Sugar Coated

Nine years ago, John Foreyt, a psychologist at Baylor College of Medicine, was shown the cure for fatness.

To say he discovered it would be inaccurate. It was invented by Positive Power Products, a California-based company that teamed up with an infomercial production company to trumpet the majestic news to the world. Plus, that production company also ran infomercials hawking the Oak Ridge Boys' 25th anniversary album, so not only could you get thin, you could rock out to "Elvira," too.

They paid Foreyt to test the discovery in his lab, and he marveled at the initial results. The magical product -- yours for just $49.95 -- was AromaTrim, which can best be described as a piece of plastic scientifically engineered to stink like vomit. Whenever you got a craving for a cookie, you'd just wave the acrid agent under your nose and, presto, you lost your appetite.

Sadly, the mainstream media and the American Medical Association ignored AromaTrim. Only the Houston Press was shrewd enough to interview Foreyt ("Stinkin' Diet," by Randall Patterson, December 28, 1995), who appeared on the infomercial. Unfortunately, the infomercial no longer runs, but the folks at Ridiculous Infomercial Review (infomercial.tvheaven.com) had the good sense to archive this scientific breakthrough.

The site includes testimonials from the infomercial. The best ones include "Just by using your sense of smell, you can really change your life," and "I would make me two or three baloney sandwiches with mustard and eat 'em. And I would feel guilty afterwards. But I had no control."

No control until AromaTrim, that is.

Foreyt's stamp of approval should've been gold for the company. As the director of Baylor's Nutrition Research Center, he is among the most widely quoted obesity experts in the nation. His latest endorsements are for the Coca-Cola Company, where he's a paid adviser for the company's new Beverage Institute For Health and Wellness, which is not an actual building but an office within the Minute Maid building near the Galleria.

Foreyt appears in Coke's Good Housekeeping print ads, called "newsletters," although nowhere is it mentioned that he's paid by the company for his work. Nor is it explained that he is not a medical doctor. The same thing happened a few years back, when he hawked Procter & Gamble snacks (including Pringles) containing olestra, a fat substitute that quickly dropped from the public eye after the ingredient became synonymous with the term "anal leakage."

AromaTrim. Olestra. Coke.

These are just three products or companies Foreyt, under the imprimatur of Baylor College of Medicine, is paid to promote.

The link between research and industry is nothing new; what's changed is the spin and the rate at which companies are aligning themselves with "leading experts." The New York Times recently reported that, in response to increased concern over nutrition and obesity, companies such as McDonald's, Kraft and Pepsi have created entities similar to Coke's Beverage Institute.

Merrill Goozner of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest says it's important for consumers to understand that many of these experts are compensated for their stamp of approval.

"I would just caution consumers to consider the source," Goozner says. "Just because a researcher is paid by industry doesn't mean that the research is automatically incorrect or even suspect. However, there is a demonstrated effect that researchers paid by industry tend to come to conclusions that favor the research sponsors."

The center tracks how much researchers are paid for their studies. Procter & Gamble paid Foreyt $30,000 in 1989-90 for an olestra pilot study. Hoffman-LaRoche paid him $411,297 for a two-year study on the weight-loss drug Xenical. After completing that study, Foreyt wrote The Xenical Advantage: How to Use the Remarkable New FDA-Approved Drug to Lose Weight Faster. The center did not have -- and Coca-Cola did not disclose -- the amount Foreyt is paid for his work with the Beverage Institute.

Foreyt was out of the country and unavailable for comment. Baylor College of Medicine also had no comment on Foreyt's work, but issued a statement on the college's position regarding conflicts of interest: "BCM investigators are prohibited from conducting research for which they have the prospect of financial profit if the study results are favorable."

Baylor's public affairs office was not aware that Foreyt wrote The Xenical Advantage after studying the drug for two years.

Coke's Beverage Institute was created last year with a mission to "help people all over the world lead healthier lives specifically through beverages," says institute head Don Short, who is also Minute Maid's president and CEO.

While almost every country has some sort of food pyramid, not one has a beverage pyramid, and beverage science is uncharted territory, Short says. So Coca-Cola took it upon itself to come up with more nutritional drinks, like Minute Maid Heart Wise orange juice. But there's so much more to learn.

"There are a lot of people that think that a kid performs better when they're properly hydrated in school, so that's something that we want to know more about," Short says.

Which begs the question: With skyrocketing levels of childhood obesity, what are Coke's soft drinks doing in school systems throughout the country, including HISD? What are the nutritional benefits of knocking back a can or two of Mr. Pibb during study hall?

"I don't have any idea," Short says. "I'm a part of the Beverage Institute."

The American Academy of Pediatrics is a little more certain: Eliminate soda and sugar-laden juices from schools, the academy stated in a 2004 policy.

"Parents and school authorities generally are uninformed about the potential risk to the health of their children that may be associated with the unrestricted consumption of soft drinks," the policy states.

Fine. But Coke's products include Dasani, a bottled water that offers a soda alternative. In some districts, however, Dasani costs a buck, compared to 60 cents for a can of soda, making the latter the more attractive choice for many high-schoolers.

Moreover, state soft drink lobbying groups around the country have fought legislation that would ban soda from schools. And soda's not the only culprit, according to the pediatrics academy. Some juices are loaded with so much sugar that they're nearly as bad as soda. And the sweetness factor is a big problem in some school districts.

In West Virginia, a soft drink lobby (including Coca-Cola) managed to get the definition of "healthy" changed in a bill regulating beverage sales in schools. A state House committee in March upped the acceptable amount of sugar in drinks like Coke's Powerade from ten to 15 grams, according to the Charleston Gazette.

It's no surprise that Coca-Cola would push for sweetened drinks.

The Beverage Institute was part of a 2004 summit in Mexico City called "Managing Sweetness." The summit was sponsored by artificial sweetener manufacturers, including Tate & Lyle, which recently teamed with Coca-Cola to launch a line of Diet Coke containing Tate & Lyle's Splenda artificial sweetener.

The summit's "Scientific Consensus Committee," which includes Foreyt, concluded that "sugars and all approved low-caloric and non-caloric sweeteners are safe, and they offer useful options that can help consumers manage sweetness."

As a proponent of sugar and artificial sweeteners, it's no surprise that Foreyt is skeptical of the popular Sugar Busters diet.

"When people put forward an alternative program, I think they ought to do studies and publish their data and submit the studies for peer review," Foreyt told The Washington Post in 1998. "Until we get them, I don't think it should be considered a healthful approach to long-term weight management."

Foreyt made this statement two years after he appeared on the infomercial for AromaTrim, which, curiously, was never the subject of peer-reviewed articles in The New England Journal of Medicine or The Lancet.

After completing a five-year, $5 million contract with Coca-Cola, the Houston School District's Board of Education renewed the contract last week. HISD expects to earn nearly $8.5 million over five years.

There are a few changes: Vending machine soft drinks won't be sold during lunch "in any area designated for students to eat lunch in"; 20-ounce drinks no longer will be available; and soft drinks will be restricted to a 12-ounce maximum. Soft drinks, as usual, will not be available in elementary schools.

So while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools eliminate soda and sweetened juices, Coca-Cola is spending millions of dollars a year to keep its vending machines in close range of a target market.

Meanwhile, the company's Beverage Institute claims to be devoted to educating people how to lead healthier lives. Essentially, the institute must decide whether consumers should drink its own company's products.

So far, with the help of Foreyt, Baylor College of Medicine and Coca-Cola, the answer is a resounding yes. Coke, it seems, really is it. Could AromaCoke be around the corner?

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