More than a third of Americans are obese, another third or so are overweight, and the rest of us—well, we wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds. But we’re finally doing something about it.
Americans are ingesting about 9 percent fewer calories than they did a decade ago, and they seem to have cut down on soda the most easily. Soda consumption is down 25 percent from its peak in the 1990s. That’s great for people’s waistlines but not for the soft-drink industry, which really wishes people would focus on another way to shed the weight. “Sugar-sweetened beverages have been singled out,” Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola’s chief executive officer, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2009, but “it’s not just about calories in. It’s also about calories out.” To that end, Coca-Cola and other soft-drink companies often try to raise awareness about the other causes of, and solutions to, the obesity epidemic.
As reported by the New York Times, Coke last year donated more than $1 million to fund the creation of the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), a brand-new international organization that was launched in December and “allows scientists to talk to each other, debate issues around the science of energy balance,” according to GEBN founder James Hill, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver. Hill says that Coca-Cola has no control over how its donation is used and that GEBN doesn’t actually conduct any academic research itself, but merely “provides a way for scientists to discuss and debate.”
Still, for the first couple of months of its existence, GEBN didn’t publicize its soft-drink ties. “Three or four people pointed it out to us in February that the source of our funding wasn’t on [our website],” Hill says. A March press release announcing GEBN’s creation didn’t mention Coke’s involvement or that the company had registered the gebn.org domain for the organization.
“That was our fault. We could’ve done that better,” says Hill, who adds that he’s worked on industry-funded research projects throughout his entire 35-year career. Last year, for example, he co-authored a study that found that people who drank diet soda lost weight faster than those who drank only water. It was funded by the American Beverage Association (ABA), an industry group of which both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are members. Other researchers, such as former Obesity Society President David Allison and GEBN Vice President Steven Blair, who’ve questioned the link between sugary drinks and obesity, have been similarly funded.
Last year, Blair explained GEBN’s mission this way in a promotional video:
“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, when there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause. We have to learn how to get the right information out there.”
Blair is a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina; most of his work focuses on exercise and physical activity and has been published in outlets such as the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to his curriculum vitae on the university’s website, Blair has received $3 million in research funding from Coca-Cola over the years—although that’s significantly less than the nearly $30 million he’s received from the National Institutes of Health.
To be clear, Coca-Cola isn’t the only food or beverage company dabbling in scientific research or obesity awareness. In 2013, PepsiCo donated $250,000 to Yale University Medical School, to be used on anti-obesity research. Nestlé Research Center funded Nature magazine’s “Obesity” issue last year and has studied how bacteria contribute to obesity, as well as visceral obesity in women, in which fat is located around internal organs.
“This is entirely reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s behavior,” says Kelly Brownell, dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a longtime advocate for soda taxes. “The tobacco companies funded scientists; those scientists produced tests favorable to tobacco. Now here come the soda companies and, lo and behold, they produce things that show soft drinks aren’t causing ill health.”
Hill says that’s unfair. “If you make a diet beverage, shouldn’t you do research to study that product?” he asks.
The problem isn’t necessarily that the food and beverage industry is funding scientific studies about obesity—it’s that the studies often overlook the industry’s direct contribution to its cause. A 2013 analysis paper published in PLOS Medicine looked at 17 beverage studies and found that those with financial ties to the industry were five times as likely to find no relationship between drinking sugary beverages and weight gain.
Take, for example, Hill’s findings that diet soda drinkers lost weight more quickly than those who drank water. It was just a 12-week trial, and the people selected for it were already regular diet beverage drinkers. So is it that diet drinks curbed their sweet tooth and helped them lose weight? Or is it that the act of dieting while also trying to change your drinking habits makes sticking to that diet even harder?
“Yes, industry-funded studies are more likely to find a positive effect. But there are reasons,” says Hill. “If I had a company … I would be more inclined to fund studies about my product that did what [the product] said.” Hill says he has sometimes performed studies for companies that found the opposite of what they’d been looking for. “We try to publish those, too, but it’s hard to get a study that has a negative finding in a journal. If you say I tested A and B and found no difference, that’s hard to get that published.” He couldn’t point to any specific examples of that happening, although he did say he researched a food additive that was supposed to promote weight loss and found that it didn’t, and the company decided not to sell the product.
On its Facebook page, GEBN offers weight management tips such as: “Standing during the day and sitting less can help you get healthier,” “Dancing is a great way to get moving,” and “Don’t demonize process[ed] food!” Its website emphasizes the calories-in-vs.-calories-out method of dieting, even though calories that come from sugar are believed to be metabolized differently than calories that come from, say, protein.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, Coca-Cola CEO Kent apologized for a lack of transparency and promised that the company would soon publish a comprehensive account of its partnerships and research investments. A company spokesperson said the first batch of information could be expected within the next few weeks, and it will be updated every six months.
All of this bad publicity has overshadowed some of Coca-Cola’s efforts at promoting a healthy lifestyle. For example, in 2012 the soft-drink maker launched what it called the Work It Out Calculator, which showed how much a person would need to exercise to burn off the calories in one of its drinks. To negate the 140 calories in a regular 12-ounce can of Coke, people would need to run for 17 minutes, walk for 30 minutes, or do 22 minutes of aerobics or 32 minutes of Pilates. So which would you rather do? Take an extra 30-minute Pilates class every day after work, run as fast as you can for 17 minutes, or swap out a Coke for a water? You can even drink Dasani—which, by the way, is owned by Coca-Cola.