If you’re buying avocados because they’re a superfood, nibbling on dark chocolate because of its antioxidant properties and sipping a soda now and then because you can just work it off at the gym, you’ve been had.
In her new book, “Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat,” Marion Nestle, an NYU professor in nutrition, food studies and public health, delivers unsettling news. A vast amount of nutritional research is funded and influenced by the food industry, who use “science” as a marketing tool, making unhealthy foods seem OK and turning wholesome foods into incredible cure-alls — often against the interest of public health and defying common sense.
“Whenever I see a study suggesting that a single food (such as pork, oats, pears), eating pattern (having breakfast) or product (beef, diet sodas, chocolate) improves health, I look to see who paid for it,” Nestle writes. “If an industry-funded study claims miraculous benefits from the sponsor’s products, think: ‘Advertising.’ ”
One of the most noteworthy research funders is Coca-Cola, which invested more than $6 million in a report called the International Study of Childhood Obesity, Lifestyle and the Environment. It tracked 6,000 children, starting in 2010, looking at their physical activity, sleep, TV habits and diet. Researchers did not look for a correlation between soda and obesity, so they didn’t discover one. Instead they found the most important correlations of obesity were lack of sleep, low physical activity and frequent TV watching. “Coca-Cola could not have asked for a better outcome,” Nestle writes.
The beverage company also funded a group called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which offered supposedly expert advice on the obesity epidemic, while emphasizing the importance of physical activity over avoiding sugary drinks. In 2015, The New York Times reported that Coca-Cola had given millions to the GEBN and those associated with it. At the time, Nestle called GEBN a “front group for Coca-Cola” with “a very clear” agenda: “Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.”
In the wake of the scandal, Coca-Cola adopted a policy of somewhat radical transparency, revealing startling figures. It reported that from 2010 to 2017, it spent $140 million funding research and on partnerships. Some of the partnerships were especially disturbing. The advocacy group Ninjas for Health found that from 2010 to 2015, Coca-Cola contributed $2.9 million to the American Academy of Pediatrics and $3.5 million to the American Academy of Family Physicians. These are organizations “that might otherwise be expected to advise avoidance of sugary drinks,” Nestle writes. She says those specific ties have seemingly been severed but “Coca-Cola still funds an extraordinary number of minority groups [and] pediatric groups. It’s just astonishing.”