Coca-Cola’s misleading research downplays its role in obesity epidemic

5 mins read


By Oren Laurent
President, Banc De Binary

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. Coca-Cola 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.

Please note that this column does not constitute financial advice.