Obesity: Should Coca-Cola Play Role in Research?


There are a lot of linkages between sugary beverages and obesity the related complications arising from it.  Nonetheless, food and beverage industry powerhouses like Coca-Cola want to play a role in obesity research, which leaves many asking whether it is an ethical move.

Neither the obesity epidemic nor the question of its causes are new concerns in the United States.  A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology is drumming up the buzz in this latest discussion.   The paper makes the case that sedentary behavior is the main culprit in the obesity epidemic, which spares no state in our nation and accounts for an estimated $147 billion in nationwide healthcare expenses.

What the paper does not mention are the words “sugar,” “soda,” or “beverage.”  The role of excess calories and sugar-sweetened beverages in the burgeoning obesity epidemic are completely downplayed.  Not surprisingly, the majority of this study’s authors report financial relationships with Coca-Cola.

These results are raising eyebrows from media and the public.  Although the public health and medical communities cannot pinpoint an exact cause for obesity the way that they can pinpoint the causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer, there is something slightly amiss about a “state-of-the-art” obesity study that downplays the role played by excess calorie and sugar intake.  A Forbes reporter interviewed lead author Carl Lavie, a Louisiana cardiologist and obesity expert.  Lavie defended the study in response to questions of whether industry connections have influenced its authenticity.

“In the medical field, many companies fund studies and educational programs, but the investigators and speakers are not changing what they say due to who sponsors the work,” Lavie said.

While it may not be easy to prove the accuracy of this blanket statement, other studies from around the world have found suspicious results when examining systematic reviews funded by industry players like Coca-Cola.  Researchers in Germany and Spain looked at over a dozen studies and reviews that study the link between sugary beverages and weight gain and obesity. Overall, the findings in the papers were different when industry players like Coca-Cola were not playing a role in the research.  The studies without significant industry support suggest a strong association between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain or obesity.   On the other hand, the vast majority of studies conducted with industry support did not find evidence for any such association.

One thing that all of the studies had in common regardless of the funding—none could provide evidence that there is any nutritional benefit to consuming sugar-sweetened beverages like soda.

Reputable research powerhouses like Harvard and Yale Universities are among the countless academic bodies holding a vault of evidence that draw links between soda consumption and obesity.  Americans of all ages are exceeding the sugar limit as recommended in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  A report published by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity states that Americans are consuming an average of 22.2 teaspoons of sugar per day, which accounts for 355 calories.

This is not just about adults, either.  The childhood obesity epidemic is one of the most disturbing public health concerns in the nation, as evidenced by First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to devote her time in the White House to tackle this problem.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years.  According to statistics, this generation of children could be the first in history that does not outlive their parents.

The CDC calls upon the food and beverage industries to play a role in childhood obesity prevention and its devastating effects.  Does the CDC hope that industry players like Coca-Cola will play a research role in obesity prevention? That is not clear, but chances are that downplaying the link between excess calorie consumption and obesity is not the prevention strategy that the CDC has in mind.

Research studies are not the only place that Coca-Cola is playing a role in the nation’s obesity epidemic.  Across the country as public health experts struggle to combat a problem that is accounting for a huge portion of chronic diseases and deaths, some have proposed solutions that mimic tobacco control, such as sugar-sweetened beverage taxes.  In 2011, the American Beverage Association, which represents big soda companies like Coca-Cola, donated a whopping $10 million to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  This charitable move followed the city’s proposal of—you guessed it—a soda tax.  The tax never happened.

There is no way to prove whether or not it is ethical for companies like Coca-Cola to play a research role in obesity, weight gain, and related chronic health issues.  To those conscious of big business and public health, the facts may need to speak for themselves.

By Erica Salcuni

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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