Obesity and nutrition researchers have expressed alarm over a non-profit group, led by scientists, that downplays the risks of junk food and sugary drinks in favor of exercise in the fight against obesity—and receives funding from the soft-drink giant Coca-Cola.
The Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), a non-profit group promoting research into the causes of obesity, focuses its message on the need for people to increase their physical activity as the key to achieving a healthy weight.
However, the New York Times found that Coca-Cola contributed $1.5 million last year toward the creation of the GEBN and administers its website.
On the website, the GEBN promises to be “the voice of science” in discussions about healthy lifestyles and contends that the concept of energy balance provides “a new sciencebased framework” for achieving a stable body weight.
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 this statement, the group provides links to 2 research papers, each of which contains the footnote “The publication of this article was supported by The CocaCola Company.”
The Guardian reported that in a video announcing the aims of the organization, Steven Blair, a spokesman for the GEBN and a professor at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, says the world needs to be educated about getting the right amount of physical activity.
“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. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause,” Blair says in a promotional video issued by the group earlier this year.
The New York Times reported that since 2008, Coca-Cola had provided close to $4 million in funding for various projects led by Blair, whose research over the past 25 years has formed much of the basis of federal guidelines on physical activity.
Other prominent scientists have expressed concern over GEBN’s focus and funding.
“The more food intake and the more calories, the more weight you gain, and the less you exercise the more you will gain. But in the bigger picture it’s food intake over exercise that dominates as a cause of obesity—you cannot exercise your way out of overeating, that’s kind of a misguided idea,” Scott Grundy, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern medical center, told the Guardian.
A statement posted on the Coca-Cola website on August 10, from the company’s chief technical officer Ed Hays, said he was “dismayed to read the recent New York Times’ inaccurate portrayal of our company and our support of the Global Energy Balance Network. The story claimed Coke is funding scientific research to convince people that diets don’t matter—only exercise. In fact, that is the complete opposite of our approach to business and well-being and nothing could be further from the truth.”
According to a separate article in The Guardian, sales of sugar-sweetened and diet drinks have been falling for a decade in the United States, and a Gallup Poll found 60% of Americans to be avoiding soda.
The Guardian wrote that in an attempt to reverse these trends and deflect concerns about the health effects of sugary drinks, the soda industry is following a similar path to that of the tobacco industry: cast doubt on the science, discredit critics, and attribute obesity to personal irresponsibility.
However, there is much evidence linking habitual consumption of sugary drinks to poor health. Many studies have identified sodas as key contributors to chronic health conditions—most notably obesity, type-2 diabetes, and coronary artery disease.
The Guardian explained that companies know this—for at least the last 10 years, Coca-Cola’s annual reports to the US Securities and Exchange Commission have listed obesity and its health consequences as the single greatest threat to the company profits. The industry counters this threat with intensive marketing, lobbying, and contributing millions of dollars to strategies to fight the taxing or capping of the size of sugary drinks.
“CocaCola’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, told the New York Times.
Coke’s involvement in the GEBN is not the only example of corporatefunded research 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.