The Future of Snacking

PepsiCo is a $66 billion multinational food and beverage company synonymous with soft drinks and convenience snacks. No matter where you are in the world, you’re sure to be aware of one of its many brands of crisp, corn chip, snack bar and cereal. Not to mention the soda itself.

However, while you might not immediately think of health foods, in recent years PepsiCo has been implementing an ambitious strategy to reduce environmental impacts of production, sustainably source ingredients, cut sugar and salt, and introduce new, more nutritious options to its line-up.

And this strategy has led to an innovative partnership with Exeter students.

John Bows (Physics, 1988) is an Exeter alumnus and Director of R&D at PepsiCo. He’s been working with third year Natural Sciences students to develop healthier and more sustainable snacks using plant proteins.

He said: “Fifty per cent of our business is snacks – potato chips, tortillas, corn snacks, etc. and most of these products are fried. We have a big focus on innovation and so we’ve been looking not only at how we can make existing products healthier without sacrificing taste, but also what new nutritious products we can introduce.

“Plant based snacks offer potential

advantages in terms of sustainable crop growth and nutrition, however the challenge of using plant proteins is that they generally need a lot of processing to taste good. We wanted to explore how we could produce tasty snacks without adding extensive additives or negative nutrients like sugar, salt or trans fats.”

Professor Geoff Nash, Director of Natural Sciences at Exeter, and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and The Royal Society of Chemistry, managed the academic side of the project.

He said: “Using tools such as advanced x-ray imaging, the students investigated factors such as how different ways of preparing and cooking products affected their micro-structure, which in turn affects both the taste and digestion of the snack.

“They also looked at sustainability factors in production – energy usage, added ingredients and wastage. The final step would be to consider sustainability of sourcing. Customers want to know about the product they are eating, where the ingredients come from and what has been added. PepsiCo can actually trace ingredients in potato chips back to source so it’s important that any new products follow the same principles.”

Faye Langston, one of the students on the project, said: “We worked with a prototype recipe from PepsiCo and trialled a range of different processing methods to see what impact this would have on things like texture, product

density and nutrition.

“Some of the key things we discovered included the fact that boiling time influenced cracker texture, and it was possible to match traditional cracker texture by optimising boiling time, particle size and process (baking) time / temperature. This means it’s possible to create a healthier, plant based snack that matches what consumers are traditionally used to.”

The work started in the group project has so much potential, it will now be taken forward by a new Natural Sciences PhD project, funded by PepsiCo, which Faye has started this academic year. New nutrition laboratories at Exeter also mean that future generations of project students are able to carry on the partnership, ensuring they get real-world experience.

“Science is supposed to be radical and revolutionary!” Geoff said.

“Natural Sciences is a relatively new programme where all the students study biology, chemistry and physics (as well as maths and computing) in their first year. It also gives them the opportunity and freedom to undertake real research as early as possible which has led to even second year students publishing the results of their research in the scientific literature.

"Many of our students are going on to study for PhDs, across all the sciences, and we’re really grateful to PepsiCo for enabling this PhD scholarship and their support of our students."

John said: “Having the mix of students working together in this way is much more like a real-world research team where you have people of all backgrounds and specialities working together. It’s very unusual when studying and I think it gives these students a real advantage when it comes to their future careers.”