Pass the French fries. New research shows that a group funded by food industry giants undermined China’s efforts to keep obesity rates in check. For years, the group stressed the importance of physical activity instead of focusing on diet.
Companies including McDonald’s, PepsiCo, and Red Bull fund the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), created by a former Coke executive. The group enjoyed close ties to Chinese government health agencies.
Harvard researcher Susan Greenhalgh authored a paper published this week. She says ILSI’s China branch organized obesity conferences focused on physical activity, not food choices. Conference speakers included Coke-funded researchers and a Coke executive. A national exercise program for school children called “Happy 10 Minutes” was modeled after a pet project of the former Coke executive.
Obesity has become an increasing concern in China. Greenhalgh says it's difficult to untangle how much of China’s emphasis on exercise is due to ILSI’s influence. She says ILSI’s actions highlight the difficulty of figuring out how food makers may be “influencing obesity science.”
ILSI officials say the company “does not profess to have been perfect in our 40-year history.” They insist ILSI has instituted guidelines in recent years to ensure scientific truthfulness.
The food industry has long faced criticism that it plays up the importance of physical activity to deflect attention from its unhealthful products.
Mike Donahue, former chief spokesman at McDonald’s, says such efforts may seem sneaky. But he claims they’re meant to put foods in the context of overall lifestyles. In other words, people are gonna eat what they’re gonna eat, so food makers and dealers should focus on what happens after the burger-and-fries fest. Donahue calls it “playing offense rather than defense.”
What do you think about truthfulness in advertising?
Put away falsehood. . . . Speak the truth with [your] neighbor. — Ephesians 4:25
(A young girl mimics the pose of Chinese Olympic athletes depicted in Coca-Cola advertising. New research suggests an organization created by a Coke executive may have influenced Chinese policy. AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)