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Coca-Cola responds to criticism over research funding

Coca-Cola wants you to know that it’s sorry. Well, “disappointed” is the word that CEO Muhtar Kent uses in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal published Wednesday evening.

The CEO was responding to a storm of criticism directed at the soft-drink company after The New York Times revealed that Coca-Cola has contributed millions of dollars to a new non-profit called the Global Energy Balance Network. The non-profit advances the controversial argument through academic papers, conferences and social media that obesity is primarily the result of inactivity, not the overconsumption of calories.

In Wednesday’s op-ed, Coca-Cola’s CEO writes: “By supporting research and nonprofit organizations, we seek to foster more science-based knowledge to better inform the debate about how best to deal with the obesity epidemic. We have never attempted to hide that.” He adds that Coca-Cola will continue to invest in research, but with more transparency. It will begin publishing on its website a list of its partnerships and funded research activities.

Kent also wrote that Coca-Cola will create an oversight committee of independent experts who will advise the company on future research investments.

However, he stopped short of addressing the criticism of the nonprofit, which one New York University professor called a “front group for Coca-Cola.” Health experts have responded angrily to the Global Energy Balance Network’s introductory video, in which VP Steven Blair said that there was “virtually no compelling evidence” for the scientific consensus that fast food and sugary drinks contribute to obesity. (Blair has since taken down the video and walked back his statement.) “Committed to acting with integrity when serving our customers and our communities, Coca-Cola has always believed that a healthy diet and regular exercise are essential for a healthy lifestyle,” Kent wrote.

For years, Coca-Cola has tried to shift the blame for America’s obesity problem to sedentary lifestyles rather than poor diets. In another op-ed in the Wall Street Journal published six years ago, Kent argued vehemently against a proposed soda tax. “If we’re genuinely interested in curbing obesity, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that it’s not just about calories in,” he wrote. “It’s also about calories out.”

As Americans become more health-conscious, Coca-Cola and other sugary companies have fallen into the crosshairs. Last year marked a full decade of declining soft drink sales. In response, Coca-Cola has doubled down on investments in lower-calorie versions of its drinks and diversified away from carbonated soft drinks.