A group funded by the food industry undermined China's efforts to keep obesity rates in check by overemphasizing the importance of physical activity rather than dietary habits, according to new research.
The International Life Sciences Institute, created in 1978 by a former Coke executive, is funded by companies including McDonald's, PepsiCo and Red Bull. It sponsors scientific research and conferences on food through its 17 international branches.
Susan Greenhalgh, the papers' author and a researcher of Chinese society at Harvard, noted the difficultly in trying to untangle how much of China's emphasis on exercise in recent years can be attributed to ILSI's influence.
But she said ILSI's activities highlight the difficulty in assessing how food makers may be skewing public policy around the world.
Chinese health officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, ILSI did not directly address the research findings but said it "does not profess to have been perfect in our 40-year history".
It said it has instituted guidelines in recent years to ensure scientific integrity.
The food industry has long faced criticism that it plays up the importance of physical activity to deflect attention away from its products. Mike Donahue, former chief spokesman at McDonald's, said such efforts may be seen as nefarious, but are intended to put foods in the context of overall lifestyles.
Donahue said the campaign was partly in anticipation of the documentary "Super Size Me" that detailed how a diet of McDonald's led to poor health. "It's playing offense rather than defense," he said.
In the US, prominent politicians and groups often collaborate with food makers on high-profile campaigns to improve public health. Industry efforts aren't always transparent, however, and there has been growing interest in uncovering businesses' hidden influence.
In 2015, The New York Times reported Coca-Cola was funding a nonprofit led by obesity researchers. The Associated Press subsequently obtained emails showing Coke's role in shaping the nonprofit, which the company envisioned would run a political-style campaign to counter the "shrill rhetoric" of "public health extremists".
Amid backlash over the revelations, the Atlanta-based company pledged to be more transparent about its health efforts. In a statement responding to the new paper, the company said it recognizes that "too much sugar isn't good for anyone" and that it is rethinking how to reduce the sugar in its drinks around the world.
While the food industry's influence in the U.S. is well-established, Greenhalgh said conflicts of interest and collaboration with industry are not seen as problems in China.
"The whole political discourse around it is totally different," she said.
Greenhalgh said ILSI's influence in China stemmed from its former leader, who remained a senior adviser until her death last year. The group still shares an office with a government health agency, but its influence may be waning without its former director, Greenhalgh said.
Meanwhile, obesity has become an increasing concern in China. In 2016, China's updated dietary guidelines said sugary drinks should be discouraged.
The following year, obesity and was one of the health issues targeted in a government nutrition plan.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)