Coca-Cola is funding influential scientists pushing a message that diminishes the role of junk food and sweetened beverages in the obesity crisis—a partnership that has drawn the ire of nutritional experts since it was highlighted earlier this week.
The Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) on Monday released a promotional video claiming that there is "no compelling evidence" that soft drinks or fast food contribute to Americans' declining health, and that consumers should worry more about exercising than cutting calories to lose weight. In turn, media outlets swiftly highlighted that the GEBN lists the world's largest producer of sugary sodas as one of its major financial backers.
That's an association that, as nutrition professor Barry Popkin told the Guardian on Tuesday, exposes the GEBN as "merchants of doubt" akin to the scientists-for-hire who deny the harmful effects of tobacco.
"Essentially, Coke is following the strategy used by the tobacco industry as they tried to create doubt among the general public and also politicians. It was very effective in the fights to regulate cigarettes and we have learned from this that it is essential to address these attempts and uncover what they are very rapidly," said Popkin, who teaches global nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
More concerning is the consensus among nutritional experts that sugary sodas not only contribute to the obesity epidemic—they're a leading cause. As the Harvard University School of Public Health explains, sodas are more rightfully described as "liquid candy," and that as sugary drink portion sizes have grown over the past 40 years, children and adults have all drastically increased their consumption.
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According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. While physical activity is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle and helping prevent diseases that are associated with obesity, diet is the most important factor, Popkin said.
"[O]besity and NCD scholars and the WHO and many other bodies have all realized that for prevention, we must change our diet," Popkin told the Guardian. "First and foremost this is sugary sweetened beverages."
Added Scott Grundy, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern medical center, "[I]n the bigger picture it’s food intake over exercise that dominates as a cause of obesity—you cannot exercise your way out of overeating, that’s kind of a misguided idea."
And Coca-Cola's efforts at convincing consumers that a balanced diet is less important than exercise for weight loss and overall health relies on exactly that kind of dubious science. As Mark Morford succinctly posits at the SF Chronicle:
"Just how dumb are you, average American? How gullible, how blindly trusting of corporate double-speak, of murky science, the idea that companies famous for making drinks that burn rust off your car really care about your health? If you’re the Coca-Cola company...the answer is: Very. You are very stupid. Still. Now and forever. They are counting on it."