NEW YORK (Good Medical) – The food industry has dramatically undermined China's efforts to fight obesity, a study released recently said.
A researcher from the Chinese society of Harvard University explained how a group founded by Coca-Cola and other food companies maintained close ties with the Chinese health authorities. The group helped tilt the fight against obesity in the country with the message that exercise makes more importance than dietary habits, which, according to health advocates, is a way to divert attention from the role of food in the diet of obesity.
The International Institute of Life Sciences was established in 1978 by a former Coke executive and has 17 branches worldwide. In China, his small but influential branch has organized physical activity-based obesity conferences, with speakers including Coca-Cola-funded researchers and a Coca-Cola leader, according to the reports. articles published in The BMJ and The Journal of Public Health Policy.
A national exercise program for school children called "Happy 10 Minutes" was also modeled on a favorite project of the former Coke executive who founded ILSI, according to newspapers. The concept could sound familiar to Americans. Coca-Cola has been criticized for its sugary drinks in the United States. In 2013, she aired a television ad showing activities that can burn the "140 calories of happiness" contained in a can of Coca-Cola. Activities included walking a dog, dancing, bowling and sharing a laugh with friends.
In another online advertisement in the United States, the company showed people working in a Coca-Cola can that they consumed fewer calories by riding giant stationary bikes to the sound of carnival music. The phrase "The movement, it's happiness" appears on the screen towards the end.
Susan Greenhalgh, the author of the paper, said it was hard to understand how much of China's emphasis on exercise in recent years can be attributed to the influence of ILSI. But she added that ILSI's activities highlight the difficulty of evaluating how food manufacturers could skew public policies around the world.
"There is virtually no research on the incredibly complex network by which ILSI Global and all its affiliates have influenced the science of obesity," she said.
Chinese health officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, ILSI did not directly address the results of the research but stated that it "does not claim to have been perfect during our 40 years of history". He said he has put in place guidelines in recent years to ensure scientific integrity.
"The journey to cutting-edge scientific research on nutrition and food safety has been complicated. Not surprisingly, there were bumps along the way, "the statement said.
The food industry has long been criticized for emphasizing the importance of physical activity to minimize the role of unhealthy foods and beverages. Mike Donahue, former chief spokesperson for McDonald's, said such efforts could be considered harmful, but aimed at placing food in the context of global lifestyles.
In 2004, for example, McDonald's launched a campaign called "Adult Happy Meals" with pedometers and events in which Ronald McDonald encouraged the exercise. Mr. Donahue said this campaign was in part a preview of the "Super Size Me" documentary, which describes how a McDonald's diet leads to poor health.
"It's an attack that plays rather than defense," he said.
In the United States, prominent politicians and groups often collaborate with food manufacturers in high-profile campaigns to improve public health. However, industry efforts are not always transparent and there is growing interest in discovering the hidden influence of business.
In 2015, Good Medical announced that Coca-Cola was funding a non-profit organization led by researchers in obesity. The Associated Press later obtained e-mails showing Coca-Cola's role in the organization of the non-profit organization. The company was planning a policy campaign to counter the "rhetoric" of "extremists of public health".
In the midst of the negative reactions to the revelations, the Atlanta-based company is committed to being more transparent in its health efforts. In a statement in response to the new document, the company said it recognizes that "too much sugar is not good for anyone" and that it is rethinking how to reduce sugar in its beverages around the world.
While the influence of the food industry in the United States is well established and debated, Greenhalgh said that conflicts of interest and collaboration with industry are not considered problems in China.
"The political discourse around this topic is totally different," she said.
Greenhalgh said the ILSI's influence in China came from its former leader, who remained senior adviser until his death last year. The group still shares an office with a government health agency, but its influence could dissipate without its former director, Greenhalgh said.
Meanwhile, obesity has become a growing concern in China. In 2016, China's new dietary guidelines said that sugary drinks should be discouraged. The following year, obesity was one of the health problems targeted in a government nutrition plan.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The Good Medical is solely responsible for all content.