Why One Research University Gave $1 Million Back to Coca-Cola

November 10, 2015

Are Big Soda’s tricks not working as well as they used to?

With Americans drinking way less full-calorie soda than they used to—a 25 percent decrease since the late 1990s—Coke smartly turned to academia to drum up some research to try and stop the hemorrhaging.

But then we found out.

Marion Nestle of New York University—a trusted name in food and nutrition—has been calling out Big Food’s shenanigans for years on her blog, Food Politics, and has put much of it into a new book on sugary drinks titled Soda Politics. Then, The New York Times published a handful of stories revealing the funding conflicts of interest in junk food science, followed by a big investigative piece revealing the big corporate money behind science surrounding genetically modified organisms, or GMOs

It used to be that a soda company could toss a million or so bucks in the direction of a PhD or two and expect to get some favorable “research” in return: a study finding exercise, not calorie control, is the key to nutritional health here; a statement blaming the media, not junk food, for obesity there. And the public would eat it up, rarely peeking behind the curtain to see who’s pulling the academic levers that are reinforcing their own bad habits.

If this week’s news out of Colorado is any indication, maybe the game is up. The University of Colorado School of Medicine announced this week that it had returned a cool million given to it by Coca-Cola in 2014 to fund the Global Energy Balance Network—“a nonprofit group of scientists that urged people to focus more on exercise and worry less about what they eat and drink.” The GEBN, which was run by Dr. James O. Hill, made waves earlier this year by blaming the media for promoting the idea that junk foods and sodas are contributing to America’s obesity problem.

But as of this week, the soda-soaked GEBN is no more.

“Obesity and related health issues are serious concerns for personal medical care and public health,” the University of Colorado School of Medicine said in the statement. “The School of Medicine and physicians and researchers on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus are making significant contributions to the understanding of and care for these health-related issues and the source of funding for the network should not distract from their efforts.”

What did Coke have to say?

“While the network continues to support a vigorous scientific discussion of the contributions of dietary and physical activity behaviors to the obesity epidemic, it has become evident that the original vision for GEBN has not been realized,” the company said in a statement.

Corporate spin aside, Dr. Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been very critical of GEBN, notes that Colorado, “probably returned the money out of embarrassment.”.

The American public, to a much larger degree now than in the past, is hip to the schemes of corporations who want to influence our buying habits—be it through marketing to children, sneaky food labels, or funding misleading academic studies. We don’t like feeling like we’re being deceived, especially as it relates to the kinds of foods we feed our families.

In short, we’ve had enough of it, the public is speaking out, and the junk food makers (and the academics they fund) appear to be listening.

Photo credit:  Derek Dukes via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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