A Win for Transparency: Nutrition Research Group Backed by Coca-Cola Disbands

December 2, 2015

When the chairman of the nutrition department at Harvard’s School of Public Health condemns you for spreading “scientific nonsense”, you know the jig is up. 

The Global Energy Balance Network, a nutrition research and anti-obesity group funded by Coca-Cola and led by scientists, announced this week that it would be disbanding permanently.

The group’s ads imply that as long as you exercise, you can eat whatever you’d like; Coca-Cola’s angle to fight obesity while simultaneously promoting the consumption of its product—sugary, chemical-filled beverages—is obviously contradictory.

Initially assembled by Coke to combat obesity, the group has been rife with controversy since its inception. Detractors pointed out that Coke had hand-picked the group’s supposedly unbiased leaders and funded specific studies meant to make sugary drinks look harmless from a health perspective. Most recently, emails from the group were linked that outlined a marketing strategy that involved the use of social media to run a campaign to obstruct the “shrill rhetoric” of “public health extremists.”

Scientists and public health officials alike have argued that the Global Energy Balance Network’s findings are flat-out wrong. In the New York Timesobesity expert Yoni Freedhoff, a professor at the University of Ottawa, voiced his opinion of the real reason the group was established: “I think ultimately the Global Energy Balance Network was a megaphone for Coca-Cola.”

And Freedhoff is certainly not the only one. In addition to Walter Willet of the Harvard School of Public Health, who called the group’s research “outrageous,” administrators from Massachusetts General Hospital, University of Washington, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have all balked at the claims that consumers simply need to “exercise more” to lose weight and get healthy.

“The Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee provides compelling evidence for the causal link between sugary drinks and disease, as well as the need for exercise,” wrote Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a letter taking a stance against the Coke-backed group and signed by 35 other medical professionals. “Unfortunately, Coca-Cola and its academic helpers won’t accept the well-documented evidence that sugary drinks are a major contributor to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.”

The group’s dissolution is a promising win for public health and healthy living proponents everywhere. And it’s another huge blow for Coke and Big Food—in the past year, the company has seen the University of Colorado Medical School return its $1 million grant and its relationship with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics terminated.

The defunding of the Global Energy Balance Network is a step in the right direction, and hopefully the future will bring even more unbiased health research to consumers.

Photo credit: José María Pérez Nuñez via Flickr

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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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