How Coca-Cola Disguised Its Influence on Science about Sugar and Health

Photo: Mike Mozart/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Coca-Cola quietly funded a research institute out of the University of Colorado designed to persuade people to focus on exercise, not calorie intake, for weight loss strategies.

What Happened

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that too much sugar is bad for our health. And Coca-Cola has a history of pouring money into misinformation campaigns aimed at casting doubt on that evidence. One of the company’s tactics has been to fund its own scientific research through in-house research institutes such as the “Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness” established in 2004. The Beverage Institute featured misleading content on its website, confusing the science about sugar consumption and ill-health by focusing on the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in ‘hydration’ and ‘energy balance’ while ignoring these beverages’ links to obesity and metabolic disease. This institute is no longer active as of 2016, but the tactic lives on in an even more secretive fashion: Coca-Cola and other companies spread disinformation by funding questionable research programs hosted by academic institutions—and then use the names of those reputable establishments and scientists to promote their agenda.

In 2015, the Coca-Cola company gave $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation, a revenue stream that feeds into the university itself, to fund a research institute called the Global Energy Balance Network. The stated goal of the institute was to provide “a forum for scientists around the globe to come together and generate the knowledge and evidence-based pathways needed to end obesity.” But Coca-Cola’s real goal was to persuade people that they were focusing too much on calories and portion size and not enough on exercise. And the list of contributors to this effort—including University of Colorado faculty and other academic scientists—was riddled with conflicts of interest.

First, as part of the funding arrangement, Coca-Cola was allowed to choose the Global Energy Balance Network’s executives, draft its mission statement, and design its website and even compared their scientific project as “akin to a political campaign.” The company hired academics who had received funding from Coca-Cola and other food companies in the past. James O’Hill co-founded the Global Energy Balance Network and served as president. According to the Integrity in Science database, maintained by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Dr. Hill has ties to PepsiCo, McDonald’s, and the Sugar Association. He has also previously received consulting fees from Coca-Cola and other food companies. Before the organization was founded, Coca-Cola had also provided $4 million in research funds to two of its founding members: Dr. Steven N. Blair, exercise scientist at the University of South Carolina, and Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health between 2008 and 2015.

The new, Coca-Cola-funded research institute used studies funded by the company to argue that there was “strong evidence” that weight gain can be prevented, not by reducing calorie consumption, “but maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories.”

Coca-Cola sought to use the institute to shift the dialogue on obesity away from calorie consumption and toward exercise by funding industry-friendly science. But when the institute’s motives and funding stream were exposed, Coca-Cola announced it would halt operations due to “resource limitations.”

Why it Matters

Research funding by the private sector does not necessarily compromise the scientific work or suggest  that any impropriety has occurred. In this case, however, Coca-Cola’s influence managed to override sensible transparency and safeguards meant to ensure the integrity and independence of research.

Independent assessment is vital to the practice of science, which is why scientists go to such lengths to conduct peer reviews and design “double blind” studies. They know that even their own knowledge of possible outcomes in a research study can unwittingly skew the results. Independent science is too important to achieving good policy outcomes—in this case tackling issues like childhood obesity and diabetes—to allow it to be tainted by even the appearance of a conflict of interest. And public confidence in this kind of work is also vital to its continuance at academic and research institutions that are often publicly funded.

Transparency is the vital first step toward ensuring that purportedly independent research and scientific bodies are truly as advertised—independent and not co-opted by vested interests. The disclosure that Coca-Cola eventually made about its Global Energy Balance Network illuminates this fact. The case illustrates why full disclosure is so important and why we need to work harder to insist that our scientists, medical professionals, and politicians acknowledge who’s backing them and with what kinds of terms so we can more fully assess the independence and integrity of their work.

Further Reading

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