The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a corporate-funded nonprofit organization based in Washington DC, with affiliated chapters around the world. ILSI describes itself as a group that conducts “science for the public good” and “improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment.” However, investigations by academics, journalists and public interest researchers show that ILSI is a lobby group that protects the interests of the food industry, not public health.
Investigations by the New York Times in 2019 describe the powerful lobbying role ILSI plays globally for its industry funders. See, A shadowy industry group shapes food policy around the world and How chummy are junk food giants and China’s health officials? They share offices.
ILSI ties to Coca-Cola
ILSI was founded in 1978 by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola who worked for Coca-Cola from 1969-2001. Coca-Cola kept close ties with ILSI over the years.
From 2009-2011, Michael Ernest Knowles, Coca-Cola’s VP of global scientific and regulatory affairs from 2008–2013, was president of ILSI.In 2015, ILSI’s president was Rhona Applebaum; she retired from her job that year as Coca-Cola’s chief health and science officer (and from ILSI) after the New York Times and Associated Press reported that Coke funded the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network to help shift the blame for obesity away from sugary drinks.
ILSI helped Coca-Cola shape obesity policy in China, according to a September 2020 study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh. “Beneath ILSI’s public narrative of unbiased science and no policy advocacy lay a maze of hidden channels companies used to advance their interests,” Greenhalgh wrote. “Working through those channels, Coca Cola influenced China’s science and policy making during every phase in the policy process, from framing the issues to drafting official policy.”
In 2021, Coca-Cola severed its longtime ties with ILSI, Bloomberg reported.
ILSI’s corporate funding
ILSI is funded by its corporate members and supporters, including leading food and chemical companies. ILSI acknowledges receiving funding from industry but does not publicly disclose which companies donate or how much they contribute. Our research reveals:
- Corporate contributions to ILSI Global amounting to $2.4 million in 2012. These included $528,500 from the pesticide trade group CropLife International, $500,000 from Monsanto and $163,500 from Coca-Cola.
- Adraft 2013 ILSI tax return shows ILSI received $337,000 from Coca-Cola and more than $100,000 each from Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrisciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer CropScience and BASF.
- Adraft 2016 ILSI North America tax return shows a $317,827 contribution from PepsiCo; contributions greater than $200,000 from Mars, Coca-Cola, and Mondelez; and contributions greater than $100,000 from General Mills, Nestle, Kellogg, Hershey, Kraft, Dr. Pepper, Snapple Group, Starbucks Coffee, Cargill, Unilever and Campbell Soup.
Emails show how ILSI seeks to influence policy
Five studies based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know provide evidence that ILSI operates as a lobby group for the food industry.USRTK obtained the documents via public records requests, and co-authored these papers.
April 2021 study in Globalization and Health documents how ILSI plays a key role in shaping scientific principles by promoting the acceptance of public-private partnerships and permissiveness about conflicts of interest. See interview with Mélissa Mialon in the Disinformation Chronicle, and our news release.
May 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition uncovered “a pattern of activity in which ILSI sought to exploit the credibility of scientists and academics to bolster industry positions and promote industry-devised content in its meetings, journal, and other activities.” See coverage in the BMJ, and our news release.
June 2019 study in Globalization and Health provides examples of how ILSI advances the interests of the food industry, especially by promoting industry-friendly science and arguments to policymakers. See coverage in the New York Times, The BMJ, Guardian, and our news release.
January 2019 study in The Milbank Quarterly describes the efforts of Alex Malaspina, founding president of ILSI, to obtain advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to get the World Health Organization to back off of its crackdown on added sugars. See coverage in the AJC, BMJ, Associated Press, Washington Post, the AJC, Salon, and our news release.
September 2017 study in Critical Public Health analyzes correspondence by Michael Ernest Knowles, a former vice president of global scientific and regulatory affairs for Coca-Cola, and former president of ILSI, and “provides direct evidence that senior leaders in the food industry advocate for a deliberate and co-ordinated approach to influencing scientific evidence and expert opinion.” See coverage in Bloomberg, Australian Broadcasting Corp, and our news release.
ILSI undermined obesity prevention efforts in China
In January 2019, two papers by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh revealed ILSI’s powerful influence on the Chinese government on issues related to obesity. The papers document how Coca-Cola and other corporations worked through the China branch of ILSI to influence decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Read the papers:
- Inside ILSI: How Coca-Cola, Working through Its Scientific Nonprofit, Created a Global Science of Exercise for Obesity and Got It Embedded in Chinese Policy (1995–2015), by Susan Greenhalgh, Journal of Health, Politics, Policy and Law (April 2021)
- Making China safe for Coke: How Coca-Cola shaped obesity science and policy in China, by Susan Greenhalgh, BMJ (January 2019)
- Soda industry influence on obesity science and policy in China, by Susan Greenhalgh, Journal of Public Health Policy (January 2019)
ILSI is so well-placed in China that it operates from inside the government’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.
Professor Greenhalgh’s papers document how Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants “helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related diseases” by operating through ILSI to cultivate 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 New York Times reported.
- How chummy are junk food giants and China’s health officials? They share offices, by Andrew Jacobs, New York Times (1.9.19)
- Study: Coca-Cola shaped China’s efforts to fight obesity, by Jonathan Lambert, NPR (1.10.19)
- The hidden power of corporations: A lesson from China, by Martin McKee, Sarah Steele, David Stuckler, BMJ (1.9.19)
- Food giants undermined obesity fight, scholar says, by Candace Choi, Associated Press (1.10.19)
ILSI sugar study out of ‘tobacco industry’s playbook’
In 2016, public health experts denounced an ILSI-funded sugar study published in a prominent medical journal that was a “scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar,” reported Anahad O’Connor in the New York Times. The ILSI-funded study argued that warnings to cut sugar are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.
Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research, told the Times that the ILSI study “comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science. This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful.”
Tobacco companies used ILSI to thwart policy
A July 2000 report by an independent committee of the World Health Organization outlined a number of ways in which the tobacco industry attempted to undermine WHO tobacco control efforts, including using scientific groups to influence WHO’s decision-making and manipulate scientific debate on the health effects of tobacco. ILSI played a key role in these efforts, according to a case study on ILSI that accompanied the report.
“Findings indicate that ILSI was used by certain tobacco companies to thwart tobacco control policies. Senior office bearers in ILSI were directly involved in these actions,” according to the case study. See:
- The Tobacco Industry and Scientific Groups ILSI: A Case Study, WHO Tobacco Free Initiative (Feb. 2001)
- Tobacco Company Strategies to Undermine Tobacco Control Activities at the WHO, Report of the Committee of Experts on Tobacco Industry Documents (July 2000)
The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has more than 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI.
ILSI leaders helped defend glyphosate
In May 2016, ILSI came under scrutiny after revelations that the vice president of ILSI Europe, Professor Alan Boobis, was chairman of a UN panel that found Monsanto’s chemical glyphosate was unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. The co-chair of the UN Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), Professor Angelo Moretto, was a board member of ILSI’s Health and Environment Services Institute. Neither of the JMPR chairs declared their ILSI leadership roles as conflicts of interest, despite the fact that ILSI had received significant financial contributions from Monsanto and the pesticide industry trade group CropLife International. See:
- UN/WHO panel in conflict of interest row over glyphosate cancer risk, Guardian (5.17.16)
- Möglicher Interessenskonflikt bei Pflanzenschutzmittel-Bewertung, Die Zeit (5.18.16)
- Conflict of interest concerns cloud meeting as international experts review herbicide risks, USRTK (5.12.16)
ILSI’s cozy ties at CDC
In June 2016, U.S. Right to Know reported that Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) division charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, tried to help ILSI’s founder Alex Malaspina influence World Health Organization officials to back off policies to reduce sugar consumption. Emails show that Bowman suggested people and groups for Malaspina to talk to, and solicited his comments on some CDC summaries of reports. (Bowman stepped down after our first article was published reporting on these ties.)
This January 2019 study in the Milbank Quarterly describes key emails of Malaspina cozying up to Dr. Bowman. For more reporting on this topic, see:
- Coke and CDC, Atlanta icons, share cozy relationship, emails show, by Alan Judd, Atlanta Journal Constitution (2.6.19)
- What is Going on at the CDC? Health Agency Ethics Need Scrutiny, by Carey Gillam, The Hill (8.27.2016)
- More Coca-Cola Ties Seen Inside U.S. Centers for Disease Control, by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (8.1.2016)
- CDC Official Exits Agency After Coca-Cola Connections Come to Light, by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (12.6.2017)
- Beverage Industry Finds Friend Inside U.S. Health Agency, by Carey Gillam, Huffington Post (6.28.2016)
- UCSD Hires Coke-Funded Researcher, by Morgan Cook, San Diego Union-Tribune (9.29.2016)
ILSI influence on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines
A March 2022 study in Cambridge University Press found that 95% of the U.S. 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee – a group that advises the government on dietary recommendations for Americans – had conflicting interests with the food, and/or pharmaceutical industries, including with Kellogg, Abbott, Kraft, Mead Johnson, General Mills, Dannon. Multiple members also had connections to ILSI.
The “significant and widespread” conflicts of interest on the committee “prevent the [Dietary Guidelines for Americans] from achieving the recommended standard for transparency without mechanisms in place to make this information publicly available,” the researchers wrote.
A 2020 report by the nonprofit Corporate Accountability documents how ILSI has major influence on U.S. dietary guidelines via its infiltration of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The report examines the pervasive political interference of food and beverage transnationals like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, and how these corporations have leveraged ILSI to cripple progress on nutrition policy across the globe. See coverage in the BMJ.
ILSI influence in India
In 2019, the New York Times reported on ILSI’s influence in India in an article titled, “A shadowy industry group shapes food policy around the world.”
ILSI has close ties to some Indian government officials and has pushed similar messaging and policy proposals as Coca-Cola: downplaying the role of sugar and diet as a cause of obesity, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution,according to the India Resource Center.
Members of ILSI India’s board of trustees include Coca-Cola India’s director of regulatory affairs and representatives from Nestlé and Ajinomoto, a food additive company, along with government officials who serve on scientific panels that are tasked with deciding about food safety issues.
Author of meat studies failed to disclose ILSI ties
In 2019, the New York Times reported on the undisclosed ILSI ties of Bradley C. Johnston, a co-author of five studies claiming red and processed meat don’t pose significant health problems. Johnston used similar methods in an ILSI-funded study to claim sugar is not a problem.
Longstanding concerns about ILSI
ILSI insists it is not an industry lobby group, but concerns and complaints are longstanding about the group’s pro-industry stances and conflicts of interest among the organization’s leaders. See, for example:
Untangle food industry influences, Nature Medicine (2019)
Big Food Vs. Tim Noakes: The Final Crusade, Keep Fitness Legal, by Russ Greene (1.5.17)
Real Food on Trial, by Dr. Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros (Columbus Publishing 2019). The book describes “the unprecedented prosecution and persecution of Professor Tim Noakes, a distinguished scientist and medical doctor, in a multimillion rand case that stretched over more than four years. All for a single tweet giving his opinion on nutrition.”
Food industry lobby group ILSI rebrands (again) to duck critical news coverage, U.S. Right to Know (7.7.22)