WASHINGTON — Leave it to the world’s largest seller of sugary drinks to tell people how to lose weight.
Amid a national obesity epidemic, Coca-Cola has been quietly supporting a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network whose primary goal is to spread the message that we might be a little too worried about what we eat and drink. The group, the subject of a New York Times piece Sunday, is led by a network of reputable scientists who have helped communicate that more exercise — not less food — is the key to a healthier lifestyle.
An inaugural video published last year depicts GEBN vice president Steven Blair communicating this very point. “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,” he says as two bottles of soda — both manufactured by Coca-Cola — are depicted. “There’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
The suggestion is provocative, to say the least. Many prominent institutions and health experts hold that there is, in fact, compelling evidence that sugar is indeed partly responsible for rising obesity. The Harvard School of Public health says bluntly on its website that “rising consumption of sugary drinks has been a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.” The website also cites several studies that establish sugary drinks (of which soda is the most prevalent example) increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, among other things.
“Exercise is the world’s best drug; it’s just not a weight loss drug” said Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa. “There certainly isn’t any consensus towards the idea that eating more and exercising more is the answer to obesity.”
But there’s another question here — beyond the issue of whether exercise or diet matters more for a person’s health. It’s whether it’s even possible to pursue honest research when it’s being funded by a corporate giant with very clear business objectives.
“These sorts of relationships are fraught with peril in terms of how they influence research,” Freedhoff said. “I would say that it’s impossible to accept that much funding from a company like Coca-Cola and for there not to be a conflict of interest.”
Freedhoff points to GEBN’s lack of transparency about its relationship with the global beverage giant as further evidence. If it truly wasn’t an issue, he says, than the organization would flaunt rather than obscure it.
GEBN is buoyed, at least in part, by both financial and strategic help from Coca-Cola. The global beverage giant invested $1.5 million last year while the organization was just getting started. The group’s website, gebn.org, is also registered in Coca-Cola’s name. If you click on ‘Mission,’ and scroll to the very bottom of the company’s mission statement, there’s a disclosure that GEBN received “an unrestricted gift from The Coca-Cola Company.”
The affiliation wasn’t always so clear. When Freedhoff first encountered the organization this year, he suspected the food industry might be involved, but he couldn’t find any evidence of it.
“As soon as I read the name, I assumed it was a food industry-funded organization. The jargon is classic misleading industry speak.” said Freedhoff. “But when I went to look online though, the website said nothing of any funding.”
On Twitter and Facebook, where the group shares articles and factoids, the account bios do not mention Coca-Cola.
Both Blair and Hill told the Times that the relationship with Coca-Cola neither influences their research nor presents a conflict of interest. They also said the company’s investment isn’t a secret.
The industry-funded group also approached other scientists. Kevin Hall, who is a researcher at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, received an invitation via email on January 6, 2015. Nowhere in the communication is there any mention of sponsorship. An attachment, which was included in the email, was obtained by The Washington Post. It’s almost identical to the organization’s mission statement online, save for two important differences.
• In the email attachment, there was a section titled “Why Join GEBN?”
• The email attachment, however, did not include information on who was paying for the organization.
“There was no way to tell who was funding this research from the email,” he said. “Thankfully, I didn’t accept, because I never accept invitations to these sorts of academic societies. It’s just too hard to tell who you’re actually getting involved with.”
Three weeks later, on February 14, Hall received a follow-up email. It reiterated the organization’s hope that he would decide to join, but warned that the window to become a founding member was closing on March 1.
Hall never answered.
Coca-Cola’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the nonprofit group comes at a particularly difficult time for the sugary beverage business. Soda consumption has been declining in the United States for over a decade, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor.
Some parts of the country have tried to enact policies that discourage people from drinking the beverage, citing health concerns. A proposed tax on sugary drinks in Berkeley passed with 75 percent of the vote last fall. The American Beverage Association spent an estimated $30 for every registered voter in its failed attempt to thwart the bill. In 2010, it spent $13 million in a successful anti-tax campaign in Albany, N.Y.
Investments in scientific research, however, can be even more powerful than overt efforts to sway voters about anti-sugary drink legislation, according to Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition & food studies at New York University.
“If they manage to cast doubt in the public’s mind about whether drinking soda has anything to do with obesity or diabetes, then they have won,” she said. “Once that happens, they won’t need to spend all that money, because they’ll be able to argue that the science simply isn’t there. Sodas, they’ll say, are only about hydration, and happiness, and fun.”
It’s unclear whether Coca-Cola-backed GEBN was reaching out to academics who were already pursuing the type of research that aligns with the group’s message, and offering them a loudspeaker, or pursuing reputable candidates who might be willing to forgo their research to shill someone else’s. But it appears it’s some mixture of both.
Hill and Blair, who launched the organization, have long been advocates of the notion that exercise, more than anything else, is a determinant of weight and health. Hall, on the other hand, who turned down the invitation to be a founding member, has been a proponent of just the opposite.
“I have to say, I was pretty surprised when I got the invite,” he said. “If anything, my bias has been focusing on food intake as the main driver, and that’s no secret.”
Nestle began collecting studies that served the interests of their sponsors this year in hopes of bringing more attention to what she believes is a dangerous practice. So far, she has found 42 such instances — and only one that might not have pleased the sponsor.
“It cannot just be a coincidence that more than 90 percent of industry-funded studies come out with a result that favors the sponsor,” she said. “That can’t be an accident or some improbable coincidence. It just can’t be.”