Image Credit: American as Coca Cola by Thomas Hawk

August 9, 2015; New York Times Blogs, “Well”

Next time you read the Giving USA numbers for corporate philanthropy, remember that those numbers include more than a few projects such as the one below.

Would it really surprise you to learn that those scientists making the rounds of medical journals and conferences to downplay the role of calories in obesity are on Coca-Cola’s payroll? A new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network is busy tweaking the balance of the message to Americans away from the role of calories—and towards exercise or lack thereof as being the major culprit in overweight. Coca-Cola has donated $1.5 million to the fledgling group and, out of the goodness of their corporate heart, they have also established the group’s website for them. In fact, the site is still registered to Coca-Cola, which is also listed as its administrator.

James O. Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the group’s president, said Coke had registered the website because the network did not know how. (Evidently, these professors are unacquainted with any students.) But, he protested “They’re not running the show…We’re running the show.”

GEBN’s message will undoubtedly be cited to loved ones by those very deeply in denial. “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,” said the group’s vice president, Dr. Steven N. Blair of the University of South Carolina. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

Increased efforts to tax sugary drinks, remove them from schools, and stop companies from marketing them to children may have something to do with the company’s sudden generosity to this organization. Consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American is down by 25 percent in the last two decades.

“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,” said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer. “This is a direct response to the ways that the company is losing. They’re desperate to stop the bleeding.”

But the group did not appear out of nowhere—and it probably didn’t have to submit an application and wonder for months if it would pass muster. This New York Times blog reports that over the past seven years, Coca-Cola has given $4 million in support of the work of Dr. Blair, of the University of South Carolina, and of Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health.

That website registered to and administered by Coca-Cola made no mention of Coke’s backing until another obesity expert wrote to the organization to inquire about its funding. “As soon as we discovered that we didn’t have not only Coca-Cola but other funding sources on the website, we put it on there,” Dr. Blair said. “Does that make us totally corrupt in everything we do?”

(Shades of Martin Short as Nathan Thurm.)

Marion Nestle, who authored Soda Politics, was relatively blunt about the whole deal: “The Global Energy Balance Network 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.”

The journal PLOS Medicine recently published an analysis of studies on this topic, finding that those funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times less likely to find a link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies without such backing.—Ruth McCambridge