Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, is backing a new “science-based” solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories.
The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media. To help the scientists get the word out, Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization 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 group’s vice president, Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist, says in a recent video announcing the new organization. “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 Coke 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 has only minimal impact 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 last two decades, consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American has dropped by 25 percent.
“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,” said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer. “This is a direct response to the ways that the company is losing. They’re desperate to stop the bleeding.”
Coke has made a substantial investment in the new nonprofit. In response to requests based on state open records laws, two universities that employ leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network disclosed that Coke had donated $1.5 million last year to start the organization.
Since 2008, the company has also provided close to $4 million in funding for various projects to two of the organization’s founding members: 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 A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health.
Records show that the network’s website, gebn.org, is registered to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, and the company is also listed as the site’s administrator. The group’s president, James O. Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said Coke had registered the website because the network’s members did not know how.
“They’re not running the show,” he said. “We’re running the show.”
Coca-Cola’s public relations department repeatedly declined requests for an interview with its chief scientific officer, Rhona Applebaum. In a statement, the company said it had 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,” the statement said. “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.”
Blair and other scientists affiliated with the group said that Coke had no control over its work or message and that they saw no problem with the company’s support because they had been transparent about it.
But as of last week, 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, made no mention of Coca-Cola’s financial support. 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 organization to inquire about its funding. Blair said this was an oversight that had been quickly 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,” Blair said.
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.
The group says there is “strong evidence” that the key to preventing weight gain is not reducing food intake — as many public health experts recommend — “but maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories.” To back up this contention, the group provides links on its website to two research papers, each of which contains this footnote: “The publication of this article was supported by The Coca-Cola Company.”