Is Coca-Cola shifting blame for obesity away from bad diets?
Last week, most of the top newspapers and journals in the United States and Britain such as New York Times, Medical News Today, The Telegraph, the Wall Street Journal, DailyMail UK among others were awash with stories on how Coca Cola was funding scientists who shift blame for obesity away from bad diets.
However, the Chief Technical Officer of The Coca-Cola Company, Dr. Ed Hays, in a statement made available to The Guardian through its local subsidiary, Coca Cola Nigeria, dismissed the reports but admitted funding research to find solutions to global chronic diseases’ crisis.
Setting the record straight on Coca-Cola and scientific research, Hays said: “As the Chief Technical Officer of The Coca-Cola Company, I am responsible for developing new beverages, ensuring that all of our drinks are safe and overseeing our scientific research partnerships – and I was dismayed to read the recent New York Times’ inaccurate portrayal of our company and our support of the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN).
The story claimed Coke is funding scientific research to convince people that diets don’t matter – only exercise. In fact, that is the complete opposite of our approach to business and well-being and nothing could be further from the truth.”
Hays admitted that the Company funds scientific research through GEBN and are proud to support the work that scientists such as Dr. Jim Hill and Dr. Steve Blair do – because their type of research is critical to finding solutions to the global obesity crisis. “At Coke, we believe that a balanced diet and regular exercise are two key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle and that is reflected in both our long-term and short-term business actions,” he said.
Hays added: “In fact, not only have we joined with America’s food and beverage industry to promote moderation and healthy eating across the United States, we are doing this globally. “Our business strategy is for more people to enjoy our products more often, but with exactly the size, calories and content that fit their lifestyles.
At Coke, we believe that a balanced diet and regular exercise are two key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle and that is reflected in both our long-term and short-term business actions. In fact, not only have we joined with America’s food and beverage industry to promote moderation and healthy eating across the United States, we are doing this globally.
And from top to bottom at Coca-Cola, we have called on our people to innovate on more natural products, to create low-and-no calorie options – and to simply make our packages smaller.”
Hays said people are smart and they are buying the products that fit their lives – whether water, juice, diet or full calorie drinks – Coca Cola is listening and responding. “Coca-Cola has always stood for quality and integrity with a commitment to serve our customers and communities.
These are our foundational values that we apply to every drink we serve and every philanthropic donation we give,” he insisted. However, Nigerian and African nutritionists are unanimous that the upsurge in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Nigeria is not due to increase in intake of beverages or any single nutrient but overindulgence in ‘poor diets’/processed foods and sedentary lifestyles.
The nutritionists asked Nigerians to go back to traditional foods, reduce their intake of processed foods and increase their physical activities.
The New York Times report Writing for New York Times, Anahad O’Connor, said: “Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, is backing a new ‘science-based’ solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories. “The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media.
To help the scientists get the word out, Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.”
The group’s vice president, Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist, says in a recent video announcing the new organization:“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.”
Health experts say this message is misleading and part of an effort by Coke to deflect criticism about the role sugary drinks have played in the spread of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
They contend that the company is using the new group to convince the public that physical activity can offset a bad diet despite evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight compared with what people consume.
This clash over the science of obesity comes in a period of rising efforts to tax sugary drinks, remove them from schools and stop companies from marketing them to children.
In the last two decades, consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American has dropped by 25 percent. A public health lawyer, said Michele Simon, said: “Coca-Cola’s sales are slipping, and there’s this huge political and public backlash against soda, with every major city trying to do something to curb consumption,” “This is a direct response to the ways that the company is losing.
They’re desperate to stop the bleeding.” Coke has made a substantial investment in the new nonprofit. In response to requests based on state open-records laws, two universities that employ leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network disclosed that Coke had donated $1.5 million last year to start the organization.
Since 2008, the company has also provided close to $4 million in funding for various projects to two of the organization’s founding members: Dr. Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina whose research over the past 25 years has formed much of the basis of federal guidelines on physical activity, and Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health.
Records show that the network’s website, gebn.org, is registered to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, and the company is also listed as the site’s administrator.
The group’s president, James O. Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, United States, said Coke had registered the website because the network’s members did not know how. “They’re not running the show,” he said. “We’re running the show.”
Coca-Cola’s public relations department repeatedly declined requests for an interview with its chief scientific officer, Rhona Applebaum, who has called attention to the new group on Twitter.
In a statement, the company said it had a long history of supporting scientific research related to its beverages and topics such as energy balance.
The statement said: “We partner with some of the foremost experts in the fields of nutrition and physical activity. It’s important to us that the researchers we work with share their own views and scientific findings, regardless of the outcome, and are transparent and open about our funding.”
Blair and other scientists affiliated with the group said that Coke had no control over its work or message and that they saw no problem with the company’s support because they had been transparent about it.
But as of last week, the group’s Twitter and Facebook pages, which promote physical activity as a solution to chronic disease and obesity while remaining largely silent on the role of food and nutrition, made no mention of Coca-Cola’s financial support.
So far, the social media campaign has failed to gain much traction: As of Friday, the group had fewer than 1,000 followers on Twitter. The group’s website also omitted mention of Coke’s backing until Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa, wrote to the organization to inquire about its funding.
Blair said this was an oversight that had been quickly corrected. “As soon as we discovered that we didn’t have not only Coca-Cola but other funding sources on the website, we put it on there,” Blair said. “Does that make us totally corrupt in everything we do?” Coke’s involvement in the new organization is not the only example of corporate-funded research and advocacy to come under fire lately.
The American Society for Nutrition and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have been criticized by public health advocates for forming partnerships with companies such as Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Hershey’s. Dietitians have also faced criticism for taking payments from Coke to present the company’s soda as a healthy snack.
Critics say Coke has long cast the obesity epidemic as primarily an exercise problem. “The message is that obesity is not about the foods or beverages you’re consuming, it’s that you’re not balancing those foods with exercise,” Dr. Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa said. Now, public health advocates say, Coca-Cola is going a step further, recruiting reputable scientists to make the case for them.
Dr. Hill, the nonprofit’s president, is a co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry, a long-term study of people who have lost weight, and has served on committees for the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health. The American Society for Nutrition refers to him as “a leader in the fight against the global obesity epidemic.”
Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Coke’s support of prominent health researchers was reminiscent of tactics used by the tobacco industry, which enlisted experts to become “merchants of doubt” about the health hazards of smoking.
Marion Nestle, the author of the book “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, was especially blunt: “The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.” Funding from the food industry is not uncommon in scientific research. But studies suggest that the funds tend to bias findings.
A recent analysis of beverage studies, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, found that those funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies whose authors reported no financial conflicts.
Funding from the food industry is not uncommon in scientific research. But studies suggest that the funds tend to bias findings. A recent analysis of beverage studies, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, found that those funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies whose authors reported no financial conflicts.
On its website, the new nonprofit promises to be “the voice of science” in discussions about healthy lifestyles and contends that the concept of energy balance provides “a new science-based framework” for achieving a stable body weight.
The group says there is “strong evidence” that the key to preventing weight gain is not reducing food intake — as many public health experts recommend — “but maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories.”
To back up this contention, the group provides links to two research papers, each of which contains this footnote: “The publication of this article was supported by The Coca-Cola Company.”
Genesis of the controversy In March, Hill, Blair, and Hand announced the creation of the organization in an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. They argued that the public and many scientists largely overlooked physical inactivity as a cause of obesity. They said they were creating the Global Energy Balance Network to raise awareness “about both sides of the energy balance equation.”
The editorial contained a disclosure that the group had received an “unrestricted education gift” from Coca-Cola. In response to a request made under the state Freedom of Information Act, the University of South Carolina disclosed that Dr. Blair had received more than $3.5 million in funding from Coke for research projects since 2008.
The university also disclosed that Coca-Cola had provided significant funding to Dr. Hand, who left the University of South Carolina last year for West Virginia.
The company gave him $806,500 for an “energy flux” study in 2011 and $507,000 last year to establish the Global Energy Balance Network.
It is unclear how much of the money, if any, ended up as personal income for the professors. “As long as everybody is disclosing their potential conflicts and they’re being managed appropriately, that’s the best that you can do,” Dr. Hand said. “It makes perfect sense that companies would want the best science that they can get.” The group’s president, Dr. Hill, also has financial ties to Coca-Cola.
The company last year gave an “unrestricted monetary gift” of $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation. In response to a request made under the Colorado Open Records Act, the university said that Coca-Cola had provided the money “for the purposes of funding” the Global Energy Balance Network.
Dr. Hill said he had sought money from Coke to start the nonprofit because there was no funding available from his university. The group’s website says it is also supported by a few universities and ShareWIK Media Group, a producer of videos about health.
Dr. Hill said that he had also received a commitment of help from General Mills, as well as promises of support from other businesses, which had not formally confirmed their offers.
He said he believed public health authorities could more easily change the way people eat by working with the food industry instead of against it.
Controversial recommendation: Combining greater exercise and food intake On its website, the group recommends combining greater exercise and food intake because, Dr. Hill said, “ ‘Eat less’ has never been a message that’s been effective. The message should be ‘Move more and eat smarter.’ ”
He emphasized that weight loss involved a combination of complex factors and that his group’s goal was not to play down the role of diet or to portray obesity as solely a problem of inadequate exercise. “If we are out there saying it’s all about physical activity and it’s not about food, then we deserve criticism,” he said. “But I think we haven’t done that.”
But in news releases and on its website, the group has struck a different tone. “The media tends to blame the obesity epidemic on our poor eating habits,” one recent news release states. “But are those french fries really the culprit? Dr. Steve Blair explains that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV.”
In the news release, Dr. Blair suggests that sedentary behavior is a bigger factor. Most public health experts say that energy balance is an important concept, because weight gain for most people is about calories in vs. calories out. But the experts say research makes it clear that one side of the equation has a far greater effect.
While people can lose weight in several ways, many studies suggest that those who keep it off for good consume fewer calories. Growing evidence also suggests that maintaining weight loss is easier when people limit their intake of high glycemic foods such as sugary drinks and other refined carbohydrates, which sharply raise blood sugar.
Physical activity is important and certainly helps, experts say. But studies show that exercise increases appetite, causing people to consume more calories. Exercise also expends far fewer calories than most people think.
A 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, for example, contains 140 calories and roughly 10 teaspoons of sugar. “It takes three miles of walking to offset that one can of Coke,” Dr. Popkin said. In one of the most rigorous studies of physical activity and weight loss, published in the journal Obesity, scientists recruited 200 overweight, sedentary adults and put them on an aggressive exercise program.
To isolate the effects of exercise on their weight, the subjects were instructed not to make any changes in their diets. Participants were monitored to ensure they exercised five to six hours a week, more than double the 2.5 weekly hours of exercise recommended in federal guidelines.
After a year, the men had lost an average of just 3.5 pounds, the women 2.5.
Almost everyone was still overweight or obese. “Adding exercise to a diet program helps,” said Dr. Anne McTiernan, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. “But for weight loss, you’re going to get much more impact with diet changes.”
But much like the research on sugary drinks, studies of physical activity funded by the beverage industry tend to reach conclusions that differ from the findings of studies by independent scientists.
Last week, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana announced the findings of a large new study on exercise in children that determined that lack of physical activity “is the biggest predictor of childhood obesity around the world.”
The news release contained a disclosure: “This research was funded by The Coca-Cola Company.” Kelly D. Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, said that as a business, Coke “focused on pushing a lot of calories in, but then their philanthropy is focused on the calories out part, the exercise.”
In recent years, Coke has donated money to build fitness centers in more than 100 schools across the country. It sponsors a program called “Exercise is Medicine” to encourage doctors to prescribe physical activity to patients.
And when Chicago’s City Council proposed a soda tax in 2012 to help address the city’s obesity problem, Coca-Cola donated $3 million to establish fitness programs in more than 60 of the city’s community centers.
The initiative to tax soda ultimately failed. “Reversing the obesity trend won’t happen overnight,” Coca-Cola said in an ad for its Chicago exercise initiative. “But for thousands of families in Chicago, it starts now, with the next push-up, a single situp or a jumping jack.”
Nigerian nutritionists address beverages’ link to NCDs, erectile dysfunction, piles Can regular intake of beverages such as soft drinks, chocolate, coffee, and fruit juices lead to non communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, heart attack, erectile dysfunction, piles, cancer and kidney failure? Former President of NSN, Prof. Ignatius Akhakhia Onimawo had told The Guardian: “Now some of the causes of NCDs arises from so many factors.
One is that we have changed our diets so much that most of our diets no longer contains fibre because we take a lot of processed foods so the fibre that would have helped to lower the density of such foods in terms of sugar content energy and the rest is removed.”
He continued: “Lifestyle has changed, we are very sedentary these days, we don’t exercise as we use to do before and when you don’t exercise most of the energy you eat is converted to fat and gradually you become overweight and from there to obesity. Once you become obese many things can happen to you. You are now predisposed to so many NCDs.
So people who are obese are normally advised to change their lifestyle so that they can exercise more, give their muscle tone what we call metabolic tone then if you are able to do that even if you are fat and you are highly energetic, you are involved in exercises you are not likely to have problems.”
A professor of nutrition at the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Ogun State and past President NSN, Tunde Oguntona, told The Guardian: “I am not aware of any publication that has associated sugar sweetened drinks with obesity directly. We have always known that the issue of obesity is a complex one that involves lifestyle, food intake, sedentary lifestyle and so on.
We have always known that the degree of relationship has not been fully established.” “Sugar, table sugar has not been implicated directly in the cause of obesity or NCDs. On the other hand there are other factors like sedentary lifestyle, sitting down all day and not doing exercise that is a major contribution to obesity.”
Associate professor of nutrition at the University of Maiduguiri, Borno State, Dr. Mrs. Elizabeth Chibuzor, told The Guardian that there is no straightforward answer to whether beverages such as Coke, Fanta or Sprite can cause NCDs because for every NCDs there are factors, multi-factorial variables that are associated with the disease.”
Chibuzor said a recent study conducted by her team showed that more thin people than obese people in the sample population had diabetes because they ate foods high in fat and starch, and low in protein.
A consultant nutritionist and the Health and Wellness Manager for Coca Cola Central, East and West Africa, Julia Otaya, in a paper titled: “Soft Drinks Linkage to NCDs: Myths or Facts?” said the risk factors of NCDs are poor diet, excessive intake of calories, low physical activities and tobacco intake.
Otaya explained: “Basically what I am trying to communicate is that when it comes to the golden rules of nutrition, eating a variety of foods is very important and moderation is important depending on someone’s energy needs that is very important. But when you look at the incidences of NCDs, the risk factors are actually very clear.
They are poor diet, excessive intake of calories and very low levels of physical activity has actually been mentioned as one of the main causes of non communicable diseases. I think those are some of the issues that we actually need to address.
We cannot be able to target a single nutrient as the cause of NCDs.” “The World Health Organisation (WHO) actually just give specifically what are the causes and they actually mentioned tobacco, alcohol intake and of course the whole issue of obesity that leads to many other diseases and for me the take-home message is for you to ensure you lower the risk of you getting NCDs.
Take care of your diet, watch your weight, engage in physical activity because it is important and then an intake of lots of fruits and vegetables in the diet is very important and then the intake of fibre, that is also very important and of course other lifestyle changes.
So that will be my take-home message. Let us not target one single source of nutrient as a cause of NCD because it is multifactorial,” he said.
On the link of sweetened beverages to erectile dysfunction, Otaya said: “Apparently some of the myths that have been mentioned is that people think that erectile dysfunction is actually caused by taking sugar-sweetened beverages but when you look at the erectile dysfunction it is clear it is because of medical-related or physical reasons like having a chronic disease even being obese or having prostate cancer or undergoing surgery in the prostate area.
I mean the causes of erectile dysfunction are very clear so we cannot actually say that intake of sugar sweetened beverages can cause erectile dysfunction.” On the link of soft drinks such as Coca Cola to piles, the nutritionist said: “Sugar sweetened beverages have not been pointed to be the cause of piles.
I mean the causes of pile are very clear, it is either you are constipated or you have diarrhea. Those are actually the major causes of pile.
Of course diet plays a very big role so if you have a diet that is deficient of fibre, for example, you will be constipated and chances are that you can actually get pile. I don’t think that sugar sweetened beverages on their own can actually cause piles because there are many other factors.”
Reacting to the safety of the colouring agents and sweetners used in making soft drinks including Coca Cola products, Otaya said: “It is not about saying that aspartame is healthy, is it safe?
When you look at the list of sweeteners that have been recommended by European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) aspartame is actually one of the sweeteners that have been actually recognized as safe and they can be used as a sweetener. “So many studies have been done and it has been really researched and it has really been endorsed as safe although we also have negative studies that have associated aspartame with cancer but they can actually not been proven but it is actually recognized as safe and can be used as a sweetener.”
Public Affairs and Communications Manager for Coca Cola Nigeria, Clems Ugorji, said there is a role for beverages and that includes soft drinks, and juices in a healthy nutrition, not just for the individual but for the nation as well. “So it is important for us to create partnerships with these critical stakeholders who can understand the issues and help us in the dissemination of these information and that is what we have started,” he said.
Ugorji further explained: “The truth of the matter is that we need to make the messages as balanced and credible as possible and coming from us as a company alone is not the best way but creating partnership of trusted stakeholders who together with us can create these messages and express these messages will help the process.”
He said Coca Cola provides choices for people. “We have a portfolio of beverages that addresses people’s needs at different life stages, different life occasions and different life situations.
So basically we recognize the fact that people want beverages to refresh themselves and we also recognize that one beverage alone will not satisfy the needs of everybody which is the reason why we offer people choice.”
If you have issues and you think that sugar is not good for or you do not like the taste of sugar, we offer you alternatives which is why we have Coke Lite and of course we have the Coke Zero which we are proud to say we are going to be launching in Nigeria early next year because right now it is not in the market, but we have concluded plans to have it launched in Nigeria early next year.
We also have juice for people who think they want something that contain a lot more nutrition than just sparkling soft drinks, we have got juice, we have got the table water,” he also added.
Ugorji said the third part of the Coca Cola programme has to do with active living because they realized that today lifestyles are changing, people are forced not necessarily by choice but because of conditions to live more sedentary lifestyles. “You find out that children and teenagers have nowhere to go and exercise themselves and play.
When those of us here were growing up we can play outside in the communities and all of that but today because of security issues and because of lifestyle changes you find out that children are boxed up in the home,” he said.
Ugorji said Coca Cola is trying to create an outdoor activity and one of the things, which they have done at a very big stage, is Copa Coca Cola in order to encourage teenagers to exercise themselves.
He said the organization has set up clubs Eva Fun Walk clubs encourage people to see the benefits in active living. “Not just telling them because when you tell people and you don’t create the opportunity it is almost useless but you educate them and you create the incentives and the platform for them to be able to do this,” Ugorji said.