Innovation is only way to meet future food challenges, says PepsiCo's top scientist

by Laurie Gorton
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Lay's wavy and classic original chips
PepsiCo has been actively working on the composition of its food products, including reducing the salt in its Lay's potato chips.

MINNEAPOLIS — If food companies think there are big challenges feeding today’s world and its 7.3 billion people, even bigger problems face them in the future, said Mehmood Khan, M.D., Ph.D., vice-chairman and chief scientific officer of global research and development at PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y. He gave the keynote address at AACC International’s centenary meeting in Minneapolis on Oct. 20.

Speaking to an audience of cereal scientists, millers and ingredient suppliers, Dr. Khan offered his reasons for describing innovation as the answer.

Mehmood Khan, PepsiCo
Mehmood Khan, M.D., Ph.D., vice-chairman and chief scientific officer of global research and development at PepsiCo

“If we continue doing in 2050 what we do today, 3.5 billion people will be hungry,” he said. “The world is depending on the food industry to feed the planet. If not, even with today’s high level of conflict, we haven’t yet seen what can result when that many mouths go hungry.”

A decade ago, when PepsiCo chairman and chief executive officer Indra Nooyi recruited Dr. Khan, he was charged with changing the R.&D. climate at the company. It boosted its budget for such work by 30% but was quickly plunged into the worldwide financial crisis. PepsiCo’s stock plunged, but the company persevered.

“By 2013, net revenues from innovation accounted for 8% in sales,” Dr. Khan said. “In 2014, it was 9%. Any declines we had in traditional brands were more than offset by these innovations.”

In addition, PepsiCo products accounted for 10 of the Top 50 new products that year.

He advised his audience of scientists, “If you want to make a difference, you have to step out of the norm.”

PepsiCo did that when it hired Dr. Khan. He trained in medicine first and entered agronomy later. He received his medical degree, specializing in endocrinology, from University of Liverpool and his doctorate in agriculture from the University of Minnesota. Before joining PepsiCo, he was president of Takeda Pharmaceuticals and previously taught on the faculty at the Mayo Clinic.

Hamed Faridi, Ph.D., chief science officer for McCormick & Co., Hunt Valley, Md., and 1996 past-president of AACCI, introduced Dr. Khan.

“To my knowledge, he is the first R.&D. officer to be made a vice-chairman at any major food company,” Dr. Faridi said.

Most of Dr. Khan’s comments involved the importance of innovation.

“The only way you can change is invest back in innovation,” he said. “You cannot grow yourself out (of the challenges the food industry faces) by efficiency alone. Yes, this grows the bottom line, but cannot grow the top line without innovation.”

He described the many R.&D. partnership projects launched by PepsiCo.

“In my first year, we signed 48 different contracts,” he said. He also heads up sustainability projects for the company.

During the question-and-answer session, Dr. Khan confirmed that PepsiCo was actively, but quietly, working on the composition of its food products. The company has taken out more than a half-billion lbs of sugar from U.S. food products.

“We did the same with salt,” he added. “A bag of Lay’s potato chips now contains less sodium than one slice of bread.”

A frequent speaker, Dr. Khan delivered the keynote address at the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogues held at Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this month.

“Do we have a choice?” Dr. Khan asked. “If we do not change, consumers will leave us behind. We will have truly lost their trust. There is only one answer: We have to be innovative.”
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