Food

Uncovered Coca-Cola Emails Expose 3 Ways Big Food Casts Doubt on Science, Endangering Public Health

Big Food has a bag of tricks it uses to deliberately mislead the public.

Photo Credit: TY Lim/Shutterstock

An email thread involving industry-backed food organizations and former Coca-Cola executives offers a rare window into the tactics food companies use to counter dietary warnings put forth by government health agencies when the warnings have the potential to damage the corporations' bottom lines.

The emails, obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request, were exchanged between Michael Ernest Knowles and Alex Malaspina, both of whom have held prominent positions within Coca-Cola, and the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an industry-fronted food organization.

The thread began with a message sent internally by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), another food industry group. It outlined the IFIC’s initial response to the publication of the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which Health.gov notes is "designed to help Americans eat a healthier diet."

Published by the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments, the document is shaped with the help of input from dozens of health and nutrition experts who make up the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) and is producted every five years. The day before the guidelines were published, DGAC published its recommendations, which included warnings to Americans about eating too much red meat and processed meat and drinking too many sugary beverages.

In response to that initial document, IFIC organized a conference call between a number of food experts who objected to some of the recommendations made by DGAC and more than 40 journalists and food bloggers. "This IFIC media call is a great example of how the industry should respond to biased, non-scientifically based recommendations," wrote Knowles in one of his emails. "It's after the event of course but will no doubt be successful in ensuring that they do not get adopted as written."

Indeed, when the final guidelines came out, they failed to recommend a wholesale reduction in red and processed meat consumption.

"The food and agricultural industries are incredibly powerful and successful in making Congress and federal agencies do what they want," said Gary Ruskin, co-director and founder of U.S. Right to Know, the nonprofit food industry watchdog that obtained the emails. "These are major institutions that they just are able to manipulate so cold-heartedly and effectively."

An IFIC spokesperson wrote in a statement to AlterNet that the organization seeks to discredit information based on what it calls "objectively bad science" driving unfounded health decisions. "And when we critique a study or a nutrition claim for not being evidence-based, we do it transparently and the work is done by credentialed experts," the spokesperson added.

Ruskin co-authored a paper, recently published in the journal Critical Public Health, which used the email thread to identify some of the ways the food industry accomplishes these goals:

1. Shape existing data, and create new studies: Knowles writes that, in order to drive the narrative surrounding obesity, "we have to use external organizations in addition to any work we directly commission."

2. Work with scientific organizations: Knowles recommends that industry representatives use their positions on scientific boards to the benefit of food companies, and urges them to attain “leadership roles in the key ones and push for individual issues to be addressed by public conferences/workshops."

3. Curry favor with policymakers: The European Union, Knowles writes, is pressing for "greater international collaboration" with the U.S., and he suggests that "we should encourage this through ILSI and our academic contacts."

It's hardly breaking news that the food industry uses methods like these, admitted Ivy Ken, professor of sociology at George Western University. "I would like to say they're shocking, but they're part of the bag of tricks these organizations and these companies typically dip into," she said. "Emails like this reveal that these companies are deliberately trying to mislead the public."

The dietary guidelines affect the types of foods served in schools, as well as the shape of federal food assistance programs. According to Ken, the USDA is "completely" in the pocket of the food industry. "I think they’re nearly useless," she said, about the dietary guidelines. "They have really just become a vehicle for industry."

The question of what constitutes a healthy diet has rarely been more pertinent due to rising adult obesity rates, exceeding 35 percent in some states. 

ILSI failed to respond to a request for comment.

Daniel Ross is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in AlterNet, The Guardian, FairWarning, Newsweek, and a number of other publications.
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