Coca-Cola defends $1m gift to scientists who shift obesity blame away from soda

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Coca-Cola defends $1m gift to scientists who shift obesity blame away from soda

Related tags: science, Coca-cola

The Coca-Cola Company says it wants to set the record straight on its role in funding scientific research, after coming under fire for funding a program which says there is ‘no compelling evidence’ that sugary drinks and diets are responsible for obesity.

Coca-Cola has confirmed it funds scientific research through the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN): but its involvement has come under heavy fire this week as critics accuse it of trying to shift the blame for obesity away from bad diets and onto a lack of physical activity.  

The New York Times reported​ the network’s website is also registered to Coca-Cola, and that the company’s gift had not been acknowledged on the website until the omission was challenged. It also outlines further funding made to the scientists behind the website in the last few years.

Coca-Cola: ‘We are proud to support the work’

The Coca-Cola Company has given a $1m gift to the network, a program which is dedicated to ‘identifying and implementing innovative solutions, based on the science of energy balance,’ ​to obesity and related diseases.

“Most of the focus in the popular media and scientific press is, ‘oh, they’re eating too much, blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks, and so on. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause,”​ said Steven Blair, vice president of the GEBN, in a promotional video.

But Dr Ed Hays, chief technical officer for Coca-Cola, said he had been dismayed to see an ‘inaccurate portrayal’ of his company in the media after it emerged Coca-Cola is one of the funders of the campaign.

“The story claimed Coke is funding scientific research to convince people diets don’t matter – only exercise. In fact, that is the complete opposite of our approach to business and well-being. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Yes, we fund scientific research through GEBN and we are proud to support the work that scientists such as Dr Jim Hill and Dr Steve Blair do – because their type of research is critical to finding solutions to the global obesity crisis. 

“At Coke, we believe a balanced diet and regular exercise are two key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle.”

He said Coca-Cola’s business strategy is to encourage people to enjoy its products more often but with the size, calories and content to fit their lifestyles.

Letters to the editor

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, is one voice which says Coca-Cola is trying to 'distort science'.

A la the tobacco industry, that group appears aimed at confusing consumers about the established science showing that sugar drinks are a major contributor to obesity, heart disease and diabetes,” ​said Michael F. Jacobson, president of the group.

It has led a letter to the editor of the New York Times, signed by 36 scientists and public health officials.

The scientific nonsense being peddled by the Coca-Cola-funded Global Energy Balance Network is outrageous,”​ said Jacobson.

“The Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee provides compelling evidence for the causal link between sugary drinks and disease, as well as the need for exercise.Unfortunately, Coca-Cola and its academic helpers won’t accept the well-documented evidence that sugary drinks are a major contributor to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Scientists respond

The concept of energy balance is based on considering the balance between calories taken in and calories expended.

However, Dr James O. Hill, president of the Global Energy Balance Network, has hit back saying the issue has been ‘vastly oversimplified’ by the media.

I can say unequivocally that diet is a critical component of weight control, as are exercise, stress management, sleep, and environmental and other factors. The problem does not have a single cause.

“Funding from the Coca-Cola Company will help build the infrastructure for an international consortium of scientists and representatives from a variety of sectors dedicated to battling obesity. The food, physical fitness, healthcare and other industries all must play a role in the solution. The GEBN’s research and educational efforts are independent and not subject to pre-approval by the Coca-Cola Company.”

According to the disclosure now present on the GEBN website, the group has received support from private philanthropy, the University of Colorado, the University of South Carolina, University of Copenhagen, and ‘an unrestricted gift from The Coca-Cola Company.’

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