George Mensah

By The Ghanaian Journal

By Jeremiah McWilliams
Dr. George Mensah spent nearly a decade near the top at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helping lead the federal agency's efforts to fight strokes, heart attacks, heart disease and colorectal cancer.

Dr. George Mensah, formerly of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is helping PepsiCo overhaul its snacks and beverage portfolio to use healthier ingredients.

Dr. George Mensah, formerly of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is helping PepsiCo overhaul its snacks and beverage portfolio to use healthier ingredients.

He was outspoken on the relatively high incidence of cardiovascular disease in the South, sometimes known as the nation's “stroke belt.”

These days Mensah, a native of Ghana, is helping PepsiCo overhaul its snacks and beverage portfolio to use healthier ingredients and cut the use of saturated fats, sodium and added sugar.

With health concerns swirling around carbonated beverages and salty snacks, PepsiCo — seller of Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Doritos and other brands — is touting its scientific expertise and willingness to try healthier formulations with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and low-fat dairy.

Mensah, 52, has been PepsiCo's director of heart health and global health policy since late last year. Prior to that, he was at the CDC for nine years, working as chief of the Cardiovascular Health Program as well as chief medical officer and interim director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Q: Why did you decide to leave public health to join PepsiCo?

A: We're very fortunate to be in the global R&D health policy team. Our goal is really to work with all the business units around the world to promote healthy living and healthy eating. The real role we play is to use the best science available to make sure everything we do supports our customers. I don't feel like I've left public health.

Q: Coca-Cola has health goals of its own, and it is based right here in Atlanta. Was there a little bidding war for your expertise?

A: Coke is a good competitor, and we have professional friends at Coke. But what really made the difference was seeing the changes that were happening at PepsiCo. The commitments to heart health, the commitment to expanding the healthy options that people have. What more could a public health official want? It was a fairly easy decision to make.

Q: Do you get the sense that the R&D department is on center stage at PepsiCo, as the company tries to get out in front of health concerns about calories and fat? PepsiCo's CEO, Indra Nooyi, has said she wants PepsiCo to triple its sales from “good-for-you” brands to $30 billion by 2020.

A: That is one of the main reasons I was convinced to join the company. It's coming from the very very top. Indra Nooyi, if you didn't know her, you would think she was a public health specialist. There is real passion at the top. But we also know there are multiple challenges involved. Hopefully we can get the message out. Indra Nooyi wants PepsiCo to be part of the solution. We know that we can actually do good, be fiscally responsible and also invest in a healthier future. That $30 billion. . . is quite a bit of real money. The commitment is there. That's what causes the excitement in global R&D.

Q: Are government agencies and private companies such as PepsiCo collaborating more deeply on health issues these days?

A: The tone is changing. I cannot say it has changed completely. But as the world sees the impact of some of the goals we are working towards, and how we are working towards our goals, I think that change will be accelerated. There was always a misconception that the private sector was only interested in profit, and maximizing profit. That is what has changed . . . We can have sustainable growth while expanding choices of healthier options. Even ordinary people are noticing that.

Q: You were much in the news in 2005, when the controversy arose as to whether the CDC had overstated the U.S. death toll from obesity by hundreds of thousands of deaths per year. Is there more certainty now about the dangers of obesity, or is the data still very fluid?

A: The first part of the question has to do with the confidence that any of us in public health have to attributing death to particular risk factors such as cholesterol and tobacco. That's very difficult. That's not a very easy field. The more important issue as to the dangers of obesity, there has never been any doubt. There is more and more of a consensus that this is a major problem.

More about George Mensah:
Mensah was born and raised in Ghana and came to the United States when he started as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where he graduated with honors in biology. He has a doctorate in medicine from Washington University and completed postgraduate training in internal medicine and a fellowship in cardiology at the Cornell University Medical Center. He has written or co-authored more than 400 manuscripts, abstracts and book chapters, as well as an atlas on heart disease and stroke.

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