The Weasel in the Hen House – Updated
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
[An update is at the bottom of this page.]
As an antidote to the story of conflict between The Disney Company and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, this one, about a collaboration between a respected university and the purveyor of mostly soft drinks and junk food, doesn’t quite make it to the warms-the-cockles-of-ones-heart department. It seems that Yale University’s School of Medicine and Pepsico formerly the Pepsi-Cola Company) have joined forces to create a “research lab” in Science Park, adjacent to the New Haven, CT, university.
The soft drink company will endow a laboratory “that focuses on nutritional research, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity,” according to a news release announcing the deal.
Making the cooptation complete, the people who bring you Doritos and Mountain Dew will also fund a graduate fellowship in the M.D.-Ph.D. Program at Yale School of Medicine “to support research related to nutritional science.”
In 2001 I published a book on the metabolic syndrome (we called it insulin resistance then), diabetes, and obesity. Much information has come to light since then, and I plan to bring out a second edition in 2011. But what I knew then, and know now, is that Pepsico could make a greater contribution to health and nutrition, particularly that of children, by taking off the market all of its products that promote this triple scourge.
Ask yourself: how hard will the lab and doctoral program try to determine the extent to which Pepsico’s offerings promote the metabolic syndrome? (A syndrome is a set of symptoms. Type 2 diabetes and obesity are symptoms of the metabolic syndrome.)
These are the achievements Pepsico cites in its news release on its association with Yale:
PepsiCo has already begun its shift to a healthier portfolio of foods and beverages. For example:
- In the United Kingdom and Europe, PepsiCo has introduced Baked Lay’s and Baked Walkers with 70% less total fat than regular crisps.
- In the United States, Tropicana Pure Premium Orange Juice has two servings of fruit in every 8-ounce serving and offers a juice variety with added calcium and Vitamin D.
- In India, PepsiCo is using rice bran oil instead of palmoline oil, which has reduced saturated fats by 40%.
In other words, so far Pepsico has focused on reducing fat intake (points one and three). That’s nice, but minimally related to the metabolic syndrome. And, in a direct attack on pancreases and kidneys everywhere,the company has increased the concentration of fructose (fruit sugar) in its orange juice. Not a word so far about reducing starches and sugars, the prime villains in diabetes and a number of other diseases related to the metabolic syndrome.
What I find particularly perplexing is that Yale is also home to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity where the director, Kelly Brownell, is a leading crusader against junk food. Last April I went to a conference on obesity in Seattle, where Dr. Brownell presented a blistering keynote address entitled “Taking Action in Today’s Obesity Crisis.” If your time and Internet connection allow, it’s worth seeing. If not, I wrote about it here.
I wrote to Kelly Brownell to ask what he thought about the Yale-Pepsico undertaking. He wrote back that he didn’t know anything about it and that anything he could say would be only in the broadest terms. I answered that broadest terms would work for me. I’m hoping he’ll have time to tell me a bit about how the endowment compares with his center’s philosophy and efforts. If he does, I’ll update this page.
So Yale didn’t talk with their internationally-known expert on food policy and obesity about the Pepsico plan. Why would that be? Is it possible they wanted Pepsico’s money so badly that they didn’t want to hear a discouraging word from Brownell? (I’m assuming here, but it’s an informed assumption.)
It seems to me that Pepsico is trying for a cosmetic makeover. Last year the company adopted a logo just a hair away in design from the Obama sunrise sphere that graces the New Hampshire press pass I can’t bear to remove from its place hanging on my desk lamp. This year it’s draping itself in the flag of improved nutrition.
I think of Pepsico at Yale. Then I think of the weasel that got into my hen house. Then I feel like throwing something. Hard. And far. At least the weasel didn’t try to disguise itself as a chicken.
[UPDATE: Over at Alternet, blogger theancientone has a prescription that would let Yale accept Pepsico's money without interference in the research being done. One wonders if Yale has taken such pains in negotiating the contract. The Ancient One has been engaged in pure research for some 50 years, has brought many millions of dollars in funding to several estimable institutions, and surely knows what he's talking about.]