- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - Coca-Cola disclosed Tuesday that it spent $118.6 million on health research and partnerships in the U.S. over the past five years, including funding for a group that was criticized for downplaying the role of sugary drinks in fueling obesity.

The world’s biggest beverage maker had vowed last month to be more transparent about the various health programs and messaging it funds. The pledge came after a New York Times story detailed the company’s financial support for the Global Energy Balance Network. The story said the group promotes the idea that people are overly fixated on how much they’re eating and drinking, rather than how much they’re exercising.

In a video announcing the network, one of the group’s leaders had said the media focuses on “eating too much, eating too much, eating too much - blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks, and so on.”

Some health and nutrition advocates say it has become common for food companies to try and deflect criticism about their products by talking about the need for more physical activity.

Following criticism sparked by the New York Times story, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent said he was disappointed the company’s actions created “more confusion and mistrust” and vowed to be more transparent. The maker of Sprite, Dasani and Powerade said its effort will start in the U.S., then expand internationally.

“We understand that our efforts on obesity are not always seen as credible,” said Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, in a phone interview. “What we’re doing today is just a first step.”

Douglas said the company is putting together an advisory committee that will shape its health efforts. He said the committee could include parties that have been highly critical of the company, although he declined to provide specifics.

In a post on its website, Coca-Cola said it spent $21.8 million on scientific research since 2010. It also spent $96.8 million on “health and well-being partnerships,” including payments to dozens of dietitians and others who share their views with the public.

In March, The Associated Press reported that Coca-Cola had worked with fitness and nutrition experts who each suggested a mini-Coke or mini-soda as a snack in columns for American Hearth Month. The pieces appeared on nutrition blogs and other sites in February.

Coca-Cola’s website lets users search its partnerships and research efforts by keyword and year. The organizations it has provided money to include The Obesity Society and the American Diabetes Association. The company noted that several health experts it has worked with declined to have their names listed on the site.

Yoni Freedhoff, a nutrition and obesity expert at the University of Ottawa, said the disclosures by Coca-Cola provide a degree of transparency, but said the information doesn’t necessarily capture what the company got in return from the organizations.

“Consciously or unconsciously, (the organizations) might pause before saying anything that would in turn be negative for their funders,” Freedhoff said.

The Global Energy Balance Network previously had not listed its funding source on its website, but posted it after Freedhoff pointed out the oversight to the group. The network has said that the suggestion that its work promotes “the idea that exercise is more important than diet in addressing obesity vastly oversimplifies this complex issue.”

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Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi


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