A study reveals how Coca-Cola founded a scientific institute to influence the obesity debate

There are numerous studies that have revealed how to proceed from the food industry at the time of influencing the scientific debate on nutritional issues, the most notable one that uncovered the tricks of the year ago lobby of sugar in the sixties to influence nutritional recommendations, but usually refer to past times.

A new essay published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (belonging to the prestigious British Medical Journal) ensures, however, that Coca-Cola has dedicated these years to “divert the obesity debate in his war against public health. ” How? Funded research institutes or scientific societies that serve your interests.

Although the financing of the industry to certain institutes or scientific societies is well known, and their research is public, the truth is that, as the authors of the study point out, there have been little access to internal industry documents in which this type of strategies will be explained. Until now.

The US Right to Know consumer organization - which partly signs the essay - has managed to obtain the document in which Coca-Cola considers the creation of the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). There are several institutions of this type (whose Coca-Cola funding has been publicly revealed since 2015), but in particular the essay, signed by US, British and Italian researchers, suggests that Coca-Cola not only financed this institute: it was a creation of his.

Ghost science

In August 2015, The New York Times revealed how Coca-Cola had spent 1.5 million dollars to finance the GEBN, an institution whose main task was disseminate messages about obesity focused on highlighting the role of the energy balance.

This is actually the theory that has shaped the nutritional recommendations since the 50s, around the idea that we are fat because we eat more than we burn. According to this maxim, we can eat what we want as long as we exercise enough: there are no bad or good foods, only more or less calories.

Today we know that the energy balance it's not the only thing that explains obesity, and may not even be the most important. In many cases, obesity has to do with the functioning of hormones and the endocrine system, which lead to excessive accumulation of fat in certain areas of the body, largely associated with excessive carbohydrate intake.

This idea, which has more and more scientific evidence, is what Coca-Cola wants to combat, as it points to the convenience of minimizing the consumption of one of the main ingredients of its products: sugar.

Can you finance without altering the results?

When the report of The New York Times, as the study authors explain, the food industry defended itself by ensuring that the funding of scientific studies does not imply that recipients have to follow their corporate interests

The proposal to create the new institute was attached to an email sent by Rhona Appelbaum, former Director of Health and Science of Coca-Cola, to a small group of academics on July 9, 2014. Emails show how Coca-Cola tried to use GEBN to rethink obesity as a matter of addressing the "energy balance"; portray the GEBN as an “honest agent” in the obesity debate; and promote obesity reduction strategies in line with Coca-Cola's interests through extensive Promotion campaign.

“The Coca-Cola proposal portrays public health interests as something that conflicts with their own interests, ”the authors point out. “This is evident in the proposal to the extent that it is argued that the science of 'energy balance' can be developed as a 'weapon' in 'the growing war between the public health community and private industry' around the obesity".

The strategy of the Atlanta company, the authors explain, "has been to promote a narrative that defies the idea that diet plays a preponderant role in the fight against obesity." The GEBN should therefore offer "Alternative solutions". Basically, to insist on the idea that the important thing to maintain a healthy weight is to play sports, not so much to diet.

An "independent" institute

In the leaked document, Coca-Cola insists on the need for the GEBN to be "As independent as possible". Perhaps the most serious thing is that Coca-Cola proposed to scientists to "facilitate the emergence of new ideas within the science of energy balance." This would be based on his previous experience to "hire experts ... to address problems differently."

The proposal to create the GEBN puts a substantial emphasis on the communication strategy. This encompasses a plethora of political activities that would form "a multi-year advocacy campaign" to convey a clear message: the energy balance is the only theory that makes sense to address obesity. This included meetings with politicians and scientists, but also a campaign to "Teach health professionals how to address obesity."

Last but not least, the text points to the need for educate "health and wellness journalists" and to the "national bloggers on health and physical activity". The proposed activities include workshops, courses, conferences ... Ultimately, Coca-Cola wanted GEBN to become "the place where the media go to receive a comment on any obesity problem."

“A detailed analysis of Coca-Cola's proposal to establish the GEBN corroborates long-term concerns about the participation of the food industry in scientific organizations and its similarity to the efforts of the tobacco industry to cast doubt on the links between smoking and cancer, ”the study authors conclude. “The comments of those involved in GEBN also show an unbalanced vision, as when one of its main members says that 'there is virtually no convincing evidence' that fast food and sugary drinks contribute to obesity, despite the extensive existing evidence to the contrary ”.

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