A non-profit anti-obesity research group backed by Coca-Cola is discontinuing operations after public health authorities called into question the group's mission to examine the link between obesity and soft drinks.

The Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) promoted increased exercise over making dietary changes to combat obesity, contradicting research that linked sweetened beverages to weight gain. In addition, studies show that in terms of weight loss, diet is more important than exercise, as noted by Phillip Stanforth, exercise science professor at the University of Texas and the executive director at the Fitness Institute of Texas.

In a statement posted on the group's website, GEBN explained that it was shutting down due to limited resources. The action was effective promptly.

"We appreciate the commitment to energy balance that the membership has demonstrated since our inception," said GEBN, adding that the group encourages members to pursue and engage in applying and advancing the science of energy balance to achieve healthier living.

Coca-Cola's financial support for GEBN prompted criticism from experts who said that the company was attempting to shape research regarding obesity and cut criticism off its products.

GEBN earlier said that it received an unrestricted gift from Coke and that its research was not influenced by the soft drink company.

However, news reports revealed emails showing how Coke helped select the leaders of GEBN, edited the group's mission statement, and recommended content for the website. The emails showed that Coke wanted to turn GEBN into "the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue," as well as a platform to conduct campaigns that counter the advocacy of "public health extremists."

Public health authorities said Coke was using strategies that were once applied by the tobacco industry, in which they enlisted the help of experts to raise doubts about the health threats of smoking.

GEBN was first led by a professor from the University of Colorado. In November, the University of Colorado returned a $1 million grant provided by Coke to support GEBN.

Obesity expert Yoni Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa believes the disbanding of the group was due to its credibility loss.

"I think ultimately the Global Energy Balance Network was a megaphone for Coca-Cola," said Freedhoff, who was also one of the first to raise questions about GEBN.

"And now that Coca-Cola is no longer providing the funds to support that megaphone, it's shutting down. I think that speaks to the purpose of the establishment of this group," he added.

Photo: Jacqui Brown | Flickr

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