Indra Nooyi, the former long-time CEO of food and beverage giant PepsiCo, has told a virtual conference hosted in India that the country needs to embrace a healthier food culture to ensure it has a robust defence against Covid-19 and future pandemics.

And she suggested alternative protein should be at the heart of innovation from food companies in the future.

Speaking at the Smart Protein Summit 2020 event, Nooyi said she is worried that “people with pre-existing conditions or comorbidities were disproportionately impacted by Covid”.

She added: “I think one of the things we have to start working on now is improving the health of people. It is a critical priority because if we don’t we can have a unhealthier and unhealthier population and people who are older will be relatively unhealthy, it is going to increase our healthcare costs and more importantly it is going to make us more susceptible to any sort of pandemic epidemic outbreak that comes up.”

Looking at getting people to reduce their meat intake, she said: “People are thinking about how to change their eating habits so you’ve got a natural way of thinking that is actually spurring the growth of plant-based meats. There are other issues we can talk about but I think it’s very important that we recognise that there is a moment in time where the product is tasting quite good, it’s beginning to be ubiquitously available and it’s kind of affordable.”

She said it is important to “make sure the plant-based product has better nutrition than the animal-based product” and added: “If I have a plea to this industry, you have got to start with the nutrition, you have got to reduce sodium levels, you have got to make sure the calories levels are lower than they are already and you’ve got to make sure that nobody is looking to eat a less nutritious plant-based product because that goes against the whole notion of plant-based products”.

Noori also suggested India could be a centre for fermentation, or lab-produced food.

“I think there is a unique opportunity for India to sit back and, just as we decided to become the vaccine capital of the world, the antibiotic capital of the world, I think fermentation belongs in that genre of products. I mean vaccine production is a form of fermentation.”

Nooyi was CEO of Walkers and Lay’s crisps maker PepsiCo for 12 years, from October 2006 to October 2018.

Read just-food’s analysis: “It’s going to be a marathon and it’s going to be worth it” – weighing up the prospects for plant-based meat in India