The Coca-Cola Company, one of the world’s largest purveyors of sugary beverages, has spent years trying to create a more soda-friendly world. Part of this effort has included funding scientific research on fitness and public health at universities throughout the United States, Canada, and around the world. As it did so, it quietly reserved the right to veto research findings. As new research shows, in five different university funding agreements, The Coca-Cola Company could terminate research at any time — without having to give a reason.
In the paper, published in the Journal of Public Health Policy on Tuesday, an international team of researchers show that when Coca-Cola has funded public university research, its contracts included language that would allow the company to not only approve any research results before publication in a scientific journal but potentially even prevent publication.
The results appear to run counter to the company’s publicly stated goals of transparency, which it adopted after a 2015 article in The New York Times revealed the company funded scientists who shifted the focus on obesity away from the role of nutrition.
The study examined five research agreements with Louisiana State University, the University of South Carolina, the University of Toronto, and the University of Washington, all of which were formulated before Coca-Cola laid out the following rules for funding research (along its exhaustive list of funded projects):
For all the health and well-being research funding disclosed below, the researchers:
· are expected to conduct research that is factual, transparent, and designed objectively;
· are expected to generate an appropriately phrased hypothesis and to conduct research that will answer the relevant questions, rather than favor a particular outcome;
· have full control of the study design, the execution, and the collection, analysis and interpretation of the data;
· are encouraged to publish; and
· are expected to disclose their funding sources in all publications and public presentations of the data.
The company asserts that it stands by these rules for all research funded since 2010 — even though these agreements happened since then.
“We agree research transparency and integrity are important,” a Coca-Cola spokesperson tells Inverse. “That’s why, since 2016, The Coca-Cola Company has not independently funded research on issues related to health and wellbeing in keeping with research guiding principles that have been posted publicly on our website since that time.”
Not everybody interprets the data this way, though.
“Coca-Cola did not walk its talk,” Gary Ruskin, co-founder and co-director of nonprofit food watchdog US Right to Know and one of the authors on the paper, tells Inverse. “It did not live up to its principles on research funding.”
Ruskin says that he and his colleagues were motivated to pursue this research because of “Coca-Cola’s efforts to evade responsibility for its role in the global obesity epidemic.”
As Harvard’s Susan Greenhalgh, Ph.D., pointed out in a pair of papers in January, Coca-Cola has used its influence in China to steer public health focus away from nutrition and toward physical fitness — minimizing the role of sugary beverages like Coca-Cola. Her conclusion, however, slightly differs from Ruskin’s.
“It’s very interesting to me that these research contracts were put in place since at least 2010, and Coke didn’t get caught until 2015,” she tells Inverse. In other words, she doesn’t think these papers paint Coca-Cola in a terrible light, given that the contracts were not too aggressive toward researchers, even before The New York Times shined a light on its practices.
“This makes the company look like it’s at least trying to be responsible in terms of managing the science,” she says, acknowledging that Coca-Cola’s conduct in this study are “at least a very good legal show of doing the right thing.”
She also noted that the contracts seemed remarkably “above-board.”
“The most damning term was this termination clause, but beyond that they don’t find much evidence for the kinds of influence that I think they were looking for,” she adds.
Perhaps most importantly, the team made recommendations for how researchers can be more transparent with funding in the future.
Even when Coca-Cola was disclosed as a funding source, the nature of the funding agreements with public universities gave it so much leeway to approve or quash the final results that in the future. Therefore, they note, researchers should also be disclosing the full text of the funding agreements to give a fully transparent look at how Coca-Cola’s funding is influencing their research. Greenhalgh agrees with this recommendation.
“I’m not saying all corporate funding is bad or wrong, we just need to know exactly how it’s influencing the science,” she says.
"Companies that sponsor research make sure that they get what they pay for."
Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, has extensively researched the ways in which food industry money skews food science — including the soda industry specifically, as outlined in her 2015 book Soda Politics. Nestle tells Inverse that she thinks the new paper is “jaw-dropping,” and that she couldn’t believe that the researchers were able to obtain this information.
“It demonstrates what we have all long suspected. Companies that sponsor research make sure that they get what they pay for,” she says. “The study documents the involvement of Coca-Cola in many aspects of developing research projects. It is no surprise that its funded research typically comes out with results that are useful for Coca-Cola marketing purposes. Industry funded research is marketing research, not scientific research.”
Abstract: Concerns about conflicts of interest in commercially funded research have generated increasing disclosure requirements, but are these enough to assess influence? Using the Coca-Cola Company as an example, we explore its research agreements to understand influence. Freedom of Information requests identified 87,013 pages of documents, including five agreements between Coca-Cola and public institutions in the United States, and Canada. We assess whether they allowed Coca-Cola to exercise control or influence. Provisions gave Coca-Cola the right to review research in advance of publication as well as control over study data, disclosure of results and acknowledgement of Coca-Cola funding. Some agreements specified that Coca-Cola has the ultimate decision about any publication of peer-reviewed papers prior to its approval of the researchers’ final report. If so desired, Coca-Cola can thus prevent publication of unfavourable research, but we found no evidence of this to date in the emails we received. The documents also reveal researchers can negotiate with funders successfully to remove restrictive clauses on their research. We recommend journals supplement funding disclosures and conflict-of-interest statements by requiring authors to attach funder agreements. by requiring authors to attach funder agreements.