Coca Cola and other U.S. junk food companies appear to have discreetly influenced China's nutrition policy through a nonprofit group with close ties to China's health officials.

International Life Sciences Institute

A new research traced how the nonprofit group called the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) helped undermine the country's fight against obesity with a message that exercise is more important than diet, a claim that health advocates say diverts the attention on food as an important factor in driving the obesity epidemic.

ILSI, whose current membership include various food and beverage organizations such as McDonald's, Nestlé, and PepsiCo and had connections with the tobacco industry, was founded by Coca-Cola executive Alex Malaspina in 1978 and has since been operating as a nonprofit body.

The institute now has 17 international branches, including one in China.

According to Harvard University anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh and colleagues who conducted the study, ILSI-China enjoyed close ties with the Chinese government. Its office is even housed within the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Influencing China's Public Health Policies

The researchers said ILSI has even led the way in guiding the country's public health research and priorities. They found that from 2004 to 2015, ILSI-China sponsored six international conferences on obesity, which often featured scientists who promote the idea that exercise, not diet, plays the key role in preventing and lowering rates of obesity. These scientists also oftentimes receive money from the industry.

A government campaign dubbed Happy 10 Minutes encourages Chinese children to exercise for at least 10 minutes every day without mentioning to cut back on junk food and sugary beverages.

"Through a complex web of institutional, financial, and personal linkages, Coke was able to influence China's health establishment. Though the effect on official obesity policy cannot be precisely measured, China's policies aligned well with Coke's position as transmitted through ILSI-China," Greenhalgh wrote.

ILSI's Response

In response to the report, ILSI spokeswoman Kristin DiNicolantonio said the institute does not lobby, do lobbying activities or make policy recommendations.

"Because of its unique public-private structure, ILSI fills knowledge gaps and serves society in ways that any one entity on its own cannot," DiNicolantonio said.

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