“Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake," Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, told the Times.
As government funding for scientific research has dwindled over the past few decades, corporate donations have stepped in to make up for the shortfall, resulting in a tangled web of conflicts of interest in nearly every research area with any money-making possibilities. Obesity research has been among the most controversial areas for corporate sponsorships or partnerships because of its impact on hundreds of billions of dollars of food and beverage sales annually.
Coca-Cola isn't the only big sugar company to donate money for nutrition science. Its competitors PepsiCo, Nestle and other brand names are also big players and their assistance has also drawn some criticism.
Yale University officials came under fire in 2010 after they accepted $250,000 from PepsiCo for a post-doc fellowship in obesity studies at the medical school. Yale alumna Michele Simon, a public health attorney, told the Yale Daily News that PepsiCo's gift was disingenuous: “[T]he profit drivers of their portfolio include Pepsi, Gatorade and a whole litany of unhealthy beverages,” she said. “They own Cheetos, for God’s sake.”
The Nestle Research Center, whose corporate parent makes all manner of sugary products -- including chocolate, cookies, ice cream and chocolate cookie ice cream -- funded Nature's special Obesity supplement in April 2014. The highly respected journal, which published an opinion piece in that issue that was critical of processed foods, prominently emphasized that despite the sponsorship "as always, Nature carries sole responsibility for all editorial content."
The New York Times reported that Coke gave $1.5 million to the Global Energy Balance Network. One of the nonprofit's scientists, Steven N. Blair, said in a video: "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, sugary drinks and so on. And there's really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause."
The video ignores recent studies like the one published in the journal Circulation in June linking the consumption of sugary drinks to an estimated 184,000 adult deaths each year, including more than 25,000 Americans.
The biggest challenge for researchers accepting money from corporate sources may not necessarily be research bias but the appearance of research bias.
In a March 2014 editorial in the International Journal of Obesity, Martin Binks, a professor of nutrition science at Texas Tech University, said that the concern over corporate-funded research may be leading us to overlook some relevant, high quality studies the companies fund and overvalue some studies that are not as well done but funded through public or philanthropic channels.
"Discussions about the merit and objectivity of the underlying science frequently take a back seat to ad hominem attacks on researchers or accusations of malicious corporate intent in the absence of any objective scientific appraisal of the research," Binks wrote.
Binks advocated more transparency in studies, including full disclosure about all potential conflicts of interest, so that the science can be judged rather than where the money is coming from.
"In short," he argued, "scientist need to practice good science, sponsors must commit to transparency and noninfluence, media needs to practice responsible scientific journalism, and we all need to base our evaluations on scientific data and not on predetermined opinions rooted in our own emotion-laden bias for or against specific funding sources."