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Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Downplay Diet's Role In Obesity


The Global Energy Balance Network is a nonprofit concerned with preventing diseases associated with inactivity, poor nutrition and obesity. That's from the group's website. The site also acknowledges that it has received support from the Coca-Cola Company. In fact, The New York Times reports today that Coke gave the group $1.5 million to get started and that it has supported the work of two of the group's founders to the tune of almost $4 million. The Global Energy Balance Network stresses lack of physical activity as opposed to diet as a cause of obesity. Reporter Anahad O'Connor wrote the story and joins us. Welcome to the program.

ANAHAD O'CONNOR: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Your story places Coke's support of this group in the context of moves to reduce our consumption of high-calorie foods like sugary soft drinks. Does this group find any fault at all with sugar consumption?

O'CONNOR: So this group, you know, their message is one that's pretty contradictory to what, you know, most independent public health experts are saying, which is, you know, people need to cut back on the amount of, you know, calories, food in general, that they're consuming and especially, you know, sugary sodas. And this group is saying that, you know, we need to emphasize that side of the equation less and people just need to be more physically active and get moving and that that will, you know, help sort out the obesity epidemic.

SIEGEL: How dependent on Coca-Cola is this group?

O'CONNOR: Very. I mean, Coca-Cola has not only provided at least $1.5 million of money to get them started from what I could find, but when I also looked up the group's website, what I found was that Coca-Cola had registered and launched the website, and they're listed as the company that's running the website. They're the, you know, domain administrator, which means they have control over the website.

SIEGEL: And they did get a shout-out in a tweet from Coke's scientific officer as well.

O'CONNOR: Absolutely. When they first launched, a top exec at Coke was promoting them on Twitter, you know, encouraging other scientists to join.

SIEGEL: You quote the president of this group as saying we are running the show, not Coke. You also quote nutritionist Marion Nestle as saying the Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola. Who's right do you think?

O'CONNOR: You know, when I talked to the public health experts, like Marion Nestle, you know, they said when they first came across this website, the language is so similar to everything Coke says, which is people need to exercise and balance their intake of foods and that sugary drinks can be a part of a healthy diet just as long as you're exercising enough. And they said when you look at, you know, the similarities between the group's language and Coke's language, it's clear that Coke is the brains behind it. And they say, you know, when you look at all the money, it's also clear that Coke is not just giving money to any which group that it comes across. They're giving money to groups that can help it sell more Coca-Cola. Coke is a business. They're, you know, a for-profit corporation that is publicly held. And, you know, they can't do things (laughter) that will decrease their shareholder value. They have to increase their sales, otherwise their shareholders will be upset.

SIEGEL: What has Coke said in response to your story today?

O'CONNOR: They said, oh, well, we fund a lot of different areas of research and, you know, there's nothing unique about the Global Energy Balance Network. But, you know, it's pretty clear that Coke has made quite an investment in this group when you look at the top executive tweeting about it, and it's clear that they were trying to help this group, you know, get its message out, which coincides with Coke's message.

SIEGEL: Anahad O'Connor of The New York Times, thanks for talking with us.

O'CONNOR: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.