Sales of sugary soda drinks are on a 10-year skid, thanks to a growing consensus of health researchers identifying the beverages as the primary culprits behind obesity. Soft drink makers are in a full-blown crisis and, like a cornered animal that becomes more dangerous, Coca-Cola's PR tactics have become increasingly desperate and insidious. A 2013 television commercial suggested the 139 calories in a can of Coke could be burned by 75 seconds of laughing out loud or a celebratory dance while bowling—claims that were roundly criticized by nutrition experts at the time. It's recently come out that Coke is using a similar tactic now, but with a more serious, respectable veneer. The New York Times reported the company's undisclosed ties to the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network, a relationship that includes lots of money and even registering the GEBN website.
This isn't the first time makers of dangerous products have found ways to claim evidence against them was inconclusive or have funded research programs that purportedly aimed to find the "real" roots of the problem. The tobacco industry stalled for years by creating controversy over established facts about the dangers of smoking. The gun lobby borrowed these tactics to promote the idea that having lots of unregulated guns around keeps us safe, even as our rate of gun-related deaths dwarfs that of other countries. All of these are attempts to misdirect, confuse and obfuscate what should be a simple reality about the dangers of the stuff they are trying to sell us. This doesn't mean that we should ban cigarettes or guns (I own two) or Coca-Cola. But we need to base our use of these products on information that isn't industry-funded. At the very least, we need to know when it is.
GEBN's mission is "to connect and engage multidisciplinary scientists and other experts around the globe dedicated to applying and advancing the science of energy balance to achieve healthier living." The "science of energy balance" refers to the well-established, indisputable fact that what you eat is only part of what determines your weight. The other part is how many calories you burn.
GEBN's message is particularly dangerous for the simple reason that it's largely true. On the surface it's hard to find fault with a pro-exercise stance. The fact that gaps remain in our understanding of the relationship between diet, exercise and health does not mean we should alter the prevailing consensus about the dangers of soda, but that is what GEBN threatens to do, by implying that you can freely drink Coke, as long as you exercise.
But while exercise burns calories, it also increases appetite, which can lead to more eating, which cancels out the burned calories. While it is possible to outrun a bad diet, there is no question it's easier to manage your weight with a healthy diet. GEBN questions this reality by shifting the focus from diet to energy balance.
Its website states: "People can be in energy balance at any body weight or BMI, whether lean, overweight, or obese. This simply means that body weight is stable and neither increasing or decreasing." This statement is also true, but subtly misleading. It implies that being in energy balance is equivalent to being healthy. But if one is dangerously obese, then being in energy balance means maintaining that unhealthy weight level. Skinny people, meanwhile, can have dangerously high blood sugar levels as well.
"Scales don't measure the presence or absence of health, they measure the gravitational pull of the earth," explained Yoni Freedhoff, who first discovered GEBN's ties to Coca-Cola and outed them to The New York Times. "So yes, if you're not gaining, your weight can be described as being representative of energy balance. Whether or not you can be described as being healthy would depend on whether or not you were actually healthy."
According to nutrition expert Marion Nestle, 83 percent of research funded by Coca-Cola has concluded that drinking sugary beverages is not harmful. When I asked GEBN board member Dr. Wendy Brown, who is also the director of the Centre for Research on Exercise, Physical Activity and Health at the University of Queensland, if she has taken any money from Coke she responded, "Not for my research."
I then asked Brown how far someone would have to run in order to burn off a can of Coke. "This is exactly the sort of knowledge and understanding we are trying to promote—most people have no idea how much movement is needed to balance their energy intake," she said. The answer is based on the person's weight and the level of activity, as well as their genes. In other words, it's complicated.
This complexity might very well be Coca-Cola's best hope, because it makes it impossible to say, in sound bites, how much a person will have to do in order to work off a can of soda. And obscuring that answer for as long as possible would be the best-case scenario for future sales. Muddying the issue even keeps alive the idea that laughing out loud might actually burn off the calories in a can of Coke.