The soft drink industry is in a full-blown crisis. Soda sales are on a 10-year skid, and laws are being passed to tax and limit their sales, thanks to a growing consensus among health researchers that sugary beverages are the primary culprits behind obesity and related conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Coca Cola’s PR tactics have become increasingly desperate and insidious. A 2013 television commercial suggested that 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 at the time. It recently came out that Coke is using a similar tactic, but with a more serious, respectable veneer, when the New York Times reported the company’s undisclosed ties to the nonprofit astroturf group Global Energy Balance Network, a relationship that included lots of money, and even secretly registering the GEBNs website on its own domain.
This isn’t the first time makers of dangerous products have found ways to claim evidence against them is inconclusive, or have funded supposedly independent research programs that purport to search for the “real” roots of the problem. The tobacco industry stalled for years by using public information campaigns to create 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 ballooned compared to other countries.
Such tactics are sometimes referred to as “misdirection,” which in the case of the tobacco and gun lobbies has been defined as “[altering] the nature of the debate until it is winnable, or at least not loseable. In some instances stalemate will do. If new information arises that shows an existing position to be wrong, move on to another.”
The mission of the GEBN, per its website, is, “To connect and engage multi-disciplinary 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 fact that what you eat is only part of what determines your weight. The other part is how many calories you burn.
This message is particularly dangerous for the simple reason that it’s largely true, and on the surface it’s hard to find fault with a pro-exercise message. But 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; its message implies that if you do more exercise, you can enjoy more Coke.
But while exercise burns calories, it also increases appetite, which can lead to more eating, which can replace all of those burned calories. People who eat more sugar can become insulin-resistant, so their bodies make more insulin, which leads to more fat deposition. And foods that are high in fiber, like nuts, lead to less weight gain per calorie than foods with a similar amount of calories but less fiber, like, say, Coca Cola. While it is possible to outrun a bad diet, there is no question that it’s easier to manage your weight by focusing on what you eat. Much easier. But GEBN threatens to question this reality, just the same, by misdirecting the focus on obesity and related conditions away from diet and toward energy balance.