We’ve been waging the war on obesity for over a decade now. Nonprofits like Shape Up America and the Obesity Action Coalition aim to spread awareness of obesity and its prevention. In 2013 Michelle Obama launched the Drink Up campaign to promote the consumption of water over sugary drinks like soda, and under mayor Bloomberg, the New York City Board of Health temporarily limited the sale of sodas over 16 ounces.
The results of these campaigns include a 25% decrease in full-calorie soda consumption in the US since 1995.
Naturally, changes like this do not sit well with Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of soda and other sugary drinks. In response, Coke has begun funding top scientists to spread the message that exercise, not diet change, is most crucial in preventing obesity.
In February, Coke-backed nutrition experts published online posts for American Heart Month recommending mini-cans of Coke as a “refreshing beverage option.” While health experts suggesting soda consumption as part of a healthy diet seems like a counter-productive step, this is simply another marketing strategy for Coke.
“We have a network of dietitians we work with,” said Coke spokesperson Ben Sheidler. “Every big brand works with bloggers or has paid talent.”
Coke has provided both financial and logistical backing to the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network. The group’s message, according to vice-president Steven N. Blair, prioritizes exercise over diet. “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,” said Blair in a video for the organization. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
Not only has Coke donated millions of dollars to the GEBN’s founding members for their research, but it also funds and administrates the group’s website.
Coke’s funding of an organization dedicated to obesity research clearly presents a conflict of interest for the scientists involved, made worse by the fact that the message they are spreading simply isn’t true.
Exercise burns calories and is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. However, in the fight against obesity, exercise is not more, or even as important as a healthy diet.
From 2001 to 2009, the percentage of physically active Americans increased, but so did the percentage of obese Americans. Burning calories through exercise is a slower process than many people realize. According to University of North Carolina professor Barry M. Popkin, “It takes three miles of walking to offset that one can of Coke.”
“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,” explains Marion Nestle, a nutrition, food studies, and public health professor at New York University.
Coke is not alone in supporting self-serving scientific research. PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, McDonalds, and other food and beverage companies have all partnered with American Society for Nutrition and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
This corporate sponsorship of health issues treats national health as a marketing tool. It is not only deceitful, but also potentially dangerous for consumers who put stock in the advice of health experts.