Coca-Cola Front Group Aims to Confuse You About Soda’s Influence on Obesity

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  • The food, chemical, and biotechnology industries have all built up intricate and powerful systems designed to manipulate public and scientific opinion using false front organizations and industry shills posing as independent experts
  • Coca-Cola Company funds the Global Energy Balance Network, a front group aimed at confusing you about soda science and diverting attention away from evidence showing soda is a major contributor to obesity and diabetes
  • By placing the sole focus on exercise and making you think you can exercise your way out of a high-sugar diet, Coca-Cola is harming consumers

By Dr. Mercola

The food, chemical, and biotechnology industries have all built up intricate and powerful systems designed to manipulate public and scientific opinion using false front organizations and industry shills posing as independent experts.

The mission is to mislead people — including lazy reporters — about issues that threaten the corporate bottom line.

So-called astroturfing techniques are frequently used to discredit the opposition and create the false appearance of scientific consensus on a particular issue.

Astroturfing refers to the effort on the part of special interests to surreptitiously sway public opinion by making it appear as though there's a grassroots effort for or against a particular agenda, when in reality such a groundswell of public opinion might not exist.

One hallmark of astroturfing is attacking those who question the status quo, and using derogatory terms such as "crank," "crack," "nutty," "pseudo-science," and "conspiracy theorist" to describe them and their argument.

These shills also inject themselves into social media discussions, pretending to be "regular people," when in fact they have a very clearly defined agenda to steer the conversation.

Above is the full video produced by the Global Energy Balance Network that was funded with previously non-disclosed millions of dollars by Coca-Cola. A shocking lack of non-disclosure. 

Coca-Cola Funds Front Group to Peddle 'Nonsense' as Science

While the tobacco and chemical technology industries are notorious for these kinds of tactics, the food industry is using the same playbook.

For example, Coca-Cola Company was recently "outed" by the New York Times1,2,3,4 for funding a front group by the name of The Global Energy Balance Network.

The aim of this group appears to be to confuse consumers about soda science, and divert attention away from the mounting evidence showing that sweet beverages are a major contributor to obesity and diseases associated with insulin resistance, such as diabetes.

As reported in the featured article:5

"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...

'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,' the group's vice president, Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist, says in a recent video announcing the new organization.

'And there's really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.'"

In response to, and in support of, this exposé, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wrote a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times,6 signed by 36 leading researchers, scientists, and public health officials, noting that Coca-Cola is blatantly ignoring the "well-documented evidence that sugary drinks are a major contributor to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes."

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Protecting Profits Through Misdirection

Last year, Coca-Cola made a $1.5 million donation to two universities where the leaders of the new front group are employed. Since 2008, the company has also funded projects led by two of the group's founding members, to the tune of $4 million.

Coca-Cola is also the registered owner and administrator of the Global Energy Balance Network's website and, according to an editorial7 announcing the creation of the Global Energy Balance Network, the group has received an "unrestricted education gift" from Coca-Cola.

"Critics say Coke has long cast the obesity epidemic as primarily an exercise problem... Now, public health advocates say, Coca-Cola is going a step further, recruiting reputable scientists to make the case for them," the New York Times writes.

"Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition... 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...

The group says there is 'strong evidence' that the key to preventing weight gain is not reducing food intake... '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...'

[T]he 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.'"

I will have more to say on this topic in early October as I am interviewing Dr. Marion Nestle for her new book Soda Politics that is released on October 3.

Also, you might want to view the comment section and look to see when the American Beverage Association, (the trade front group for Coke and Pepsi) post some of their absurd propaganda in response to this article, as they have done in the past.

You CANNOT Exercise Your Way Out of an Unhealthy Diet

Arguing for more exercise is not a bad thing in and of itself, but by placing the sole focus on exercise and making you think you can exercise your way out of a high-sugar diet, Coca-Cola is doing a lot of harm. The fact is, your diet can make or break your exercise efforts. Not the other way around. The finest destruction of the calorie and exercise myth can be viewed in this lecture featuring Zoe Harcombe, who wrote the best book I ever read on the subject, The Obesity Epidemic. I recently interviewed her and will publish that interview shortly.


Research8 shows exercise is largely ineffective for producing any significant amount of weight loss on its own. If you want any chance of weight reduction, you have to cut calories as well.9

Part of this is because while you certainly burn more calories when you exercise, you cannot burn off thousands of excess calories each day. For example, to burn off the calories of a single Snickers bar you'd have to walk about five miles, and to offset a one soda per day habit, you have to walk one hour per day!

Now, if you normally eat a candy bar or drink a soda each day, and you decide to skip the candy or soda AND walk a few miles each day, THEN you'd be looking at potential weight loss. Otherwise you're just fighting for maintenance. And if you're overweight as it is, without changing your diet your exercise routine will simply help you maintain your current weight at best...

In addition to cutting calories, you also need to consider their source. Calories from processed fructose will affect your body differently than calories from healthy fat, for example. Research also shows that fructose promotes metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease to a greater extent than glucose, so not even all sugars are the same. Refined fructose is actually broken down very much like alcohol, damaging your liver and causing mitochondrial and metabolic dysfunction in the same way as ethanol and other toxins.

A recent meta-review10 published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that once you reach 18 percent of your daily calories from added sugar, there's a two-fold increase in metabolic harm that promotes pre-diabetes and diabetes. Moreover, research suggests sugary beverages are to blame for about 183,000 deaths worldwide each year, including 133,000 diabetes deaths, 44,000 heart disease deaths, and 6,000 cancer deaths.

Not surprisingly, compared to studies with no financial conflicts of interest, research funded by the beverage and sugar industries are five times more likely to conclude there's "no link" between sugary beverages and weight gain.11 Yet the reality just doesn't match up with the industry's well-crafted fantasies.

Nearly 30 percent of American children and teens are now either obese or overweight, and blacks and Hispanic kids are not only disproportionally more overweight than their Caucasian peers, they're also disproportionally exposed to soda ads, according to a 2014 report12 from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut, the African-American Collaborative Obesity Research Network, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.


Big Food Astroturfing

As noted in a recent Campaign US article,13 Coca-Cola isn't the only company engaging in astroturfing efforts to save their bottom-line as people are getting savvier about nutrition and health:

"Coke is far from alone in quietly pushing junk science to reframe health issues and help win over consumers and regulators. Under pressure from the organic and clean-eating movement, Big Food is upping its game in this newest form of astroturfing: backing groups that look and sound like educational resources while supporting the goals of the corporations that help the bills. Unlike astroturf groups of the past, these organizations don't go to great lengths to hide their corporate connections.

Most of them name their major backers right on their site. Instead, they trust that carefully crafted visuals and scientifically accredited spokespeople will dissuade the average consumer — or journalist — from looking too closely. Take a look at the Food Dialogue website, the online face of the US Farmers and Rancher Alliance...

The site says it's devoted to giving agriculture a voice in enhancing consumers' trust in food production... Ketchum PR helps the organization get its message out to city folks. But dig deeper into the site and you find that USFRA's backers include giant corporations tied to industrialized farming, including biotech company Monsanto, known for its GMOs, pesticide maker Dow AgroSciences, ag pharmaceutical provider Merck Animal Health, and food processor Cargill... No organic farm groups are included among its membership."

According to a recent report14 by the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, titled "Spinning Food," the US Farmers and Rancher Alliance and other such front groups "craft a narrative about food that is intended to defuse public concern about the real risks of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture and undermine the public's perceptions of the benefits of organic food and diversified, ecological agriculture systems." And, while most of industry front groups claim to offer "balanced discussions" about the issues at hand, they shrewdly promote a single-sided and single-minded agenda.

As noted by Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth:

"Coca-Cola's effort to establish a well-funded front group and buy the credentials of scientists is a cookie-cutter example of how a food company spins the story of food and science to benefit its bottom line."

Another perfect example of an industry front group is the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF), which is currently advertising its support for HR 1599, a bill that would strip states of their right to enact GMO labeling laws. One of the ads15,16 regurgitates the lie that food prices would rise if genetically engineered foods were to be labeled, saying:

"Across the country misguided politicians have threatened polices that could hurt our environment, close family farms, and increase food prices by $500 per family. But Congressman Mike Pompeo is fighting for a solution that would keep food costs down, help farmers, and protect our environment. Call Congressman Pompeo and tell him to keep fighting for the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. It's the right thing for Kansas and our country."

Transparency Is Crucial to Protect Public Health

As detailed in a recent article17 by Paul D. Thacker and Charles Seife, published in PLOS Biology Community Blog, transparency is critical for public health. Unfortunately, while efforts have focused on increasing transparency in science over the past several years, even former supporters of transparency are now starting to backpedal.

This includes the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) which, to quote Thacker and Seife, "has begun a campaign to blunt the tools with which the public can investigate claims of scientific malfeasance." More specifically, the UCS is questioning the use of open-access requests with which journalists and researchers can request access to correspondence between scientists and corporations for example. As noted in the article:

"In February, a tiny nonprofit, the U.S. Right to Know, sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to several universities. FOIA requests are legal inquiries that allow citizens and other professionals to obtain certain information in the possession of various government entities. These particular requests sought communications between scientists and several companies, trade groups, and PR firms, in order to see if the academics were coordinating their messaging with companies.

A journalist reporting on this FOIA request in Science noted that the Organic Consumers Association funds the U.S Right to Know and that many of the scientists targeted are involved with a website called GMO Answers. He did not mention that GMO Answers is run by the PR firm Ketchum, on behalf of GMO companies.

Upon hearing of these inquiries, a lead analyst at UCS stated, 'These requests to the genetic engineering researchers, just like other overly broad open records requests that seek excessive access to scientists' inboxes, are inappropriate.' [But requests] under FOIA for personal correspondence are not just appropriate, but crucial to ensuring transparency."

The authors go on to provide specific examples of instances where access to scientists' personal correspondence led to the discovery of industry-orchestrated disinformation campaigns, scientific fraud, medical ghostwriting, and other corrupt practices.

"Scientists' emails have also revealed other mechanisms by which industry exerts control over the scientific literature. A recent Senate investigation released scientists' emails to show that the device maker Medtronic edited the scientific manuscripts — written by supposedly independent researchers — to support one of their products," the authors write.

Take Notice of Who's Behind the Messages You Hear

In short, without transparency laws, there's no way to monitor scientific misbehavior, and as noted by Thacker and Seife, scientists should expect to be subjected to a high level of outside scrutiny. When scientists are working on issues that affect public health, watchdog groups and journalists would be remiss were they not to look for potential misconduct that might put the public's health in jeopardy.

And as universities become increasingly enmeshed with corporations funding their research, and corporations keep building networks of front groups, the need for transparency and laws that provide access to "behind-the-scenes" information will only increase as time goes on. As Thacker and Seife states:

"In short, those working to improve public welfare should oppose attempts to embolden government entities to withhold public information, thus threatening public health and the public trust in science."

It's high time to pull back the curtain and see who's really pulling the strings and levers. In the case of the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), that entity is Coca-Cola, and whenever you hear the talking points from GEBN, you know exactly who is talking, and why. To stop you from ditching soda from your diet, they simply redirect the blame for your weight and health problems to a lack of exercise. Coca-Cola doesn't necessarily want you to die; they just don't want you to stop drinking their beverages because then they'll go out of business. It's that simple. So believe what they tell you at your own risk...

The Union of Concerned Scientists requested this additional information be provided as well, with a longer excerpt from the lead analyst's discussion of conflicts of interest and disclosure:. 

"To be clear, disclosure of funding sources and other conflicts of interest is important. We've said it before.. and I'm sure we will say it again: any real or perceived conflicts of interest for scientists should be publicly disclosed. And as history has shown, scientists are not always proactive on this. Many cases have surfaced where undisclosed financial ties were found by those who took the time to scrutinize(e.g here, here, and here). Such investigations are important and necessary."

"But the push and pull of the scientific process and research deliberations should be exempt from disclosure. Science is an iterative process and researchers should be free to discuss, challenge, and develop ideas with a certain level of privacy. As a result, these requests to the genetic engineering researchers, just like other overly broad open records requests that seek excessive access to scientists' inboxes are inappropriate."

Tell Coke They're a Joke!

Obesity is a serious public health problem in the United States, and you are being sorely misled by companies pretending to have a solution that, in reality, only worsen the problem. I strongly urge you to let the Coca-Cola Company know how you feel by telling them to stop their deceptive marketing of soda products.

Join me in taking a stand against false advertising and let your voice be heard. If you’re on Twitter, send a tweet to #CokeCEO to let the Coca-Cola Company know you disapprove of their deceptive advertising. If you’re on Facebook, please share your thoughts with them on their Facebook Page. You can also e-mail Coca-Cola Company to let them know how you feel about their strategy for fighting obesity — which does not include giving up soda and other sugary beverages.

Already, in response to growing criticism, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent has issued a public apology,18 acknowledging that the company’s approach was “poorly planned.”  But Coca-Cola’s campaign was hardly the result of poor planning! It was about disseminating poor science and perpetuating misleading information in order to deceive you about the influence of soda on your weight — a Big JOKE!

Coca-Cola also says “the way we have engaged the public health and scientific communities… is not working.” But this is not about engaging public health and scientific communities. It’s about trying to defend the indefensible using plain old bad/misleading information — a Big JOKE!

Coke even has a “work it out calculator”19 that supposedly tells you how much you have to exercise to burn off your favorite beverage, but look at the numbers for Diet Coke... According to them, you don’t have to spend a single minute exercising if you drink Diet soda, yet overwhelming amounts of research shows artificially sweetened beverages promote weight gain to the same degree or more as regularly sweetened beverages — a Big JOKE!

Tell Coke They're a Joke via FacebookTell Coke They're a Joke via Email