Soda Giant Spent Millions Funding Favorable Research but Still Can’t Buy Public Opinion

Coke is facing major criticism over its funding of obesity-related research.

(Photo: Naathas/Flickr)

Aug 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Coca-Cola has had some explaining to do of late. After a New York Times story revealed that the company was funding obesity research that focused on exercise over diet and limiting sugar consumption, the soda maker was unflatteringly compared with old-school tobacco companies.

On Wednesday, CEO Muhtar Kent issued an apology of sorts in a Wall Street Journal editorial in which he wrote, “The characterization of our company does not reflect our intent or our values.” Still, Coke will continue its funding efforts, although Kent promised that “in the future we will act with even more transparency as we refocus our investments and our efforts on well-being.”

The irony of a soda company pushing exercise over diet is rich, but the outraged response is too. According to Marion Nestle, professor of food studies and nutrition at New York University, there’s nothing new here—she has been writing about Coke’s sponsorship of scientific research since 2002, when her book Food Politics was published.

“Even then, it was obvious that industry-funded research invariably produced results in the sponsor’s interest,” Nestle wrote in an email to TakePart.

Back in June, public health lawyer Michele Simon published a report looking at the food industry’s backing of the American Society for Nutrition, which publishes a number of leading medical journals, including The Journal of Nutrition.

According to the report, the ASN has a group of “sustaining partners” that pay the group a minimum of $10,000 a year and include Kellogg’s, Kraft, McDonald’s, Monsanto, and yes, the Coca-Cola Company. The annual fee provides partners with “print and online exposure, annual meeting benefits, and first choice to sponsor educational sessions, grants, awards and other opportunities as they arise,” or, as Simon puts it in the report, “In other words, food, beverage, supplement, biotech, and pharmaceutical industry leaders are able to purchase cozy relationships with the nation’s top nutrition researchers.”

So while diabetes, heart disease, and other obesity-related conditions have been strongly linked with soda consumption in numerous studies that weren’t funded with industry dollars, the notion that exercise is the key to solving the obesity epidemic persists in the public debate—and has science to back it up.

The Coke news has caught the attention of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who sent letters to a number of universities, including the University of Colorado, asking the schools to clarify their relationships with the company.

“I write to request you clarify the nature of the University’s relationship with these projects, and that you review the academic integrity of any grant agreements in the past or present between professors and researchers at your institution and the Coca-Cola Company,” the letter to UC reads. “I believe your university must determine whether this research is in effect promoting a predisposed and biased agenda, rather than reflecting the impartiality and objectivly [sic] expected from a public academic institution.”

But even if industry and researchers have been questionably close for decades, Nestle sees a change underlying this latest episode.

“My experience talking to friends and reporters this last week makes me think that the Times story broke new ground,” Nestle wrote. “I can’t tell you how shocked they all were by the idea that Coca-Cola was buying research. Suddenly, Coca-Cola doesn’t look like so much fun and happiness.”

“Today’s attempt at damage control looks like just what it is,” she continued. “Nobody will believe the company intends real change until it stops spending fortunes to discredit research showing harm from sodas, fight soda size caps and taxes, and lobby government agencies to leave it alone.”