Fast-food and beverage companies have a well-documented history of using money to influence research that delivers favorable findings on their products. That research, in turn, can indirectly lead to positive press coverage.
Now a new report published in the British Journal of Medicine suggests that at least one major company isn’t just indirectly trying to shape media coverage or public opinion through industry-funded academic research. Coca-Cola has poured thousands of dollars directly into the media via journalism conferences, the BMJ report says.
Soda companies push "diet soda is better" narrative
It perhaps should have been obvious that a 2014 conference for journalists, officially hosted by the University of Colorado Foundation and the National Press Foundation, was backed in part by the junk food industry as well. Part of the conference’s programming included a talk from McDonald’s and Coca-Cola representatives about their initiatives to end obesity. Yet, according to the BMJ report, only one reporter raised questions with the National Press Foundation about the conference. In an interview, she told the journal that she felt she had been lied to and regretted attending.
Records obtained by the BMJ showed that Coca-Cola in total contributed $73,00 to that event. Another reporter from CNN who attended enthusiastically described the speakers she saw as “rock stars of the obesity topic...Never have I been to such a helpful fellowship.” That reporter, who declined an interview with the BMJ, later contributed to a CNN story that describes the soda industry’s efforts to help people lose weight by selling more diet sodas.
“To cut calories but keep the taste, soda makers generally substitute in natural or artificial sweeteners...The result is a low- or no-calorie option that satisfies your sweet tooth,” the CNN story says. "If you used to drink three 20-ounce bottles of regular Coke every day and you switch to a beverage with zero calories, you're saving yourself around 720 calories a day. Do that for five days and you'll lose a pound (or at least prevent yourself from gaining another one)."
Quoted in the CNN report is research by Dr. Jim Hill, a nutrition expert whom other reporters later revealed was awash in Coca-Cola money. Hill at the time had recently published a study, cited in the CNN report, claiming that diet soda drinkers lose more weight than people who do not drink diet soda.
It was Hill who had also helped organize the journalism conferences through his post at the University of Colorado and his nonprofit there, the Global Energy Balance Network. In total, Coca-Cola had donated $1 million to Hill’s organization at the university, and a small portion of that money went to organizing the 2014 conference for journalists and a previous journalism conference in 2012. University officials ultimately returned the money in 2015 when news got out about Coca-Cola’s funding and its ties to Hill's research. By the end of 2015, the Global Energy Balance Network went out-of-business.
The recent BMJ report criticizes journalists who attended Coca-Cola’s conferences before that all happened. “Overall, this looks like an industry meeting framed as science, and the journalists bought into it. Coca-Cola got its money’s worth on this one,” the BMJ quotes public health professor Marion Nestle as saying.
Diet soda likely doesn't help with weight loss
While the beverage industry portrays diet sodas as a preferable choice for people trying to lose weight, researchers and public health experts aren’t so sure, and many have said that they would prefer to see people cut out soda altogether. Researchers have pinpointed processed sugar as a major culprit in the obesity epidemic, but they say that alternative no-calorie sweeteners, such as the sweeteners used in diet sodas, are not necessarily any better.
The National Institutes of Health in 2014 announced findings of a John Hopkins study that obese and overweight adults who drink diet soda actually consume “significantly more solid-food calories—particularly from snacks," than overweight adults who drink regular soda.
And a review of dozens of studies conducted in the last thirty years on sugar-free and diet drinks, published in January by British researchers at the Imperial College, found “no evidence” that the diet drinks can lower body weight or prevent health problems. The researchers hypothesized that fake sweeteners trigger sugar cravings.
“Far from helping to solve the global obesity crisis, artificially-sweetened beverages may be contributing to the problem and should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet,” the lead researcher said at the time.