Earlier this week friend and fellow science-blogger Matt Herod sent me a link to a New York Times article outlining a Coca Cola-funded group called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). It’s a good article, so head over to read it in full. But the gist of it is summed up by the following quote:
Marion Nestle, the author of the book “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, was especially blunt: “The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.”
The Times investigation was kicked off by friend and colleague Yoni Freedhoff:
The [GEBN] website also omitted mention of Coke’s backing until Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa, wrote to the organization to inquire about its funding. Dr. Blair [GEBN vice president] said this was an oversight that had been quickly corrected.
Dr Steve Blair is the vice president of GEBN (full disclosure: I was co-author on a paper with Dr Blair during my MSc, and have posted a video of one of his talks here), and the article quotes him as saying the following (emphasis mine):
“Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on,” the group’s vice president, Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist, says in a recent video announcing the new organization. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
GEBN has also posted position papers on their website, including this one titled What is Causing the Worldwide Rise in Body Weight? The below text is the conclusion from the abstract of that paper (emphasis mine).
Reducing caloric intake in whole populations is challenging especially at relatively low levels of energy expenditure, and evidence suggests that there is a critical energy flux threshold for regulating intake to achieve energy balance. Increasing PA, however, may be more achievable than reducing intake. Activity raises caloric expenditure and can offset excess intake. The implementation of programs to achieve greater PA is therefore vital if the worldwide rise in body weight is to be halted, while we also need to implement programs to help people eat smarter.
In contrast to the Times article, over at Nutrevolve, Kevin Klatt’s view on GEBN is more nuanced (emphasis mine):
The issue with the researchers is that they’ve taken money from Coke for their research, that their research pushes exercise over dietary intake as a cause of obesity (IMO, it’s pretty weak data- their one paper on the topic relies heavily on ‘we can’t trust NHANES’) and they pretty stupidly didn’t disclose the funding on their webpage until it was pointed out to them. While I don’t fully agree with their perspective on obesity (though I do think the energy flux theory is worth further study), to claim that GEBN is a front group and that these researchers are bought out is a far stretch. Like much of the observational evidence that fuels debates surrounding obesity, reverse casuality isn’t considered; anyone who knows Blair and Hill’s work (eg Hill, 1998, 2005 – Blair has published/written extensively about the ‘fat but fit’ paradigm) knows that their opinions on exercise, obesity and treating metabolically unhealthy individuals have been around long before they started this network. However, this isn’t considered in the media coverage that’s selling the shill card pretty hard (though this current article is softer than others I’ve seen).
I disagree somewhat with Klatt here – Dr Blair has written much about the fat but fit paradigm, but I think that’s a different issue (e.g. you can be healthy despite a high body weight). And I was still surprised to read the above statements from Dr Blair and GEBN, because I have taken very different conclusions from the published literature on the role of sugar sweetened beverages in obesity. I’m not suggesting anyone has been “bought” by Coke (I find it more likely that Coke would simply fund researchers whose views naturally align with their own – hence why I would wager that Coke likely funds more physical activity research projects than diet projects). But it’s hard to watch this GEBN video, or read their GEBN press release, without seeing the GEBN view as extremely one-sided.
In the past I have summarized my own views on the causes of the obesity epidemic, which I will be reposting here tomorrow. Later this week, I will also be sharing my thoughts on the relationship between Big Food and Public Health research. In the meantime, head back over to the Times to read their piece in full.