Listening to University of South Carolina exercise scientist Dr. Steven Blair discussing the root cause of obesity, you might be tempted to give his expert analysis some weight. After all, Dr. Blair has a long list of accomplishments, including past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, and the American Kinesiology Academy.
“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,” Blair says in a recent video announcing a new organization promoting physical activity as an antidote to obesity. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
He continues: “Those of us interested in science, public health, medicine—we have to learn how to get the right information out there.”
There’s only one, tiny problem with the “right information” Blair is getting out there: His research on obesity is heavily funded by Coca-Cola. In fact, as the New York Times reported yesterday, Blair is being trotted out by Coke as a scientific expert backing a new organization—the Global Energy Balance Network—recently founded presumably to take the attention off of companies like Coca-Cola in conversations about rising global obesity.
Corporate funding of scientific research has been happening for a while now, in both direct and indirect ways. Sometimes it’s as seemingly innocuous as a big food company funding a session at a large academic conference. As nutrition and food politics icon Marion Nestle pointed out a few years ago, corporate money backs the American Society for Nutrition, of which she is a member.
She wrote that she’s noticed an increase in the influence Big Food companies seem to be having on the organization, which itself influences the national nutrition policy conversation. In addition to funding sessions at the group’s annual meetings (which she says “invariably benefit the session’s sponsors"), she says more and more board members have strong corporate ties.
Here’s the problem with corporate backing of scientific research: It often results in data that shines especially favorably on the companies with the money. For instance, in 1999, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study that concluded that the more parents forbid children from certain junk foods, the more the kids will want them. The result? Strident declarations warning parents against the “food police keeping so-called junk food away from children” from scientists backed by junk food makers. Convenient, huh?
Another example: The American Council on Science and Health has long promoted itself as an independent organization debunking so-called “junk science” on everything fracking, to BPA, to pesticides in our food. (It comes down in favor of all of them, by the way.) Yet, in 2013, Mother Jones obtained internal financial documents revealing that donors to the ACSH include many food companies that would lose significant amounts of money under bans on fracking, sugary drinks, or pesticides. That list includes Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper/Snapple, agribusiness company Syngenta, and McDonald’s, to name just a few.
What’s the moral of this story? First off, we should be basing decisions about what we eat on accurate, up-to-date scientific research. And second, that scientific research should probably not be funded by any company with a vested interest in the study’s outcome.
Such “science” belongs exactly where most of our sodas and candy belong—in the trash.
Photo credit: Darren Muir via Stocksy