Coca-Cola to Disclose Its Spending on Research Into Soft Drinks and Health

Stephanie Strom, The New York Times  |  Updated: July 14, 2017 14:07 IST

Coca-Cola to Disclose Its Spending on Research Into Soft Drinks and Health
Coca-Cola says it will begin disclosing its investments in scientific research and advocacy about the impact sugary soft drinks have on public health. In an opinion article published online in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Muhtar Kent, chief executive of Coca-Cola, also said the company planned to assemble a committee of independent experts to advise it on its financial support for academic research.

“As we continue to learn, it is my hope that our critics will receive us with an open mind,” Kent wrote. “At times we will agree and at times we will passionately disagree.” A front-page article in The New York Times earlier this month revealed the financial ties between Coke and the Global Energy Balance Network, a nonprofit advocacy group that contends people worry too much about what they eat and not enough about how much they exercise.

Coca-Cola provided the seed money that started the group, and its vice president, Steven Blair, appeared in a video in which he chastised “the media” for blaming overconsumption of fast food and sugary drinks for the country’s high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In the video, Blair said, “There’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina, went on to suggest that the problem was not too many calories but rather not enough physical activity and exercise, and Coca-Cola has spent millions of dollars over the last several years in marketing to persuade people to get more active and on improvements to parks and playgrounds around the country.
On Thursday, however, Blair posted a statement on Global Energy’s website, saying he had asked the group to remove his video. “I regret that a statement I made in this video has been used by some to brand G.E.B.N. as a network focusing only on physical activity,” the statement said. “This is not true and never has been true. From the beginning the mission of G.E.B.N. has been to study the science of energy balance which involves both diet and physical activity.”

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said it often was hard to determine the origins of research funding, so the decision by Coke to increase disclosure of its investment would be helpful.

“But what he didn’t say was, 'We’re going to stop fighting soda taxes and limits on soda sales,'” said Nestle, whose new book, “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda and Winning,” will be published this fall. “They put so much money into fighting those initiatives and into research trying to discredit federal data.”

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She noted that Coca-Cola had underwritten studies critical of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, known as NHANES, a program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that uses information about what people are eating. The data is collected from 5,000 households around the country throughout the year and combined with information from physical examinations. The centers use the information to assess how nutrition quality is associated with disease, among other things.

In 2013, a paper co-written by Blair was published on PLOS One, an online peer-reviewed scientific journal, that questioned the validity of the data collected in NHANES. PLOS One later added a correction to the report, noting Coca-Cola’s financial support for the research. “NHANES is the basis of the epidemiological studies that demonstrate an association between consumption of soft drinks and obesity and diabetes,” Nestle said. “Coke has embarked on a systematic effort over the years to discredit NHANES and therefore those studies.”

Comments© 2015 New York Times News Service

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