- A study by the University of Cambridge found evidence of Coca-Cola striking agreements with five public universities that gave the soda manufacturer the ability to review and "terminate without reason" or "quash" health studies it funded. The researchers assessed 87,000 documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
- The study was published in the Journal of Public Health Policy and references contracts that were made between Coca-Cola and Louisiana State University, University of South Carolina, University of Toronto and University of Washington between 2015 and 2016.
- "We agree research transparency and integrity are important," Coca-Cola told Food Dive in an email. "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."
Similar to other large companies, Coca-Cola has poured millions of dollars into scientific research throughout the years. However, after facing public scrutiny and demands for more transparency, the company made a commitment in 2015 to disclose funding for scientific research and partnerships publicly every six months. That disclosure of funding though didn't include the fine print that showed, in some cases, Coke had the right to provide comments on the research and terminate those projects at any time, without reason.
Although the study didn't find any concrete examples of the company killing research projects, the researchers claim it is just as important that those provisions existed. With Coca-Cola hovering in the background, scientists could have been wary of finding links between the soda company and the country's growing obesity epidemic.
"With the power to trumpet positive findings and bury negative ones, Coke-funded science seems more like an exercise in public relations," Gary Ruskin, the author of the study and co-director of U.S. Right to Know, told the University of Cambridge.
As more soda taxes target the sugary drink market across the U.S. and reports continue to show that big food companies aren't doing enough to help consumers eat healthy, soda sales have slowly been slipping. Even Coke, who still primarily relies on soda sales for their revenue, has looked elsewhere to build its portfolio out with beverages like coffee and sparkling water.
Still Coca-Cola has not given up the fight to grow the brand that made it famous. Some of these efforts, however, have been questioned. For years, studies have found evidence that the food and beverage industry giants pressured officials to influence regulation. Most recently, another report showed emails exchanged between Coca-Cola employees and officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2011 to 2015 show the company trying to influence the World Health Organization to push exercise instead of diet to solve obesity. This effort echoes the Atlanta-based company’s efforts in China where it helped fund a group to shape the country's obesity policy to focus on exercise and not diet.
Although Coca-Cola has committed to transparency on paper, it's website might not be fully accurate. The company's transparency site reports that Coke donated more than $1 million to the CDC Foundation, but a recent report showed that while the foundation's records noted additional gifts from Coca-Cola in 2016 and 2017, they do not appear on the site. The discrepancy compounded with the newfound clauses that allowed the company to quash scientific research could call into question how effective these new transparency measures may be.
While this finding may not have rocked the boat several years ago, today consumers are demanding transparency and willing to switch brands to get it. The Transparency Imperative shows that 93% of consumers want to know detailed information about the food they are consuming — a dramatic increase from 39% in 2016.