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A small group of scientists in white lab coats  some bearing the Pepsi logo — wander through their laboratory, describing the state-of-the-art equipment.

There's the spectrometer, which uses light to determine the nutrients in a food sample. There's also the RT-PCR machine (or, reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction), as seen on "C.S.I." It can identify a sample of food by reading its DNA.

It's all part of the research laboratory that PepsiCo opened in New Haven's Science Park building earlier this year. The eight full-time scientists who work there focus on finding ways to make snack foods more healthful.

Mention that PepsiCo has a laboratory devoted to greater nutrition and most people wait for the punchline. This is, after all, the company that feeds the world with Cheetos, Fritos and, of course, Pepsi.But PepsiCo officials say the lab is part of a pattern toward offering more healthful fare. In expanding its product line, Pepsi has bought part of Sabra, a company that makes hummus; its Frito-Lay division now offers sunflower seeds and several types of nuts. And the company recently bought Wimm-Bill-Dann, a Russian dairy company.

Placing a greater emphasis on science, Pepsi hired Mehmood Khan in 2007 as its chief scientific officer. Khan, who had worked as an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, has set such goals as reducing sodium and added sugar by 25 percent in key products and reducing saturated fat by 15 percent.

Before the new lab opened, Khan says, Pepsi scientists had found a way to reduce salt on chips by reducing the size of salt crystals. They dissolve on the tongue faster, so more salt is tasted even though there is less of it. The New Haven lab doesn't have specific breakthroughs to boast of yet, or at least not any they can talk about publicly.

"There's stuff in the pipeline that should be coming out soon, maybe next year," says Mark Pirner, head of the lab and director of the company's clinical and scientific development strategy.

At this point, the researchers say, they're focused on gathering information on nutrition in general. So there are no specific goals yet, such as developing a crunchier, leaner chip.

"The discovery is what's going to lead to innovation," Pirner says. "I think some of the best science has been accidental discovery. I'm hoping it allows us to learn things beyond what we can predict all by ourselves."

Fellowship Money

The lab has no formal affiliation with Yale, but it operates near the campus and the researchers say they hope to benefit from their proximity to the university's resources. Also linking the lab and Yale was Pepsi's joint announcement about the lab's opening and its awarding of a $250,000 five-year fellowship for the Yale Medical School's M.D.-Ph.D. program. The fellowship is for students researching nutrition and obesity-related diseases.

The med school's aceptance of the money irked many on campus, as well as health-food advocates. Michele Simon, who graduated from Yale in 1990 and is the author of "Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How To Fight Back," says there's no way to trust any kind of nutritional research that's been funded by Pepsi.

"To me, the bottom line is we don't need Pepsi-funded research in any way," she says. "We don't need any kind of science to tell us to stop eating Cheetos or drinking Mountain Dew."

Robert J. Alpern, dean of the medical school, said such concerns are unfounded.

"The fellowship is an unrestricted gift to the university to support M.D.-Ph.D. students," he says. "It doesn't provide PepsiCo any control."

As for the lab, Alpern says, he's always glad when Yale attracts more science to the area. There are no plans for Yale researchers to collaborate with PepsiCo, he says, but it could happen if there's a mutual interest.

Focus On Nutrition

Standing near a microcope, Jeff Zachwieja, who directs the exercise biology program at the lab, points to a slide of muscle cells grown in the lab.

"We can screen for the potential effects of a lot of nutrients," says Zachwieja, who is also senior research fellow at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute in Illinois. (Gatorade is another Pepsi product.) Applying electrical shocks causes the muscle cells to contract. By adding certain nutrients, he says, "we can screen for things we believe will help the muscle better adapt to the stimulus."

Eric Milgram, senior fellow at the lab, used to work in the pharmaceutical industry.

"I always thought pharmaceutical research was the most challenging research that you could do, because it's very difficult to find a new drug, but in some ways, it's easier than what we do here," he says. The focus at the Pepsi lab is nutrition, which Milgram says has always been a fuzzy concept. Even a simple nutrition guideline — like three to five servings of vegetables a day — presents questions.

"Well, what is a serving? We haven't defined that very well," Milgram says. "Nutrition research is a very complex area, and they haven't applied the same molecular tools that the pharmaceutical industry has."

As a result, questions about food abound. Milgram points to the many claims made about "superfoods" like the acai berry, which has been touted as fighting cancer cells and alleviating diabetes.

"You can think of us as a sort of the 'Myth Busters.' " he says. "We can now profile that fruit and let you know what's in there. We can take someone, have them ingest that, and see what's going on biochemically."

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