Evolution should be Coke’s real thing

A nonprofit spreading the message that exercise should be more cause for concern than what we eat and drink turns out to be largely underwritten by Coca-Cola.
A nonprofit spreading the message that exercise should be more cause for concern than what we eat and drink turns out to be largely underwritten by Coca-Cola. Bloomberg News

When scientists linked lung cancer with smoking in the 1950s, the tobacco industry paid for some science of its own. Staffed by the public relations company, Hill & Knowlton, the “Tobacco Industry Research Committee” underwrote “evidence” that lung cancer had lots of causes. Whether tobacco was among them, the group insisted, no one was sure.

Of course, that science was bogus; the committee mainly was there to keep smokers smoking. Nonetheless, the ploy worked for years. Now the same strategy is being deployed to cloud criticism of another public health threat: sugary sodas, which have been linked to the nation’s epidemic of obesity.

According to The New York Times, the world’s largest producer of sugar-sweetened beverages, Coca-Cola, has quietly underwritten research into “energy balance” – a theory that obesity is less about, say, the 240 calories and nearly 17 teaspoons of sugar in a single 20-ounce bottle of Coke Classic than about the hour or more of exercise it would take for most people to work off those calories.

Most research shows that weight control begins in the kitchen, not the treadmill. But the Coca-Cola-funded nonprofit is, not surprisingly, focused on exercise, as opposed to the evils of fast food and sugary drinks.

“Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is that they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much, blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on,” University of South Carolina exercise scientist Steven N. Blair explains in a video introducing a nonprofit called the Global Energy Balance Network.

“And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that in fact is the cause.”

Actually there’s lots of evidence that weight control begins in the kitchen, though exercise matters. As it turns out, the Global Energy Balance Network, helmed by “distinguished scientists,” is funded largely by the Coca-Cola Co.

The Times revealed that the site, gebn.org, is registered to Coca-Cola’s office in Atlanta, with the company listed as the site administrator. Coke, the paper reported, donated $1.5 million last year to launch the organization, and has given founding members, including Blair, close to $4 million for various projects.

Blair and others associated with the organization say their research isn’t being influenced. But until last week’s press coverage, the website didn’t mention Coca-Cola’s financial support.

Health experts have aggressively urged consumers to cut down on sugary drinks, which in California, have been targeted with local taxes and proposed labeling laws. Such warnings and declining sales of full-calorie sodas are cause for the beverage industry to worry.

Coca-Cola isn’t the only industry player to fight back. Paid industry “experts” have pooh-poohed the links among sugary sodas, obesity and diabetes. Industry lobbyists block health legislation. Snack vendors have resisted municipal contracts in Sacramento and elsewhere, saying they can’t turn a profit if they stock too many healthy items in city vending machines.

Nonetheless, it’s sad to see Coke reduced to blowing smoke on this issue. Habits are changing and the beverage industry should change with them. Evolution should be soda’s new real thing.