The Coca-Cola Company yesterday revealed some details about its controversial role as a supporter of obesity research. A list published on the company’s website details more than $118 million in funding to various health-related projects and organizations since 2010, including nearly $22 million dedicated to research.
The disclosure comes amid accusations that the company has enlisted prominent health researchers to help downplay the role of sugary drinks in the obesity crisis. Public health advocates have long questioned whether support from food and beverage companies might bias the results of nutrition research. (A 2013 study found that among systematic review papers, those whose authors reported funding from the food industry were less likely to find a link between sugar-sweetened drink consumption and obesity.) But the debate flared last month when The New York Times reported that a $1.5 million gift from Coke had helped create a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), led by researchers at multiple universities.
The organization seemed to advance the message that exercise was a key and underappreciated factor driving obesity. The Times cites a video—since removed from the company’s website—in which GEBN’s vice president, University of South Carolina, Columbia, exercise scientist Steven Blair, claims the media has wrongly emphasized overeating and unhealthy diet in obesity coverage.
Health experts criticized the organization as a thinly veiled attempt by Coke to downplay the contribution of sugary drinks to obesity, despite scientific evidence that without changes in diet, the role of exercise in weight reduction is limited.
GEBN responded with a lengthy statement on its website denying that it had advanced that Coke-friendly message: “Coca Cola has no input into the activities of GEBN. GEBN is not about minimizing diet or even the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in development of obesity.” The statement also explains that the video of Blair was removed at his request because the views expressed “do not accurately reflect the position of GEBN.”
Coke’s release of its research funding list, reported yesterday by the Times, shows the substantial support the company has offered to GEBN’s founders. Included is a “sponsored research agreement” from 2010 which provided Blair and colleagues $4.4 million to explore the role of diet and exercise in weight gain. But it also documents numerous contributions to researchers with no explicit link to the organization. The company gave $25,000 to help researchers the University of Washington launch national nutrition and health surveys, for example, and nearly $2 million to a group at Emory University’s global diabetes research center for a South Asia Health and Wellness Tracking Program.
Another gift on the list: $299,000 to fund a 2012 conference at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, entitled Scientific Approaches to Strengthening Research Integrity in Nutrition and Energetics.