Last month Michele Simon, president of industry watchdog group Eat, Drink, Politics, published a report calling out the close financial ties between corporate food and beverage companies and registered dietitians group Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). The exposé, And Now a Word from Our Sponsors: Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food? argues that industry sponsorship impedes AND’s 74,000 members‘ ability to responsibly convey accurate messages about nutrition and health. According to the report, “corporate contributions were the single largest source of revenue in 2011 : $1.3 million out of a total of $3.4 million.” At last October’s AND annual meeting, 2012 Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo, approximately 23 percent of the event’s 300 speakers had undisclosed financial ties to the industry. Registered dietitian Andy Bellatti attended the event and wrote about his experience and what he describes as multinationals’ “hijacking” of his profession. At the expo, Bellati writes:
The expo floor did have a few bright spots, such the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Meatless Mondays, and independent companies promoting relatively whole-food products... However, these booths were small and more difficult to locate, while the largest and flashiest booths belonged to the likes of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola …Hershey’s, Monsanto, and the Corn Refiners Association.
“In addition to dominating the expo hall,” Bellatti continues, “Big Food also often asserted unilateral control over the messaging at many of the educational sessions.” He describes a session on children and beverages called “Kids Are Drinking What?” presented by the National Dairy Council that was, according to Bellatti, “essentially an hour-long advertisement for milk.” He recalls asking about the added sugar in chocolate milk, and despite the fact that one cup contains the maximum recommended daily amount of added sugar for children ages four to eight, was told it is a “nutrient-dense” beverage. (Of course, chocolate milk, in spite of the sugar content, is in fact “nutrient-dense,” but so are lots of other foods that don’t contain so much added sugar.)
“By collaborating with Big Food all we end up with is a confused public being sent mixed messages by the very people they are entrusting to give them objective, factual advice on how to eat,” says nutritionist Julie Negrin, who opted for her masters in nutrition over becoming a registered dietitian for reasons that included AND’s affiliation with corporate sponsors. “It would be like a cigarette company paying doctors to tell the public it's okay to smoke ‘in moderation.’”
In 2011 independent researchers conducted a suvery on AND members’ sentiments regarding the sponsorships and published the results in the journal of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition group (HEN). The results showed that “80 percent of registered dietitians said sponsorship implies Academy endorsement of that company and its products.” In addition, the survey found that the majority of RDs surveyed found three current AND sponsors “unacceptable.” (They were Coca-Cola, Mars and PepsiCo.) But there are plenty of other questionable sponsors, including ConAgra, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Aramark, and the National Dairy Council.
The influence of corporate sponsors is equally as visible outside October’s expo. In Simon’s report she discusses how companies such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, Nestlé and PepsiCo offer approved continuing education courses to AND members. According to Simon’s report, courses offered by Coca-Cola convey messages that “sugar is not harmful to children; aspartame is completely safe, including for children over one year; and the Institute of Medicine is too restrictive in its school nutrition standards.”
There do exist havens within AND. The Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Group (HEN) is one of many dietetic practice groups (DPG) within AND with a specific focus. The group's vision is to "optimize the nation’s health by promoting access to nutritious food and clean water from a secure and sustainable food system" and in doing so, they address issues of corporate control, food justice, environmental regulations and other ideas concerning the structure of our food system. The group has created their own corporate sponsorship guidelines and they vet their corporate sponsors. We wanted to get a member’s take on the corporate sponsors, so we reached out to HEN Corporate Task Force Chair Kelly Moltzen, who spoke with us as an individual member of the Academy, not as a representative of the Academy or any Dietetic Practice Groups. Moltzen sees the situation as “an opportunity to explore the potential of non-food companies as sponsors of AND.” She was also good enough to provide us with her take on the situation, the benefits to Academy membership and the potential for productive dialogue between food companies and dietitians:
There are dozens of specific practice areas within dietetics, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides a hub for experts within these different scopes of work to come together and share best practices. Registered Dietitians are required to maintain 75 credits of Continuing Professional Education Units every five years, and the conferences and workshops provided by AND are great opportunities to fulfill many of these requirements and network with other nutrition professionals. Academy membership provides access to science-based information and resources. However, I think the most valuable aspect of AND comes in the form of gaining practical tools, resources and networking through joining one or more of the Academy's many Dietetic Practice Groups or Member Interest Groups.
I think there is room for dialogue between food companies and dietitians about how products could be made healthier, but I think dietitians should be the ones sending out the messages about nutrition. After all, dietitians are the nutrition experts. As long as food companies provide a product's nutrition and ingredient information, RDs can translate this information into messages for consumers. In particular, I think dietitians with community-based experience are well qualified to communicate nutrition messages effectively to the public. There is a lot of confusion about what's "healthy" or "not healthy" because food companies capitalize on consumers' limited nutrition knowledge and use un-regulated and misleading claims on packaging and marketing materials. There are a number of promising ideas for improving people's understanding of nutrition information, such as front-of-package food labels regulated by the FDA, greater support for public health media campaigns and food and nutrition education in schools that would allow consumers to truly make informed decisions about their dietary choices.
Amen. This conversation has entered the public sphere, and as Kelly has illuminated, progress in the field of health and nutrition relies on delivering accurate information to consumers. This story will continue to develop, and it will be exciting to follow this profession’s push towards transparency.