Coca-Cola’s Disclosures Reveal Large-Scale Effort to Influence the Science on Sugar

Got Science? | October 2015

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

In response to a growing number of critiques charging that Coca-Cola has actively attempted to skew the science on the connection between sugar and disease, the company—the world’s largest soft drink manufacturer—recently made the laudable decision to disclose its corporate funding over the past five years. The jaw-dropping list shows that Coca-Cola spent more than $100 million in this period to fund medical organizations, disease foundations, and athletic groups—including more than $21.8 million specifically earmarked to fund scientific research.

There’s a lot to say about the Coke-funded scientific research. But perhaps even more dismaying is the number of prestigious medical associations listed as recipients of Coke’s largesse in other ways. Consider, for example, that the American Academy of Pediatrics—a nonprofit organization representing some 64,000 pediatricians across the United States—accepted $3 million from Coca Cola to underwrite its website devoted to children’s health. What’s more, according to excellent reporting by the New York Times, the group even distributed cups and tote bags emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo to pediatricians attending the group’s annual meeting in Boston in 2011.

To fully appreciate how misguided such sponsorship is, it is worth reviewing what real, solid scientific research shows about the relation between soft drink consumption and the epidemic of obesity and diabetes now affecting children in the United States.

An epidemic of obesity and diabetes

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood obesity has more than doubled in American children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years. As of 2012, more than one third of American children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Type-2 diabetes, a preventable, life-threatening disease marked by higher than normal levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood, has almost tripled over the past three decades.

Most people don’t think much about it, but a single 20-ounce soda such as Coca-Cola contains a mind-boggling 15 to 18 teaspoons of sugar. While there are signs that soda consumption is now starting to wane, over the past 30 years, the rate of sugary beverage consumption has doubled. And a growing body of research shows that all this liquid sugar has been deleterious to children’s health.

One reputable study found that for each additional 12-ounce soda children consumed each day, the odds of becoming obese increased by 60 percent over the next 1 and a half years. Another study found that people who consume sugary drinks regularly—one to two cans per day or more—have a 26 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who rarely consume such drinks, with the data suggesting even greater risks for young adults.

Of course, the nation’s pediatricians stand on the frontlines of the battle against childhood obesity and diabetes. They surely know that both conditions dramatically worsen the prospects for good health in adulthood. Diabetes, for example, leads to complications such as blindness, amputations, kidney failure, liver disease, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. Of all groups, one would hope that our children’s doctors would be especially aware of the harmful effects of the billions of dollars spent by beverage companies in the United States—including Coca-Cola—to market sodas to children.

And that’s what makes it so problematic that a respected and purportedly independent health organization such as the American Academy of Pediatrics agreed to affiliate with a company that is almost surely a major contributor to our children’s deteriorating health.

Where’s the harm?

Some might argue that such an arrangement present little harm because, in this case, the association made no formal endorsement of the company.

They would be wrong.

The academy’s website, healthychildren.org, lists Coca-Cola as its one-and-only “Gold Sponsor” and—right on the website itself—parrots the company line that Coke is “Committed to innovating and meeting the evolving needs of our consumers who are increasingly making purchase decisions based on their concerns for the health and well-being of their families.”

Of course, today’s companies have become masters of these kinds of arrangements, from calculated product placements in movies and on television to savvy cooptation of seemingly independent voices on social media. They know that, nowadays, official endorsements often matter less than softer affiliations, such as having the hero in a popular movie incidentally happen to drive a certain model of car—or for that matter having the nation’s top pediatricians carry around Coca Cola tote bags at a medical association meeting.

The power of disclosure

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” and Coca-Cola’s decision to disclose their corporate giving has already had a beneficial effect. For one thing, within days of Coke’s disclosure, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced that they will sever ties with the company as of 2016. “We have no plan of renewing a corporate relationship with Coca-Cola,” said Susan Martin, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, in response to my inquiry about the matter. She added that her association needs to “make sure our values align with what the Academy believes is in the best interest of children’s health.”

Martin also unconvincingly tried to make the case that the Academy’s decision came as part of “an ongoing and regular review of the Academy’s corporate relationships, which commonly happens on both sides of these types of agreements.” While it’s true that some members of the American Academy of Pediatrics have objected strongly to the Coca-Cola affiliation for years and even drafted a resolution to the academy leadership calling for the organization to sever its relationship with Coke, the timing of the association’s announcement speaks for itself.

Importantly, the American Academy of Pediatrics is not alone. Other notable recipients of Coke funding include: the American Academy of Family Physicians ($3.6 million); the American College of Cardiology ($3.2 million); the American Cancer Society ($1.9 million); and even the American Diabetic Association ($1.1 million). 

Like the pediatric group, the American Academy of Family Physicians has now announced that it will terminate its funding arrangement with Coca-Cola and, hopefully, the pressure of the new transparency will lead others to follow suit as well.

Independent science matters

One particularly notable revelation in the trove of data Coca-Cola released last month: the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University was the single largest recipient of Coke money since 2010, receiving more than $6.7 million.

Just last month, the Pennington Center announced the findings of a large study of 6,000 children from 12 countries. It found that the major lifestyle factors influencing childhood obesity around the world were: a lack of exercise, not enough sleep, and too much television. However, the study makes no mention of the consumption of sugary drinks. In a statement, the Pennington research center said it complied “with all appropriate ethical safeguards,” to assure the quality of its science. But people are, of course, right, to be highly skeptical of findings such as these once they learn that the research is lavishly underwritten by the world’s leading purveyor of soda.

The truth is, whether in direct funding of research such as that at the Pennington Center or through more indirect affiliations with medical associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, arrangements such as these rightfully undermine public confidence in independent science. Sadly, they lead to increasingly prevalent cynicism that sharply undermines public confidence that any results are truly independent.

Independent assessment is vital to the practice of science. That is why people so often speak of the importance of “disinterested” scientists. And that is why scientists go to such lengths to design “double blind” studies. They know that even their knowledge of possible outcomes in a research study can unwittingly skew the results.

Independent science is too important to achieving good policy outcomes—to charting smart steps to combat things like the scourge of 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.

The recent disclosure by Coca-Cola points up the fact that transparency is the vital first step toward insuring that purportedly independent research and scientific bodies are truly as advertised—independent and not co-opted by vested interests. It’s true that corporate funding need not necessarily mean that research is tainted. But that’s why full disclosure is so important and why we need to work harder to insist that our scientists, medical professionals, and our politicians acknowledge who’s backing them and with what kinds of terms so we can more fully assess their independence.

Speaking of disclosure, I’m proud to report that the organization I work for, the Union of Concerned Scientists, takes no funding from government or from corporations for any of its work. The lion’s share of our funding comes from our members, who believe strongly that true science-based advocacy should be beholden to no special interests.