of Joseph Lelyveld’s book “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India.”  While Gandhi is most known for practicing and promoting nonviolent politics, his deeper interest was in freedom from modern industrial society. He recognized that the industrial revolution made economic prosperity the central driver of every human construct, making all peoples the victims of human greed and creating an “unprecedented moral sanction in the political, scientific and economic systems of the modern world.”  Mishra points out that, in 2011, we are receptive to Gandhi’s idea that “the lucrative business of modern medicine often treats symptoms while ignoring the real causes of disease.”   Receptive indeed.

Meanwhile, John Seabrook authored Snacks for a Fat Planet: PepsiCo takes stock of the obesity epidemic (The New Yorker, May 16, p.54).  PepsiCo is the second largest food-and-beverage company in the world, right behind Nestlé. After sharing the reality of current public health statistcs, Seabrook writes, “…that great taste promised by PepsiCo’s brands, which relies heavily on sugar, salt, and fat, appears to be making some people sick, and its most devoted fans, the “heavy users,” as they’re known in the food industry, could be among the worst-afflicted.”  I would argue that these foods eventually make everyone who eats them sick for as Seabrook points out, PepsiCo is an “empire of mind share,” having one of the most recognized brands in the world to go along with their dominant market share.

The focus of Seabrook’s article is PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi’s long-term strategy of significantly growing the company’s “nutrition business” (Seabrook’s quotation marks, not mine). 

How convenient that Ms. Nooyi believes sedentary lifestyles, not junk food, are the primary cause of the obesity epidemic.  Of course she regards the increasing demand for “better for you” snack foods to be a hugely compelling opportunity for PepsiCo to “scientifically advantage” food products.  And how frightening for all of the rest of us, because the remainder of the article is about PepsiCo’s massive research engine, the machine using the very kind of science Gandhi witnessed wreaking havoc with human health and sustainable human culture a century ago.  It may be a victory for PepsiCo to reduce the salt, sugar, and fat in their “fun for you” and “good for you” products but it will be a greater travesty for public health, because no matter what their research “proves,” nutritionism is predicated on a false science.  True science is predicated on the interconnectedness of everything, and we will only improve health—and raise productivity, and reduce healthcare costs, and practice better environmentalism---if we eat whole foods low on the food chain.