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Coca-Cola’s top scientist is stepping down after revelations that the beverage giant initiated a strategy of funding scientific research that played down the role of Coke products in the spread of obesity.

Rhona S. Applebaum, Coke’s chief science and health officer, helped orchestrate the establishment of a nonprofit group known as the Global Energy Balance Network. The group’s members were university scientists who encouraged the public to focus on exercise and worry less about how calories from food and beverages contribute to obesity.

Coca-Cola spent $1.5 million last year to support the group, including a $1 million grant to the University of Colorado medical school, where the nonprofit group’s president, James O. Hill, a prominent obesity researcher, is a professor.


Coke’s financial ties to the group were first reported in an article in The New York Times in August, which prompted criticism that the soft drink giant was trying to influence scientific research on sugary drinks.


The university returned the money to Coca-Cola this month after public health experts raised concerns.


Dr. Applebaum, a food scientist with a Ph.D. in microbiology, had been Coke’s chief scientific and regulatory officer since 2004. In that role she helped lead the company’s efforts to work with scientists as a way to counter criticism about sugary drinks.


At one food industry conference in 2012, Dr. Applebaum gave a talk outlining Coca-Cola’s strategy of “cultivating relationships” with top scientists as a way to “balance the debate” about soft drinks.