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Looking for health advice? Dr. Coca-Cola will see you now

October 22, 2009 |  2:01 pm

When the American Academy of Family Physicians announced it had received a substantial grant to enhance educational information about nutrition on its FamilyDoctor.org site, you’d think health experts would have been happy.

But the money was earmarked to focus on the role of beverages and sweeteners in a healthy diet. And it came from the world’s largest beverage maker, the Coca-Cola Co.

Coke No, “happy” isn’t exactly the word to describe the way some health experts feel about this deal. “Distressed” and “disappointed” are more like it, according to a sharply worded letter sent Wednesday to Dr. Douglas E. Henley, the academy’s chief executive.

“We urge the AAFP to regain its credibility by rejecting the deal with Coca-Cola,” the letter stated. “If the AAFP declines to do that, we urge your organization to reassert its support for the public health (and its own independence) by supporting a warning label on caloric sugar-sweetened beverages and a federal tax on soft drinks to support health promotion or health insurance programs.”

The letter was signed by 22 doctors, nutritionists and health advocates, including obesity experts Dr. George Bray of Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Dr. Matthew Gillman of Harvard Medical School, and Barry Popkin, director of the University of North Carolina's Interdisciplinary Obesity Center. It asks Henley to respond to Michael Jacobson, executive director of the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, a leading proponent of a soda tax.

The letter noted that soda is “the only food or beverage that has been demonstrated to promote overweight and obesity.” (Click here for an L.A. Times story on the scientific studies that support this claim.) But the signatories warned that the six-figure grant from Coca-Cola will prevent the doctors group from “criticizing sugar-sweetened beverages in the strongest language.”

In its own statement, Jacobson's group noted that Coca-Cola – which sells 1.6 billion servings of beverages each day – has a track record of partnering with health groups:

“In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists took a $1 million payment from Coca-Cola. Before the payment, the dentists' group acknowledged the connection between sugary drinks and dental disease. But after the payment, the president of the AAPD told reporters that the ‘scientific evidence is certainly not clear’ on the role soft drinks play.”

American Family Physician, the academy's journal, published an article last year recommending that children and teens “consume no more than one serving of sweetened beverages (e.g., fruit juice, fruit drink, regular-calorie soft drink, sports drink, energy drink, sweetened or flavored milk, sweetened iced tea) per day.”

But today, FamilyDoctor.org advises parents of overweight children only to cut down on fast food and dessert. It makes no mention of soda or other sweetened drinks.

Henley told Food Navigator-USA.com that the academy was aware of the letter. But he stood by the partnership with Coke.

“We will move forward with this commitment together by providing educational materials on sweeteners and how to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle while still enjoying many of the foods and beverages consumers love,” he said in a statement.

Celeste Bottorff, Coca-Cola North America’s vice president of living well (yes, that’s actual her title), told FoodNavigatorUSA.com that the company has a long history of philanthropy that includes “many health organizations.”

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Would you trust health advice from the makers of this drink? Credit: Amy Sancetta / Associated Press

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