Coca-Cola controversy kills anti-obesity group

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

“The scientific nonsense being peddled by the Coca-Cola-funded Global Energy Balance Network is outrageous,” said Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“The scientific nonsense being peddled by the Coca-Cola-funded Global Energy Balance Network is outrageous,” said Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Related tags: Nutrition

A specialist group formed to combat obesity has been binned after it was forced to return a huge chunk of funding to Coca-Cola amid allegations of industry-biased science.

“Effective immediately, [the Global Energy Balance Network] is discontinuing operations due to resource limitations,” ​the website states.

The Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) was set up last year ostensibly to look at science-based solutions to prevent and reduce diseases associated with obesity, poor nutrition and inactivity.

In a video to launch the group, vice president and exercise scientist Steven Blair said most of the focus in the popular and scientific press is “blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

Who was running the show?

But from the outset the group was criticised as being industry-biased and concerned solely with shifting the spotlight from diet to lack of exercise as the major cause of obesity, it was claimed.

Chief amongst the critics was Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“The scientific nonsense being peddled by the Coca-Cola-funded Global Energy Balance Network is outrageous,”​ he said, pointing to a report by the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee this year that provided “compelling evidence”​ for the causal link between sugary drinks and disease, as well as the need for exercise.

In August the New York Times reported that the network’s website was actually registered to Coca-Cola, whilst a $1m (€0.9m) donation was not disclosed. “They [Coca-Cola] are not running the show,”​ said GEBN’s president James Hill at the time. “We’re running the show.”

But leaked emails suggested otherwise. Last month the Associated Press reported that executives at the drinks brand had held meetings and conference calls to “hash out​” the group’s mission and activities. They also had a say in the logo – any colour apart from blue, which is used by rival Pepsi.

The ambition had been for the group to quickly establish itself as the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue. But a couple of weeks on and Hill, who is also professor of pediatrics and medicine and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, had changed his tune.

Hill told the BMJ​ medical journal that the donation had been returned in November because it was “distracting from the important work of the organisation”.​ Given that other sources of funding were not sufficient to allow us to accomplish our goals, GEBN had to be wound up, he said.

In a statement to the journal he explained how Coca-Cola had suggested some wording changes to the mission statement of the group but maintained that the company did not direct GEBN’s activities.

He added: “Any strategy to reduce obesity must involve diet and physical activity to be successful.”

This is not in doubt, but it seems that Coca-Cola tried to tip the balance way too far in its favour. Desperate attempts to repair the damage done proved fruitless, as our sister title BeverageDaily.com previously reported​.

'A rogue's gallery' of science and industry bias

Coca-Cola’s boss Muhtar Kent is reported elsewhere admitting that “there was not a sufficient level of transparency with regard to the company’s involvement with the Global Energy Balance Network”​.

Speaking recently on disclosure more generally, Professor Tom Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition dietetics at Kings College London, suggested that the desire to cover up any dubious links between business and nutrition research remained strong.

In an email to FoodNavigator, Sanders claimed he could put together a rogues gallery of links between professors of nutrition and business that had not been made public.

“I believe in open and transparent declaration of interest but I have taken quite a lot of stick for doing so,”​ he wrote.

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