The food and beverage industry has a history of influencing public-health research by funding favorable studies. A study published this week suggests that Coca-Cola also used its grants to do the reverse: Several of its corporate contracts with American and Canadian universities allowed the company to terminate research projects without reason‚ a practice that consumer advocates have heavily criticized as biased.
The study, published on Wednesday in the Journal of Public Health Policy, examines research agreements with four universities: Louisiana State University, the University of South Carolina, the University of Toronto, and the University of Washington. While these contracts are fairly common within the industry, according to the authors (one of whom is affiliated with U.S. Right to Know, a non-profit consumer advocacy group), they do give funders a lot of leeway to oversee or even bury research findings.
Through 87,000 documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, the researchers found that some of the contracts include provisions giving Coca-Cola the right to review research and control the disclosure of the corporation's funding. "The emails we obtained reveal that academic partners recognize Coca-Cola's influence on the research it funds, even where it is not directing the research," the study authors wrote.
Still, the authors acknowledge that Coca-Cola regularly encouraged researchers to publish peer-reviewed work and delayed publication only to protect its patents. A representative for Coca-Cola reached for this story reiterated that the company "has not independently funded research on issues related to health and well-being in keeping with research guiding principles" since 2016, when it began posting transparency guidelines on its website.
However, another study published last year found that these guidelines are often lacking: In an assessment of nearly 400 studies that cited Coca-Cola funding, the researchers found that the company only acknowledged funding less than 5 percent of them on its website.
"The contracts often—though not always—allow the companies sponsoring the research to influence interests, and influence often in ways that are hard to gather from the outside," says U.S. Right to Know co-director Gary Ruskin, one of the authors of the new study. "This is part of the broader problem of corporate corruption in science and corporate corruption in health."
In one of the documents cited in the study, University of Toronto professor John Sievenpiper complained that the university's contract with the company was "very restrictive for an 'unrestricted grant.'" (Sievenpiper told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation over email that Coca-Cola never interfered with his research.)
Ruskin and his co-author, University of Cambridge sociologist Sarah Steele, did not find an instance of Coca-Cola terminating an unfavorable study. But they warn that the possibility is enough to bias research. Other public-health researchers have found that some studies funded by Coca-Cola emphasized the role of exercise over diet in Type 2 diabetes and obesity—a public-relations win for the corporation that could have far-reaching impacts if used to influence federal public-health guidelines.
As public-health researcher Marion Nestle revealed in her 2018 book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, food corporations have long worked to manipulate the public by secretly bankrolling public-sector research. And Americans are already feeling the effects: Studies with conflicts of interest have misled consumers, fueled unscientific diet fads, and influenced experts who have gone on to advise the U.S. Department of Agriculture.