By Natalia Rebolledo Fuentealba
An article published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (JECH) recently exposed strategies that The Coca-Cola Company used to change the conversation about obesity and avoid “extreme solutions” to this public health problem. By extreme solutions, they referred to government regulations such as food and beverage taxes or bans on unhealthy foods.
In 2014, Coca-Cola created the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). GEBN was an US nonprofit organization with the purpose of spreading awareness about obesity and focused on the role of “energy balance”, an equilibrium between energy intake and energy expenditure. However, on November of 2015, GEBN discontinued their operations after The New York Times published an article exposing a $1.5 million donation made by Coca-Cola to kickstart this organization.
Information obtained in 2016 by US Right to Know showed that Coca-Cola implemented 3 different strategies in GEBN:
- Advance “energy balance” as the right framework to deal with obesity: They tried to use GEBN to change the conversation about the causes of obesity, focusing on energy balance instead of how much food or beverages people consume.
- Establish independence between Coca-Cola and GEBN: They proposed that GEBN would be independent of Coca-Cola interests, but based on the information provided in the JECH article, GEBN was not independent.
- Convince key informants that “energy balance” is the right framework to address obesity: They used advocacy campaigns to target 5 relevant groups; policy makers, healthcare professionals, health and wellness journalists, global organizations, and the general public.
Even in 2015, with GEBN out of the picture, Coca-Cola continued to fund research. An article published this year in Public Health Nutrition showed that between January 1st of 2010 and June 30 of 2016, Coca-Cola awarded 1242 sponsorships to different organizations and institutions. Strikingly, the main research topic of a large number of the publications funded by Coca-Cola and Mars were on topics of physical activity and nutrition.
Despite all the public health efforts, obesity continues to increase around the world, and dietary risks and high body mass index are part of the top 5 risk factors of death according to The US Burden of Disease Collaborators. With the piling evidence for why Coca-Cola is funding research, it is inevitable to compare it with the involvement of the tobacco industry in scientific investigations.
The tobacco industry made several shifts to their business model after increasing public and governmental pressure, and it seems likely that certain food companies will follow a similar path. In the last 5 years, there have been major shifts in food industry regulations across the globe. In an effort to decrease obesity prevalence, different countries have implemented taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and foods with high density of calories from sugar or fat: what we typically regard as junk food. Additionally, countries like Chile and Peru are implementing more restrictive regulations; on 2016, Chile implemented national policies to regulate child-directed marketing, and added front-of-the-package (FOP) warning labels on foods and beverages high in added saturated fats, total sugar, sodium and energy. In Peru, a regulation was approved that adds FOP on foods with high levels of sugar, saturated fat, sodium, and foods that contains trans-fat. It is unclear if these policies are effective, but evaluations that measure their impact are still in process.
Peer edited by Anandita Pal and Michael Essman