Coke cash sours obesity science

Researchers funded by Coca-Cola who play down the link between obesity and diet deny that the company influences their work. (Kuni Takahashi, Bloomberg)

Researchers funded by Coca-Cola who play down the link between obesity and diet deny that the company influences their work. (Kuni Takahashi, Bloomberg)

Coca-Cola, the global soft drinks manufacturer, funds organisations that downplay the role of diet in obesity, it has emerged, drawing attention to the source of funds for scientific research. This revelation, the result of a New York Times investigation, has scientists and the global health community up in arms, as they say these were the same tactics used by big tobacco to cast doubt about the health implications of smoking.

Obesity is a major health concern globally, with two in five people overweight and more than one in 10 obese, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Its most recent figures show that one in four South Africans is overweight or obese, putting them at risk of developing a number of diseases, including diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The WHO’s official stance is that obesity is a result of an imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended, although there is ongoing research into whether some calories are “better” than others.

The Global Energy Balance Network, a not-for-profit organisation that received a $1-million “gift” from Coca-Cola, is at the centre of the recent furore, following a video by its vice-president, Steven Blair, and the report that Coca-Cola was funding the organisation and Blair.

In the video announcing the launch of the organisation, Blair said: “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.”

This is untrue. There are many studies linking sugary drinks and obesity.

But the heart of the issue appears to be that the industry was funding an organisation and researchers who were disseminating, at worst, incorrect and, at best, misleading information.

In a response this week, James Hill, the president of the network, said: “Reports suggesting that the work of my colleagues and me promotes the idea that exercise is more important than diet in addressing obesity vastly oversimplifies this complex issue … I can say unequivocally that diet is a critical component of weight control, as are exercise, stress management, sleep, and environmental and other factors.”

He denied that Coca-Cola was influencing their research and educational material.

But Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of the book Soda Politics, told the New York Times: “The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.”

But this is a tricky line for scientists to walk. Marjanne Senekal, the head of the division of human nutrition at the University of Cape Town, said: “There are two sides.” On the one hand, there was the possibility of unethical scientists who were pushing a company’s line, and the other, “responsible scientists  who are battling to get funding [for their research]”.

Senekal, who has received funding from the South African Sugar Association in the past for weight-management-related research, said: “It is almost unethical not to take this funding to do research that could improve the lives of people. Sometimes it isn’t possible to get those funds elsewhere. But then you need to be a responsible scientist … and be transparent in your research.”

Asked for a response, Coca-Cola South Africa referred the Mail & Guardian to the company’s global response to the debacle. It said: “The Coca-Cola Company has a long history of supporting evidence-based scientific research relating to our beverages … As part of this commitment, we partner with some of the foremost experts in the field of nutrition and physical activity.”

The company said that it would continue to support scientific research.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild


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