The Pennington Biomedical Research Center has been caught in the cross-hairs in an ongoing debate over ethics in research funding.

In a front-page story on Sunday, The New York Times raised questions about the relationship between Coca-Cola and obesity research it has funded — including a recent study at Pennington in Baton Rouge.

Critics have slammed the beverage giant for promoting what they say are misleading claims about the causes of obesity. According to The New York Times, Coca-Cola has teamed up with influential scientists to advance studies that point to physical activity as the key culprit. Those studies tend to downplay the role of eating healthy, which could have a negative impact on the sugary soda market.

The Coca-Cola-funded Pennington study, which will be in the journal “Obesity,” was announced in a news release last week that included a disclaimer noting the research was funded by the company. In it, researchers concluded that physical activity is the biggest predictor of childhood obesity around the world.

“We know that diet and exercise play significant roles in overall health and weight management, but I was surprised to see that physical activity makes an even bigger impact on children’s weight than we previously thought,” one of the study’s authors, Dr. Peter Katzmarzyk, said in the release. Katzmarzyk is Pennington’s associate executive director of population science and public health.

Critics argue that those results feed into the long-standing position that Coke has pushed to explain away the obesity epidemic.

“This was a standard study funded by Coca-Cola that produced results favorable to Coca-Cola’s marketing interests,” one of the Times-quoted critics, Marion Nestle, said in an email to The Advocate.

Nestle is a New York University professor and the author of the book “Soda Politics.” She also runs a blog called FoodPolitics.com, where she keeps track of studies sponsored by food and beverage companies. There, she has recently pointed out a study sponsored by the American Egg Board and Egg Nutrition Center that dismissed suggestions that eggs increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and a study funded by the national pork board that reportedly found benefits to substituting pork in place of chicken or fish.

Pennington spokeswoman Alisha Prather said she isn’t surprised by the attention the topic is getting, but that critics shouldn’t focus only on funding sources.

“More research is needed on both diet and physical activity to derive long-term solutions to the obesity epidemic,” she said. “This study looked at all aspects of the topic including lifestyle, exercise and diet.”

Prather said Pennington went to extra lengths to prevent conflicts in the Coca-Cola-funded research, even creating an external advisory board to monitor the progress of the study and provide peer review.

“The research we do is transparent because our science is our stock-in-trade. We go to great lengths to protect the participants in our research studies to ensure that we are generating sound science — and we disclose funding sources and potential conflicts of interest in our published papers and press releases,” Prather said.

Nestle said Coca-Cola-funded investigators always say that the research is above board, but they almost always produce results that the company can use to deflect attention away from soda’s negative effects and bolster sales.

“By this time, the evidence linking sugary drinks to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other conditions is pretty convincing,” she said. “Investigators can accept industry funding if they like, but they shouldn’t expect anyone to believe it.”

Pennington’s research is funded through a variety of governmental, nonprofit and industry sponsors. About 65 percent of its research is paid for by the federal government through the National Institutes of Health and other means. About 11 percent comes from the state, while 10 percent comes from subcontracts, 8 percent from food industry, 5 percent pharmaceutical and 2 percent private.

Dubbed the International Study of Childhood Obesity, Lifestyle and the Environment, Prather said that’s the only Coca-Cola-funded active study on Pennington’s roster.

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