Life at PepsiCo

Dare to flavor the future: Inside the world of R&D innovation

Swirl pattern

Step into the dynamic world of research and development (R&D), where every crunchy question leads to a savory solution.

Sierra Johnson has always had two passions: research and food. At PepsiCo, she began as a Research and Development (R&D) Food Science Intern, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in food science, and rejoined the company to become a full-time associate R&D Food Scientist.

“Being in school and being in the industry are two completely different mindsets,” she says. While she already had a strong understanding of “where things come from, how things are made, how they impact people and what makes people want certain things,” PepsiCo gave her a crash course in using this knowledge to develop new products and provide consumers with what they want.

“I remember participating in many meetings and wondered why they were relevant to me and my projects,” she recalls. “But I learned dozens of technical and soft skills to help me solve problems and develop innovative ideas.”

Within two years, Sierra was promoted to Research & Development Food Scientist. She plays an active role in PepsiCo’s iconic brands by providing innovative ways to include new ingredients in tortilla chips.

Crash course in innovation

Sierra’s day involves answering a lot of questions: How do we make tortilla chips now, and how can we evolve our formula or our process? Who can we work with internally and externally, from manufacturing sites and global procurement to marketing and consumer insights, to make the best product? What does the final product look like?

Answering these questions means Sierra does a lot of work sourcing ingredients and partnering with vendors to understand what ingredients are already out on the market.

Often, this leads to even more questions. For example, if consumers want chips with black beans, Sierra explores whether to use dried black beans, fresh black beans or previously frozen black beans. Scientifically, she defines how to produce chips that work and align with what consumers want.

I turn vague ideas
into reality.

As a Food Scientist, Sierra conducts knowledge mapping to understand what people already love about tortilla chips. “For example, maybe people love that it’s a thick, hearty bite that allows them to pick up guacamole versus salsa,” she says. “Maybe our research determines people love something super salty or lightly salted. … I identify what the perfect chip looks and tastes like while understanding how to make it a reality on a food science level.”

After gathering this information, she’ll create black bean chips with various seasonings, eventually running them through focus groups to see if people enjoy her creations. Then she’ll reformulate the chip based on feedback and evolve it into the desired gold-standard product.

“I take very vague ideas or concepts and turn them into reality,” she says. “PepsiCo taught me to refine concepts into something everyone loves!”

Collaboration is key to food science

When she says “everyone,” she doesn’t just mean consumers. Food science is an art that requires cross-functional collaboration. “I work with a variety of teams,” she says, citing the Marketing and Supply Chain teams as key stakeholders to help identify the best course of action for a product.

If you have questions,
you can literally
ask anybody.

Sometimes, the Marketing team approaches Sierra and her team with an idea for a new product. “Let’s say they want to make a hexagonal tortilla chip — one that’s differentiated from anything in the past,” she says. “We’ll even get legal and regulatory teams involved to see if we can even call this a tortilla chip.”

Meanwhile, working with the Supply Chain team is essential to determine what ingredients are available on the market. “Just because I want to work with a frozen organic red bell pepper in Moldova doesn’t mean our global procurement team can get a ton of this for my specific product,” she says. “In those cases, we must determine what made that bell pepper so special. Are there other ingredients or seasonings we can use to help re-create that experience?”

Sierra says one of the greatest aspects of PepsiCo’s culture is how many people are there to help find answers. “Let’s say I have a food safety question — that’s not my area of expertise, but I can go ask anyone on the food safety team,” she says.

Having the opportunity
to network
across the company was thrilling!

At PepsiCo, Sierra can work with iconic, global brands and be part of a culture that provides new talent with meaningful opportunities to grow. “As a Black woman in my field, I was aware that I might encounter roadblocks,” she says. “I made sure to equip myself with the skills needed to advocate for myself, stand up for myself and know that I’ve earned the right to be in these spaces.”

When she joined PepsiCo as an intern, she quickly found a group that paired women with mentors around the world. “Just having the opportunity to network across the company, find out how people got to where they are and learn about their different backgrounds was thrilling,” she says. “Now I’m able to provide that support and be a mentor for people just starting their career.”

She also joined PepsiCo employee resource groups for additional support, including MOSAIC and Women of Color (WoC), and became a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

Looking ahead: The future of flavor innovation

Sierra takes pride in what she’s been able to accomplish at PepsiCo in three short years. Specifically, she notes her role in reducing the levels of sodium in Cap’n Crunch cereal. By 2025, at least three-quarters of PepsiCo’s food sales volume will have 1.3 milligrams of sodium or less per calorie.

“Knowing that I’m making a positive impact feels good,” she says. “Reformulating for great taste and health is a professional adventure.”

At the end of the day, Sierra asks herself, “Can I make this product?” Regardless of what the answer is, she and her team went through the creative process of sourcing ingredients, running trials and determining what’s possible. “That’s what success is,” she says.

Making a positive
impact feels good.

Sierra envisions the future of flavor innovation as being even more widespread. “I’d love to step into a store anywhere in the U.S. and explore the food, culture and flavor of the Middle East or West Asia,” she says. “Even beyond flavor, I think we’ll have a better cross-cultural understanding of technologies used across the globe to unlock new tastes consumers love.”

Looking ahead, Sierra is committed to expanding her knowledge and expertise by pursuing a master’s degree focused on regulatory affairs, life sciences, and health and nutrition. “I want to continue to explore food science, as well as research and development,” she says, “and I’m excited to continue enjoying everything that PepsiCo has to offer!”

Dare to be

In this story series, we champion PepsiCo associates who dare to take risks, think differently and have the courage to build something better, whether at work or in their personal lives.