'Front group': Coca-Cola funds scientists who stress exercise not diet to avoid obesity

© Gary Cameron
Coca-Cola has pumped millions of dollars into the founding of a new nonprofit that claims there is "strong evidence" that lack of exercise is mostly to blame for obesity, not poor diet.

Coke, the leading producer of soda and sugary drinks across the world, has invested heavily in the Global Energy Balance Network, a nonprofit run by a handful of university scientists who were offered $4 million by Coke to fund various research projects, according to the New York Times.

Halting weight gain should be less about dieting and more about "maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories," the group said on its website. The group's proof of this claim comes down to two research papers, both of which end with the same footnote: “The publication of this article was supported by The Coca-Cola Company.”


The organization calls itself “the voice of science” on its website. It ultimately bills itself as a "not for profit dedicated to reversing the obesity & chronic disease epidemics through healthy lifestyle behaviors."

Steven N. Blair, the nonprofit's vice president and a top exercise scientist from the University of South Carolina who in recent decades has played a major role in crafting federal guidelines for physical activity, recently touted the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) in a video release.

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“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,” Blair says in the video announcing the organization's formation.

“And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

Health experts said GEBN's message is misleading and is an effort by a major corporate entity that specializes in sugary drinks to obfuscate the role diet plays in combatting obesity.

GEBN's “message is that obesity is not about the foods or beverages you’re consuming, it’s that you’re not balancing those foods with exercise,” said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, of the University of Ottawa, who first pressed the organization about their funding.

Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, likened Coke's support for GEBN to the tobacco industry's funding of the "merchants of doubt" who were tasked to sow confusion over the health risks of smoking.

Others went further, suggesting GEBN is part of a deceptive mission to further Coke's corporate agenda around the world.

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“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.” said Marion Nestle, author of the book “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

James O. Hill is GEBN's president and a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Last year, Coke gave an “unrestricted monetary gift” of $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation. He said Coke has no say in the organization's output or message.

“They’re not running the show,” he told NYT. “We’re running the show.”

NYT reported that it is unclear if any of the around $4 million in research funding Coke gave to Blair and Dr. Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health, ended up as personal income.

“As long as everybody is disclosing their potential conflicts and they’re being managed appropriately, that’s the best that you can do,” said Hand, a founding member of the group. “It makes perfect sense that companies would want the best science that they can get.”

Hill defended the group's mission, saying GEBN has not left diet out of its messaging.

“If we are out there saying it’s all about physical activity and it’s not about food, then we deserve criticism,” he said. “But I think we haven’t done that.”

Yet the company has often stressed that a sedentary lifestyle is to blame for the obesity crisis.

“The media tends to blame the obesity epidemic on our poor eating habits,” the group said in a recent news release. “But are those french fries really the culprit? Dr. Steve Blair explains that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV.”