13 Aug 2015 Coca-Cola gets roasting for funding ‘energy balance’ group
The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media, providing financial and logistical support to a new NPO called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.
“Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on,” the network’s vice-president, Steven Blair, an exercise scientist, says in a recent video announcing the new organisation. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
Health experts say this message is misleading and part of an effort by Coca-Cola to deflect criticism about the role sugary drinks have played in the spread of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
They contend that the company is using the new group to convince the public that physical activity can offset a bad diet despite evidence that exercise only has a minimal effect on weight compared with what people consume.
This clash over the science of obesity comes in a period of rising efforts to tax sugary drinks, remove them from schools and stop companies from marketing them to children. In the past two decades consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American has dropped by a whopping 25%.
“Coca-Cola’s sales are slipping, and there’s this huge political and public backlash against soda, with every major city trying to do something to curb consumption,” says Michele Simon, a public health lawyer. She said this “is a direct response to the ways that the company is losing. They’re desperate to stop the bleeding.”
Ccoc-Cola has made a substantial investment in the new NGO. Two universities that employ leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network disclosed that Coke had donated $1.5m last year to start the organisation.
Since 2008 it has also provided close to $4m in funding for various projects to two of the group’s founding members: Dr Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina whose research over the past 25 years has formed much of the basis of federal guidelines on physical activity, and Gregory Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health.
The network’s website, gebn.org, is registered to Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta and the company is also listed as the site’s administrator. The group’s president, James Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, says Coke registered the website only because the network’s members did not know how.
“They’re not running the show,” he says. “We’re running the show.”
Coca-Cola’s public relations department repeatedly declined requests for an interview with its chief scientific officer, Rhona Applebaum, who called attention to the new group on Twitter.
The company says it has a long history of supporting scientific research related to its beverages and topics such as energy balance.
“We partner with some of the foremost experts in the fields of nutrition and physical activity. It’s important to us that the researchers we work with share their own views and scientific findings, regardless of the outcome, and are transparent and open about our funding.”
Dr Blair and other scientists affiliated with the group say Coke has no control over its work or message and that they see no problem with the company’s support because they had been transparent about it.
But the group’s Twitter and Facebook pages, which promote physical activity as a solution to chronic disease and obesity while remaining largely silent on the role of food and nutrition, makes no mention of Coke’s financial support.
So far, the social media campaign has failed to gain much traction: last week the group had fewer than 1,000 Twitter followers.
The group’s website also omitted mention of Coke’s backing until Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa, wrote to the organisation to inquire about its funding. Dr Blair says this was an oversight that has been corrected. “As soon as we discovered that we didn’t have not only Coca-Cola but other funding sources on the website, we put it on there. Does that make us totally corrupt in everything we do?”
Coke’s involvement in the new organisation is not the only example of corporate-funded research and advocacy to come under fire lately.
The American Society for Nutrition and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have been criticised by public health advocates for forming partnerships with companies such as Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Hershey’s. Dietitians have also faced criticism for taking payments from Coke to present the company’s soda as a healthy snack.
Critics say Coke has long cast the obesity epidemic as primarily an exercise problem. “The message is that obesity is not about the foods or beverages you’re consuming; it’s that you’re not balancing those foods with exercise,” Mr Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa said.
Now, public health advocates say, Coca-Cola is going a step further, recruiting reputable scientists to make the case for them.
Prof Hill, the nonprofit’s president, is a co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry, a long-term study of people who have lost weight, and has served on committees for the World Health Organisation and the National Institutes of Health. The American Society for Nutrition refers to him as “a leader in the fight against the global obesity epidemic”.
Barry Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says Coke’s support of prominent health researchers is reminiscent of tactics used by the tobacco industry, which enlisted experts to become “merchants of doubt” about the health hazards of smoking.
Marion Nestle, author of the book Soda Politics and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, is blunt: “The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola.
“Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.”
Funding from the food industry is not uncommon in scientific research. But studies suggest that the funds tend to bias findings. A recent analysis of beverage studies, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, found that those funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies whose authors reported no financial conflicts…..
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