Coke's 'Transparency' Shows How Much It's Trying to Cloud the Obesity Debate

The soda giant has published a list of researchers that it has provided financial support for.

(Photos: Lionel Bonaventure/Getty Images; Garry Wade/Getty Images)

Sep 22, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Coke may be known for its icy cold drinks, but it seems the world's biggest purveyor of sugar-sweetened beverages just can’t help getting into hot water.

The soda maker’s ongoing PR nightmare is rooted in the simple fact that health experts have increasingly singled out the calorie-laden, nutritionally vapid beverages for which Coke is famous as a prime culprit behind the obesity crisis that continues to plague the U.S., not to mention any number of countries around the globe.

Coke’s general strategy has been to present itself as a concerned “partner” in addressing the crisis, but public health advocates have cried foul at its approach, which has been to funnel money to a variety of sources that appear more or less willing to at least entertain the company’s premise that the best way to tackle obesity is to get people to focus on exercising more—rather than to limit the amount of (excess) calories they’re consuming. While the company has been doing this kind of thing for a long time, the public outcry over recent revelations has forced it to pivot to transparency, and on Tuesday it published a list of the dietitians and nutritionists that it has given money to.

The fallout began with a New York Times article published in August that was the latest to expose Coke’s seemingly cynical efforts to sway the obesity debate, citing the company’s “financial and logistical” support for a newly emerged nonprofit, the Global Energy Balance Network. In the article, the group’s vice president, Dr. Steven N. Blair, an exercise expert and professor of public health at the University of South Carolina, is quoted as saying: “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. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

Blair was speaking in a video announcing the launch of the GEBN—a video that, just days after the Times report appeared, was promptly removed from the website, replaced by a mea culpa from Blair: “I regret that a statement I made in this video has been used by some to brand GEBN as a network focusing only on physical activity. This is not true and never has been true. From the beginning the mission of GEBN has been to study the science of energy balance, which involves both diet and physical activity.”

If it seems surprising that Coke could find a Ph.D. at a reputable public university to toe the company’s rather ridiculous public line (another Times article, this one by Aaron E. Carroll and published in June, does an excellent job of debunking Coke’s “it's exercise, not calories” myth), then you haven’t checked out the list of well-credentialed nutritionists, dietitians, and doctors who have recently been on Coke’s payroll.

In the wake of the GEBN flap, Coke has been beating the “transparency” drum, revealing its financial contributions to a wealth of health-related organizations, as well as a list of professionals it has paid to “support [these experts'] efforts to share scientific expertise, practical nutrition, physical activity, and lifestyle information with consumers and/or health professionals,” according to a company statement.

In all, Coke has spent a staggering amount—more than $118 million—on “health research and partnerships” in the U.S. during the past five years, including $21.8 million on “scientific” research and $96.8 million on “health and well-being partnerships.” The list of partnerships reveals Coke’s bias toward getting people to burn off all those Big Gulps, with donations going to everything from youth tennis clubs and local Special Olympics to “Get the Ball Rolling Clinics” in partnership with big-league professional sports teams such as the Baltimore Ravens, the Boston Red Sox, the Washington Redskins, and the New York Rangers. There are also eyebrow-raising alliances with professional organizations, such as the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Society for Nutrition, and the American Dietetic Association.

In contrast, the $2.1 million that Coke says it has doled out to some 116 individual professionals whose names were revealed on Tuesday might seem paltry, but the money has likely paid for the sort of stealth influence that would prompt a registered dietitian, for example, to include this advice in a recent blog post about easy ways to cut calories during the last days of summer: “For beverages, I like to take along a variety of options including minicans of soda because they have the great flavor I’m looking for but only 90 calories.”

Yet Coke may not always get what it thinks it’s paying for. Another registered dietitian who's apparently listed as receiving money from the company posted this on her Facebook page after reading the Times article about Coke’s relationship with GEBN:

“REALLY—this is a science based solution to the obesity crisis?!! Coca-Cola is now ‘helping families get fit’ by promoting exercise?! What about helping families ‘decrease obesity and Type 2 diabetes’ by cutting out excess calories from sugar based beverages?!”

For all the supposed transparency, that’s a question Coke has yet to answer.