Coke’s mis­lead­ing re­search down­plays role in obe­sity epi­demic

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The soda in­dus­try has been strug­gling to gen­er­ate pos­i­tive PR for a while now. With count­less stud­ies point­ing to the links be­tween weight gain and the con­sump­tion of sug­ary soda bev­er­ages, the public is slowly recog­nis­ing the haz­ard and a new Gallup sur­vey found that more than 60% of Amer­i­cans at­tempt to avoid the drink.

What should the world’s largest soda pro­ducer do when it is faces with such a predica­ment? Gen­er­ate sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that will counter the grow­ing anti-soda trend. Co­caCola did just that in or­der to fight off neg­a­tive press. The New York Times re­cently re­ported that the bev­er­age con­glom­er­ate joined forces with prom­i­nent sci­en­tists for the sake of down­play­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of a healthy diet in the quest for weight loss, only to high­light the im­por­tance of ex­er­cise “in med­i­cal jour­nals, at con­fer­ences and through so­cial media,” The Times re­ported.

The bot­tom line is that The Coca-Cola Com­pany wants the public to be­lieve that one can drink Coke and still lose weight. Us­ing sci­en­tists to get this mes­sage across, of course, gives this PR move an un­de­ni­ably more “se­ri­ous” spin. Health re­searchers have re­acted quite badly to this re­veal, and claim that Coca-Cola is care­lessly mis­lead­ing the public un­der the pre­tense of science. While ex­er­cise is clearly ben­e­fi­cial, eat­ing healthy re­mains the key com­po­nent to weight loss, Rut­gers Univer­sity diet and be­hav­iour ex­pert Char­lotte Markey said to Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can. The New York Times’ story re­vealed that last year Coca-Cola do­nated $1.5 mil­lion to help start the Global Energy Bal­ance Net­work and con­trib­uted an ex­tra $4 mil­lion in fund­ing to two of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s found­ing mem­bers. What makes this story even more prob­lem­atic is that Coca-Cola is listed as the ad­min­is­tra­tor of the group’s web­site, which is reg­is­tered to Coca-Cola’s At­lanta head­quar­ters. These ties, of course, show any re­search per­formed by this net­work in an ex­cep­tion­ally bad light. On its web­site, The Global Energy Bal­ance Net­work claims that “there’s re­ally vir­tu­ally no com­pelling ev­i­dence” that sug­ary drinks, fast food, overeat­ing is to fault for the world’s obe­sity epi­demic.

In an at­tempt to bat­tle the back­lash, Coca-Cola re­sponded to this ex­plo­sive story in a col­umn in USA To­day in which the com­pany’s CTO, Ed Hays, said the story by The Times “cre­ated con­fu­sion.” While Hays de­clared that Coca Cola has “al­ways op­er­ated un­der the fact that a healthy, bal­anced diet and reg­u­lar ex­er­cise are key in­gre­di­ents for a healthy lifestyle.” How­ever, he did not ad­dress so much as a sin­gle claim that was brought up in the Times’ story. Hays did claim that Coca-Cola now plans to be more trans­par­ent about the re­search it funds.

While this is ob­vi­ously a PR stunt that back­fired, it is in­ter­est­ing to note that the soda in­dus­try seems to be headed in a ques­tion­able di­rec­tion. This is cer­tainly not the first time that a co­op­er­a­tion whose prod­ucts are dan­ger­ous has come up with a way to con­tra­dict ev­i­dence against them by fund­ing re­search that will suit their needs. Both the to­bacco in­dus­try and the gun lobby know all about cre­at­ing con­tro­ver­sies and di­vert­ing the public dis­course in or­der to shift the fo­cus from ev­i­dence that is haz­ardous to their in­ter­ests.

When it comes to Coca-Cola, things get even trick­ier – es­pe­cially since the com­pany’s ar­gu­ment isn’t false. Ex­er­cise is, and will al­ways be, a ma­jor part of weight loss. The prob­lem with the in­for­ma­tion that the com­pany is spread­ing is that it is never go­ing to be an ei­ther/or sit­u­a­tion. There is a dom­i­nant con­sen­sus about the dan­gers of soda bev­er­ages that is ir­refutable and no amount of ex­er­cise will ever change that fact. Chang­ing the dis­course and con­fus­ing the public with con­tra­dic­tory data and re­search might work for a while, but as the soda in­dus­try strug­gles to keep its head above wa­ter in an in­creas­ingly health-aware world, Coca-Cola and com­pa­nies like it will have to come up with tac­tics that do more than sim­ply spin al­ready known and proven truths.

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