Coca-Cola lavishes £8.9mn on scientists who advise health policy

© Gary Cameron
Coca-Cola has spent £8.9 million over the past five years funding top British scientists carrying out research on healthy-eating.

An investigation by the Times found the soft drinks giant has funded or given “professional fees” to several prominent scientists and researchers, some of whom have cast doubt on the widely acknowledged link between sugary drinks and obesity.

As part of this, some 27 British scientists received £350,000 (US$520,000) from the multinational corporation.

Coca-Cola disclosed data on its website on Friday morning showing that eight scientists who advise the government on healthy eating also received fees or travel expenses from the company. Not all of the researchers denied sugary drinks are linked to obesity.

The soft drinks giant paid £8.9 million to organizations carrying out studies on obesity and promoting scientific research, including the British Nutrition Foundation (£224,769), the National Obesity Forum (£67,300) and the Science Media Centre (£30,000), which promotes the “voices and views of the UK scientific community to the news media.”

Top scientists also received cash from Coca-Cola, some of whom advise government bodies.

Loughborough University professor Stuart Biddle was chairman of a Health Department group on obesity in 2010, and Bristol University professor Ken Fox advised the government on obesity in 2009.

Imperial College professor Alan Boobis is also director of Toxicology at Public Health England, although he stopped receiving funding from Coca-Cola in 2013.

Boobis said he received less than £3,000 a year in fees to appear in videos sponsored by Coca-Cola and give presentations on the safety of additives in beverages.

Carrie Ruxton, who is now on the board of Food Standards Scotland, co-wrote a study sponsored by industry group the UK Sugar Bureau in 2010 which found no proven association between sugar intake and obesity.

She states separately on her website: “When I correlated sugar consumption with obesity levels, there didn’t appear to be any relationship.

Ruxton said the UK Sugar Bureau had no control over her research and that it highlighted a “potential concern” over sugary drinks and obesity.

She said her later comments were consistent with a recent government report and that she has not undertaken work for Coca-Cola since joining Food Standards Scotland.

In addition to funding prominent British scientists, Coca-Cola also paid £4.8 million to the European Hydration Institute, a research foundation which has recommended that people consume sport and soft drinks of the kind the company sells.

The majority of Coca-Cola’s funding went to charities promoting the Special Olympics, sporting charity StreetGames, and ParkLives, which provides free activities in parks.

Coca-Cola UK General Manager Jon Woods said the firm has invested more than £30 million to help customers reduce their sugar and calorie intake, including changing the recipe of its drinks.

The company has previously said it relies on “scientific research to make decisions about our products and ingredients, and commission independent third parties to carry out this work.”