It probably isn’t surprising to most people that company-funded research often slants in favor of the company funding the scientific study. Not all company-funded research studies support company agendas. However, according to the New York Times, the recent tactics of the well-known Sugar Sweetened Beverage (SSB) company Coca-Cola demonstrates how funding can control the results of studies.
The research comes in the form of a not so cleverly disguised non-profit organization that was funded by Coca-Cola in an effort to counter the ongoing push to educate the public about the sugar connection to obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. Coca-Cola-funded scientists proclaimed that poor diets weren’t the culprit to the growing obesity epidemic in the US and other parts of the world. In fact, the study concluded that it was inactivity, not SSBs that causes obesity.
This study is in direct contradiction of the generally accepted studies that trace poor diet and poverty conditions as contributing factors of obesity. Poor diet generally includes such things as empty caloric foods and beverages, especially sodas or soft drinks.
Global Energy Balance Network (aka Coca-Cola’s Nonprofit)
The Coca-Cola connection to Global Energy Balance Network isn’t simply funding research. According to the New York Times, “In response to requests based on state open-records laws, two universities that employ leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network disclosed that Coke had donated $1.5 million last year to start the organization.”
The Global Energy Balance Network also received $4 million in funding from Coca-Cola to conduct research projects (2). The result of that research can be found on the organization’s website. It’s Coke’s latest PR mantra about how its SSBs aren’t contributing to the obesity epidemic.
The solution to obesity is very simplistic according to the group that concludes that weight control is about “…maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories.” In fact, the group promotes, “energy balance” that is the balancing of the amount of energy consumed through foods and beverages versus the amount of energy expended, such as exercise (3).
In November 2014, the national trend-setting city of Berkeley in California was the first city in the US to pass a “Soda Tax” law. The law places a 1 cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks in an effort to fight obesity and Type 2 diabetes, a growing national crisis. The voter message was loud with three-fourths of the city voting in favor of the tax (4).
The movement is backed by a 2013 Harvard study that stated “increasing the price of a 20 oz. soda by 20 cents would lead to a 16% sales drop.”
The soft drink industry didn’t take this new tax movement lying down. Instead, it mounted a “multimillion-dollar opposition campaign.”
A similar move to curb the rate of obesity was proposed in New York City by the Board of Health and backed by Mayor Bloomberg. The ban on “large-size sugary beverages” [larger than 16 oz.] was determined by a NY state judge to be “arbitrary and capricious” (5).
Bloomberg appealed the lower court decision and according to CNN a panel of 4 Supreme Court judges upheld the lower court’s ruling (6).
Experts Speak Out
Time quoted food policy writer and professor at the University of California, Michael Pollan, “I think there are still a lot of people out there who haven’t gotten the message that soda is bad for you” (7).
Dr. Kelly Brownell, dean of Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University was quoted by the New York Times (November 2014) that, “The support of soda taxes is part of the recognition that disease is related to diet, particularly obesity and diabetes, which is costing the country huge amounts of money” (8).
Marelene B Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said that the food industry is scared of the movement toward taxing and mandating GMO labeling because “… they [food companies] know these policies have the potential to change consumer behavior.”
With its conclusion that lack of exercise, not Coke (SSBs) is the cause of obesity, Global Energy Balance Network lost much of its credibility when the truth about its incipience and research funding were discovered. And, just in case there is the inability to draw a logical conclusion based on simple reasonable deduction, an actual study was conducted and published in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) Journal in 2013 about Sugar-Sweetened Beverages (SSBs) industry sponsored studies.
The goal was to assess whether or not financial support from these companies could influence a review or study, even to the point of it being inaccurate. Not surprising, the Systematic Review (SR) stated, “Our results showed that potential financial conflicts of interest do influence the conclusions of SRs (9).
“SRs supported by beverage and sugar industries frequently reported a lack of association between the consumption of SSBs and obesity, leading to contradictory results when compared to original studies included in the SR. However, most reviews that reported having no conflicts of interest argued that current evidence justified public health strategies that discourage the consumption of SSBs. This lack of consistency between both groups of SRs suggests an empirical evidence of bias.”
Who to Believe? Company Funded or Non-Company Funded Research?
Even when there is scientific data to support a company’s argument against general public belief, there’s another study that can contradict it. The Systematic Review published in the PLOS could possibly pave the way for the science community to eliminate the financial conflicts of interest and reporting bias within its own research industry.
While researchers are largely dependent on company funded research, the SR suggests that ethical guidelines should be an automatic self-governing barometer in the quest for science’s mandate of truth-seeking.
However, those lines are often blurred with the unspoken pressure for researchers to draw conclusions that are in keeping with those funding the research.
The authors of the paper state, “SRs with financial conflicts of interest were five times more likely to present a conclusion of no positive association between SSB consumption and obesity than those [studies] without them [financial conflicts of interest]. Our findings serve to draw attention to possible inaccuracies in scientific evidence from research funded by the food industry.”