The American Academy of Family Physicians has come under fire from nutrition advocates for a new partnership with the Coca-Cola company.
Two weeks ago, the organization announced that it would accept a grant from Coke to "develop consumer education content on beverages and sweeteners for FamilyDoctor.org," a consumer health Web site.
Dr. Lori Heim, president-elect of the AAFP, said in a statement that the organization was looking forward to working with the soda maker "and other companies in the future on the development of educational materials to teach consumers how to make the right choices and incorporate the products they love into a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle."
But at a time when sugary beverages are coming under fire as contributors to the country's obesity epidemic, the partnership is being met with disdain from several directions.
On Wednesday, the Centers for Science in the Public Interest said the AAFP should urge patients to avoid sweetened soft drinks, which "promote obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and other health problems."
Marion Nestle, a food policy researcher at New York University, called the partnership an "embarrassing conflict of interest."
"I hope AAFP members decide that no matter what Coke paid for this partnership, their loss of credibility is not worth the price," she wrote on her blog, Foodpolitics.com.
And Kelly Brownell, professor of psychology, epidemiology, and public health at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., called the AAFP's acceptance of the grant money from Coke "disheartening."
"There is no question that products made by the soft drink companies contribute to diseases that family physicians then have to treat, often without much success," Brownell said. "Taking the money to develop guidelines for healthy eating is beyond imagination."
Other nutrition experts, however, said criticizing the initiative may be premature.
"If [AAFP] started to go soft on things like sugar-sweetened beverages, that would be a concern," said Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Rose F. Kennedy Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
"On the other hand, they may say 'we don't want people drinking soda in inappropriate amounts.' If Coke wants to fund that, I'm fine with that."
Ayoob said the message needs to define a specific quantity of acceptable soda and sugary beverage consumption in order for it to be a useful one.
"When you say things like 'moderation' and you don't define what that moderation is, it leaves it all open to interpretation," he said.
Advocates of the partnership say sugar-sweetened beverages are not the only culprit in the obesity epidemic. In an Oct. 7 editorial in The Wall Street Journal, Coke CEO Muhtar Kent said "it's not just about calories in. It's also about calories out."
Kent also argued that sugar-sweetened beverages "have been singled out in spite of the fact that soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened bottled water combined contribute 5.5 percent of the calories in the average American diet, according to the National Cancer Institute.
"It's difficult to understand why the beverages we and others provide are being targeted as the primary cause of weight gain when 94.5 percent of caloric intake comes from other foods and beverages."
Dr. Douglas Henley, executive vice president of the AAFP, said physicians should urge their patients to "lead a balanced lifestyle," and noted that sodas can still be a part of that.
"We will move forward with this commitment by providing educational materials on sweeteners and how to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle while still enjoying many of the foods and beverages consumers prefer," he said.
The alliance comes as Coca-Cola will be releasing mini-cans that contain only 7.5 ounces of soda and 90 calories in New York and Washington in December.