In the last two decades, consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American has dropped by 25 percent. Coca-Cola is fighting the drop in its sales by going beyond marketing and co-opting science. The New YorkTimes reported, the company is backing a new scientific research group centered on the idea that lack of exercise — not sweet beverages — is making people unhealthy. Coca-Cola arebacking a new “science-based” solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories. It promotes the message that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.
The Coke-financed Global Energy Balance Network is tied to several influential scientists, but the results of its studies run counter to the findings of independent health experts. The disconnect means that, while the group bills itself as an unbiased research entity, public-health critics call it nothing but a front group. 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: 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 A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health. 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 University of South Carolina disclosed that Dr. Blair had received more than $3.5 million in funding from Coke for research projects since 2008. The university also disclosed that Coca-Cola had provided significant funding to Dr. Hand, who left the University of South Carolina last year for West Virginia. The company gave him $806,500 for an “energy flux” study in 2011 and $507,000 last year to establish the Global Energy Balance Network.
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.
Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth, said, "Coca-Cola's effort to establish a well-funded front group and buy the credentials of scientists is a cookie-cutter example of how a food company spins the story of food and science to benefit its bottom line."
The junk food industry, including Coke, is the new Big Tobacco, claims Stacy Malkan, co-author of the report. "They ignore the evidence, buy scientists and professors, and pour money into PR to convince people that it's not their fault that Americans are getting sicker."
Marion Nestle, the author of the book “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, was especially 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.”
Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Coke’s support of prominent health researchers was reminiscent of tactics used by the tobacco industry, which enlisted experts to become “merchants of doubt” about the health hazards of smoking.
Studies suggest that the funding from the food industry tend to bias scientific 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.
Coke’s involvement in the new organization 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 criticized 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.
Big Food is backing groups that look and sound like educational resources while supporting the goals of the corporations that help the bills. For example, the Food Dialogue website, the online face of the US Farmers and Rancher Alliance. USFRA’s backers include giant corporations tied to industrialized farming, including biotech company Monsanto, known for its GMOs, pesticide maker Dow AgroSciences, ag pharmaceutical provider Merck Animal Health and food processor Cargill. About 28% of USFRA’s funding comes from these ag industry companies, said Randy Krotz, USFRA CEO, with the rest coming from farmers and ranchers who mostly use conventional farming practices. No organic farm groups are included among its membership. An in-depth study, "Spinning Food," labels the USFRA and similar outreach organizations as front groups for Big Food and agrochemical corporations. Friends of the Earth explained in the report
"These front groups craft a narrative about food that is intended to defuse public concern about the real risks of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture and undermine the public’s perceptions of the benefits of organic food and diversified, ecological agriculture systems.” USFRA programs try to boost consumer confidence in industrial agriculture and the products of its funders, says the report. While USFRA’s series "Food Dialogues" are billed as balanced discussions with moderators from national news media, "they are really constructed to serve USFRA’s messaging goals," the report said.
Another major player among the Big Food outreach groups is the International Food Information Council. The IFIC Foundation’s "Food Insight" website and newsletter is dedicated to "communicating science-based information on health, nutrition and food safety for the public good." IFIC’s supporters include Monsanto; pesticide suppliers Bayer CropSciences and Dow AgroSciences; and food processors Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Trustees of the IFIC Foundation include executives from Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Dannon and Mars. David B. Schmidt, CEO of IFIC admitted, "IFIC members and Foundation trustees have an opportunity to suggest questions or wording to help ensure our surveys are of the highest quality."