Coca-Cola has funded the creation of the Global Energy Balance Network (“GEBN”), and the organization’s message is clear: obesity is not caused by the foods or drinks a person consumes, but rather because that person does not exercise. In spreading this message, Coca-Cola has recruited extremely reputable scientists and researchers by offering significant grants and research funding. The creation of the GEBN comes at a time when politicians are pushing to tax sugary drinks, attempting to remove the drinks from schools and trying to eliminate the marketing of such drinks to children. Their efforts seem to be working. In the past 20 years, the average American’s consumption of full-calorie sodas has declined by 25%.
Scientists researching obesity in both adults and children state there are two parts to the equation: consume less calories by eating healthy foods and burn more calories through exercise. And although this balance is important, most public health experts say that research is clear that one side of the equation is much more critical: consuming less calories.
While physical activity certainly helps, research indicates that exercise increases a person’s appetite, thereby making him/her consume more calories. Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, points out that exercise expends far fewer calories than you might think. For example, a 12 ounce can of Coke contains 140 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar. He states that, “It takes three miles of walking to offset that one of Coke.” With respect to weight loss, diet changes have much more impact than by increasing exercise.
Independent researchers find the GEBN and its message troubling because it muddies up the message of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. By funding the GEBN, Coca-Cola obviously has interests in the outcome of the research produced. Public health lawyer Michele Simon aptly states that, “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. [The creation of the GEBN utilizing reputable scientists] is a direct response to the ways that the company is losing. They’re desperate to stop the bleeding.” Marion Nestle, the author of “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University goes even further, stating that, “The [GEBN] 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.”
Despite the intense criticism, the scientists running the GEBN defend their work. The group’s president, James O. Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, states that, “[Coca-Cola] is not running the show. We’re running the show.” He further states that the source of funding is no secret and the group is very transparent about that fact. Hill claims he sought funding from Coca-Cola to create the GEBN because his university did not have the funds to do so. He believes that public health officials could have greater success in changing the way people eat by collaborating and working with the food industry instead of against it. Hill states that, “‘Eat less’ has never been a message that’s been effective. The message should be ‘Move more and eat smarter.’” He denies that he has ever claimed that food has no bearing on a healthy lifestyle.