Coca-Cola Funded Research Group
In December, the embattled Global Energy Balance Network announced that it was shutting down, amid great controversy surrounding its cozy relationship with Coca-Cola. In August, Running & FitNews® reported that the not-for-profit, ostensibly set up to promote healthy body weight through diet and exercise, had received $1.5 million from Coke as startup money, according to The New York Times. The group’s vice-president, Steven N. Blair, PED, FACSM, had received more than $3.5 million in funding from Coke for research projects since 2008.
A wall of silence
The GEBN website, which has gone offline, was registered to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, which also served as the site’s administrator and featured videos of prominent research scientists, including Dr. Blair, directing attention away from diet and toward exercise in the fight against obesity.
By downplaying the role of caloric intake and dietary choices in managing body weight, many health experts felt the GEBN was directly involved in Coca-Cola’s public relations efforts to continue selling sugary drinks, despite abundant evidence that the drinks contribute to the country’s obesity crisis.
Since the initial revelations this summer, amid almost constant pressure from public health professionals—including 36 scientists who signed a letter written by the chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, accusing the group of spreading “scientific nonsense”—Coke’s chief scientist, Rhona S. Applebaum, has resigned. Dr. Applebaum, who has a PhD in microbiology, had been Coke’s chief scientific and regulatory officer since 2004, and had helped orchestrate the establishment of the nonprofit group.
A loss of funding
In recent months Coke had also stopped financially supporting the group, making its shuttering of operations further evidence of its true purpose all along.
The University of Colorado medical school, where GEBN president James Hill is an obesity researcher and professor, returned a $1 million grant from Coke after concerns about the GEBN surfaced.
It’s clear now that Big Soda public relations strategy had been the central impetus for the establishment of the GEBN from the start. As The New York Times noted this winter, “At one food industry conference in 2012, Dr. Applebaum gave a talk outlining Coca-Cola’s strategy of ‘cultivating relationships’ with top scientists as a way to ‘balance the debate’ about soft drinks.”
And perhaps delivering the death-blow to the organization, the Associated Press published a series of emails spanning a two and a half year period between Dr. Hill and Coke executives, including one in which Dr. Hill proposed research that would help Coke fend off criticism of its sodas and snacks by shifting the blame for obesity to physical inactivity:
“I think [the study] could provide a strong rationale for why a company selling sugar water SHOULD focus on promoting physical activity. This would be a very large and expensive study, but could be a game changer. We need this study to be done,” he wrote. (Emphasis in original.)
In another he referred to his research concepts as “ideas for research projects that might be very specific to [C]oke interests."
In yet another email Dr. Hill wrote: “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in people’s lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”
Needless to say, that is not typically how scientists discover worthwhile research topics.