In a 2013 review of published research, scientists affiliated with France’s national scientific institute wrote that sugar and sweets “can not only substitute [for] addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive.” Although sugar is “clearly not as behaviorally and psychologically toxic,” cravings for it can be just as intense, they said.
Sales in Nestlé’s confectionery business have fallen every year since 2012, matching declines of competitors. After assaults on sodium and saturated fats, some industry figures are wondering openly if Big Food is the next Big Tobacco, with all the destruction of value that would imply. At major food companies, “there’s complete paranoia,” says Lawrence Hutter, a consultant at Alvarez & Marsal in London who works with them. All the large food producers say they’re trying to reduce their financial dependence on sugar. In fleeing the storm, they’ve darted for varying types of cover. Coca-Cola has shrunk soda cans; Mondelēz International, the maker of Oreos, has become a power in the gluten-free movement; PepsiCo has tried shifting toward healthy-ish snacks such as hummus.
Nestlé, always looking for the biggest bang for their buck, has decided that mashing up chickpeas with oil is not their bag and want to capitalize on the health concerns they helped create by coming up with packaging of medicine—for diseases like diabetes. They have created an entire business model of research and development.
Baetge, 59, was hired in 2010 to run the newly formedNestlé Institute of Health Sciences. His pharmaceutical bona fides are unimpeachable. After earning a Ph.D. in molecular neurobiology at Cornell in 1983, he worked at a series of biotech companies. He spent 2001 to 2010 at ViaCyte in San Diego, working on treatments for diabetes. When Nestlé came calling, asking Baetge to lead research into how food could be turned into marketable therapies, he was considering an offer to run a New York center for stem cell research, one of the sexiest areas of contemporary science. His medical colleagues were shocked when he said yes to Big Chocolate. “I was, like, in the hot seat for stem cells,” Baetge says. “They’d go, ‘You’re going from there to work on nutrition?’ ” Nestlé gave Baetge a 10-year budget of 500 million Swiss francs ($524 million).
He oversees around 160 scientists.
Greg Behar is another Nestlé executive who doesn’t eat too many KitKats. A champion swimmer who averages 20,000 steps a day on his Jawbone fitness tracker, he heads Nestlé Health Science, a subsidiary created alongside Baetge’s pure research arm and intended to commercialize its discoveries. Behar has a staff of more than 3,000 and a directive to develop “a new industry between food and pharmaceuticals.” The group has bought stakes in startups such as Accera, in Boulder, Colo., which makes a powdered shake it says may benefit people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Behar is a veteran of big pharma company Boehringer Ingelheim. Together they hope to create Nestlé-branded, probably pseudoscientific supplements they will be able to sell to an American public that they’ve already betrayed. These two men and Nestlé are studying the effects of high glucose on people. I almost fell out of my chair rolling my eyes.