Back in August, the New York Times called attention to the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) a group that describes itself as a "not-for-profit organization dedicated to identifying and implementing innovative solutions–based on the science of energy balance–to prevent and reduce diseases associated with inactivity, poor nutrition and obesity."
The group, as the Times reported, had received a not insignificant amount of funding from Coca Cola, calling into question its credibility as a research organization. From the Times:
Coke has made a substantial investment in the new nonprofit. In response to requests based on state open-records laws, two universities that employ leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network disclosed that Coke had donated $1.5 million last year to start the organization… Records show that the network’s website, gebn.org, is registered to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, and the company is also listed as the site’s administrator.
Not only was GEBN's relationship with its corporate backer cause for concern, but the whole concept of "energy balance" was itself suspect. Energy balance is just that: the interaction between the calories you ingest and those you burn. GEBN contends that to lose weight, you should just burn more calories than you take in—functionally, spend more time on the treadmill instead of drinking less Coke. But experts say that's not an effective way to think about weight loss, which is much more complicated. The idea of energy balance as a diet strategy is largely an invention of the fast food industry.
Still James O. Hill, a University of Colorado School of Medicine professor and president of GEBN, told the Times that Coca Cola's influence on the group was minimal. "They’re not running the show… We’re running the show," he said.
Since then, the University of Colorado returned $1 million of that donation.
And on Tuesday, a new report from The Associated Press shows that internal emails suggest Coke did indeed hold quite a bit of influence over GEBN. The AP explains:
Emails obtained by The Associated Press show the world's largest beverage maker was instrumental in shaping the Global Energy Balance Network… Coke helped pick the group's leaders, edited its mission statement and suggested articles and videos for its website.
In one email, Hill apparently wrote to a Coke executive, "I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples' lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them." Someone from Coke's team wrote that the retailer hoped GEBN would, "quickly establish itself as the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue."
In another email, Rhona Applebaum, who was then Coke's chief health and science officer, described GEBN as "Akin to a political campaign." She added, "we will develop, deploy and evolve a powerful and multi-faceted strategy to counter radical organizations and their proponents."
In another email, Applebaum commented on GEBN's logo, saying "color will not be an issue—except for blue. Hope you can understand why." (Blue is Pepsi's color. GEBN's logo is orange, yellow and burgundy.)
Coca Cola told the AP that Applebaum has since resigned. The company's CEO Muhtar Kent added, "it has become clear to us that there was not a sufficient level of transparency with regard to the company's involvement with the Global Energy Balance Network." The soda brand has also stopped working with GEBN.
Hill insisted to the AP that Coke was largely "hands off," and that the brand's interference with their work was limited to "organizational structure."
It seems that GEBN is moving away from any efforts to position itself as a prominent source for media—links to its Facebook page and Twitter account are broken on its website. The link to the group's Instagram account works, but @gebnetwork only has 310 followers and 24 posts at this writing.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.