Health research bankrolled by Coca-Cola at universities in Canada and the U.S. included provisions allowing the beverage giant to quash studies midway, in a move potentially allowing the firm to shut down projects that are counter to its interests, according to a new study.
Researchers at Cambridge University and other institutions analyzed more than 87,000 documents obtained from freedom-of-information requests to public universities in North America related to research funding contracts with Coca-Cola between 2015 and 2018.
They found Coca-Cola exercised its right to cancel funding for studies several times; the company did not have to provide reasons for its decision.
Sarah Steele, a Cambridge professor of public policy and co-author of the study published this week in the Journal of Public Health, said the contracts gave Coca-Cola licence to terminate research without cause — and the company could keep control over data the researchers gathered.
Direct involvement in public health research by firms with a financial stake in the issue can make it difficult for consumers to understand when information has been compromised by business interests, she said.
As concerns grow over links between soft drinks and conditions like obesity and diabetes — along with worries over health impacts from energy drinks and artificial sweeteners — she said nutrition research has become a battleground with real-world consequences.
Steele said companies have not always been up front about their involvement.
“We certainly know that Big Food and Drink are taking a lot of plays out of Big Tobacco’s playbook,” Steele said in a phone interview. “Big multinationals have pledged transparency…. What we see here is evidence that those wonderful PR statements don’t actually measure up to what’s in the legal documents that researchers sign.”
She said Coca-Cola could have quashed “anything not favourable to their interests.”
Contract provisions did not give Coca-Cola day-to-day control over researchers working on studies financed by the company, she said.
In some agreements, the Atlanta-based multinational could, however, provide comments on research projects prior to their publication in an academic journal. Scholars could reject those comments, she added.
But in an era where professors, especially those who don’t have tenure, are increasingly looking to the private sector for financial support, and when university jobs are often tied to securing outside cash, Steele questioned whether all academics would ignore the company’s comments.
She could not point to a specific instance where Coca-Cola terminated research that was going in a direction it didn’t like.
In emails obtained for the study, one scientist expressed uncertainty over the termination of a project by the company. “They have not communicated with us in several months,” the scientist said, also raising concerns over intellectual property rights for the data. It’s unclear what specifically the scientist was researching.
Another scientist complained in emails to Coca-Cola that its contract was “very restrictive for an ‘unrestricted grant.'”
Coca-Cola said its rules on research funding changed in 2016 so the firm will only support research if 50 per cent of the project is financed by others. In other words, it believes issues raised by the study have been addressed.
The company has also posted health and wellness research it financed between 2010 and 2016 on its website, in a move to increase transparency.
“We agree research transparency and integrity are important,” a company spokesperson said via email. “Research funded by the Coca-Cola Company … is expected to be conducted in accordance with our publicly stated approach to funding scientific research, including the fact that we do not have the right to prevent the publication of research results nor do we provide funding conditioned on the outcome of the research.”
At the University of Toronto, Coca-Cola provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for research to staff studying health issues, including John Sievenpiper, a professor of nutritional sciences.
“Coca-Cola never interfered with our research or tried to exert influence over our research findings,” Sievenpiper said via email.
He said he had concerns with the initial wording of the research contract, and Coca-Cola was amenable to changing it so the funding would come as an unrestricted grant.
“The original wording of the agreement was changed so that Coca-Cola could not ‘quash’ our research,” he said, adding that he hasn’t had further funding agreements with the company for the past five or six years.
‘What does Coke know?’
For her part, Steele wants academic journals to include information about contracts signed between sponsors and researchers as part of publication, so readers can see potential conflicts of interest and the terms of financing deals.
“All the available measures for the public to gauge bias are not really stacking up,” she said. “We know that industry money strongly influences outcomes and recommendations found in studies on health and nutrition.”
The crucial worry for consumers, she said, is possible sins of omission — studies with important health information that companies might have quashed before they became public.
Tobacco companies, for instance, knew their products were harmful based on their own internal data long before that information became accepted by scientists, regulators and the public, according to a paper from the World Health Organization.
“The big question is,” said Steele, “what does Coke know about research that has never seen the light of day?”