[Marxism] Research Details How Junk Food Companies Influence China’s Nutrition Policy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 10 08:29:28 MST 2019

NY Times, Jan. 10, 2019
Research Details How Junk Food Companies Influence China’s Nutrition Policy
By Andrew Jacobs

Happy 10 Minutes, a Chinese government campaign that encouraged 
schoolchildren to exercise for 10 minutes a day, would seem a laudable 
step toward improving public health in a nation struggling with alarming 
rates of childhood obesity.

But the initiative and other official Chinese efforts that emphasized 
exercise as the best way to lose weight were notable for what they 
didn’t mention: the importance of cutting back on the calorie-laden junk 
foods and sugary beverages that have become ubiquitous in the world’s 
second largest economy.

China’s fitness-is-best message, as it happens, has largely been the 
handiwork of Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants, 
according to a pair of new studies that document how those companies 
have helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on 
obesity and diet-related illnesses like Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

The findings, published Wednesday in The BMJ and The Journal of Public 
Health Policy, show how Coca-Cola and other multinational food 
companies, operating through a group called the International Life 
Sciences Institute, cultivated key Chinese officials in an effort to 
stave off the growing movement for food regulation and soda taxes that 
has been sweeping the west.

The group, known as ILSI, is a worldwide organization with a Washington 
headquarters, funded by many of the biggest names in snack foods, 
including Nestlé, McDonald’s, Pepsi Co. and Yum! Brands as well as 
Coca-Cola. It has 17 branches, most of them in emerging economies like 
Mexico, India, South Africa and Brazil, and promotes itself as a bridge 
between scientists, government officials and multinational food companies.

But in China, ILSI is so well-placed that it runs its operations from 
inside the government’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in 
Beijing. In fact, when asked to comment on the studies, the ministry 
emailed a statement not from a government official but from ILSI’s China 

The director, Chen Junshi, said that the group had always emphasized the 
importance of both exercise and a well-balanced diet, and that its 
activities “are based on science and are not affected by any business.”

The close relationship with the highest government health policymakers 
goes significantly beyond what the companies have been able to achieve 
in the West.

Coca-Cola tried similar tactics in the United States by partnering with 
influential scientists and creating a nonprofit called the Global Energy 
Balance Network to promote a message that exercise, not dieting, was the 
solution to the nation’s obesity crisis. But in 2015, after an article 
in The New York Times on the efforts and subsequent outcry from public 
health advocates, the company disbanded the organization.

In China, beginning in the late 1990s, ILSI organized obesity 
conferences, paid the way of Chinese scientists who attended the events 
and helped create national health campaigns aimed at tackling the 
country’s obesity epidemic, according to Susan Greenhalgh, a social 
scientist and China expert at Harvard who is the author of both studies.

China’s public health initiatives almost always promote exercise, and 
they seldom mention the value of cutting calories or reducing the 
consumption of processed food and sugar-sweetened beverages, which many 
experts say is essential for losing weight, keeping it off, and 
improving health.

“You can’t use physical activity alone to get rid of obesity, 
hypertension or diabetes,” said Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition 
at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Professor Popkin was not involved in the study, but he has spent decades 
working in China to help the country develop nutrition guidelines and 
food policy — efforts he said were often thwarted by well-placed 
officials aligned with ILSI.

Given his experience, he said Professor Greenhalgh’s findings were not 
surprising. “Over the course of several decades, Coke and ILSI have 
worked to prevent any kind of food policy that would benefit public 
health,” he said. “What they’ve been doing in China is insidious.”

In a statement, ILSI said it was committed to backing “evidence-based 
food and nutrition research” and that it did not conduct lobbying 
activities or make policy recommendations in the countries where it 

“ILSI does not profess to have been perfect in our 40-year history,” the 
statement said. “Not surprisingly, there have been bumps along the way. 
This is why ILSI has analyzed best practices and has committed to 
ensuring scientific integrity in nutrition and food sector research.”

Coca-Cola said in a statement that it had also been changing the way it 
funded scientific research through greater transparency and by ending 
its practice of providing the lion’s share of money for studies. In 
recent years, it added, Coca-Cola has sought to address mounting obesity 
in China by offering an array of new sugar-free beverages and through 
improved nutrition labeling on products. “We recognize that too much 
sugar isn’t good for anyone,” it said.

Professor Greenhalgh’s findings were based on interviews with Chinese 
officials and scientists, and a review of public documents produced by 
Coca-Cola and ILSI.

She said the industry efforts have been wildly successful, in part 
because China lacks a free media or watchdog organizations that might 
have been critical of the relationship.

In just a few decades, China has gone from a nation plagued by food 
shortages to one buffeted by soaring obesity and chronic diseases tied 
to poor diet. More than 42 percent of adults in China are overweight or 
obese, according to Chinese researchers, more than double the rate in 
1991. In Chinese cities, nearly a fifth of all children are obese, 
according to government surveys.

The increases closely follow growing prosperity in China that began in 
the 1980s as Beijing embraced market economics after decades of 
isolation. In 1978, Coca-Cola was among the first companies allowed into 
the country, and ILSI arrived soon afterward. Seeking to identify 
influential scientists it could work with, the group found a partner in 
Chen Chunming, a leading nutritionist who was the founding president of 
the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, the forerunner of China’s C.D.C.

In 1993, Ms. Chen became the head of ILSA-China and she remained a 
senior adviser to the organization until her death last year. Professors 
Greenhalgh and Popkin said that Ms. Chen was instrumental in stymying 
attempts to address soaring obesity by stressing the harmful impact of 
consuming highly processed food and sugary soft drinks.

In interviews, several Chinese nutrition experts said they were not 
bothered by the relationship between ILSI and multinational beverage 
companies like Coca-Cola, and they defended the integrity of ILSI-backed 
researchers, praising their professional bona fides. He Jiguo, a 
nutrition professor at the College of Food Science and Nutritional 
Engineering at China Agricultural University, said that Coca-Cola had 
only amplified the notion that exercise is essential to human health, an 
idea long espoused by China’s ruling Communist Party.

“The key is that no matter what Cola-Cola or other beverage companies 
say, these drinks are just a product,” he said. “No one is being forced 
to buy them.”

With sweetened beverage consumption dropping in the United States and 
Europe, Coca-Cola increasingly views China and other developing 
countries as essential to maintaining profits. China is the company’s 
third largest market.

Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School 
of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said ILSI and other industry-funded 
groups that represent the interests of the tobacco, alcohol and 
fast-food companies have found fertile ground in poorer nations with 
weak public health bureaucracies.

Professor McKee, who wrote an editorial in the BMJ that accompanies the 
study, said such groups often claim to be independent think tanks but 
refuse to disclose detailed information about their funding.

These groups, he said, support and publicize scientific studies whose 
results sometimes muddy the waters on contentious issues like smoking or 
alcohol and soda consumption.

“They often cherry pick data in ways that mislead while portraying these 
issues as so terribly complex that nothing can be done,” he said.

Claire Fu and Zoe Mou contributed research from Beijing.

More information about the Marxism mailing list