Food

Whoa: Huge Number of Nutritional Experts May Be Bought off by the Big Junk Food Companies

Reports paint a scary picture of how food corporations collude to manipulate information in order to increase profits.

According to a new report, many scientific studies about nutrition, as well as the trusted experts who disseminate this information to the public, are being funded by the very entities that should be scrutinized. The report, "Nutrition Scientists on the Take from Big Food," details the ways that the world’s largest food corporations—aka Big Food—exert their influence on nutrition research and the people who conduct it.

The report’s author, attorney and food advocate Michele Simon, has previously studied the influence of Big Food on the nation’s largest organization of registered dietitians. Together, these reports paint a scary picture of how food corporations collude to manipulate information in order to increase their profits at the public’s expense. The coyote isn’t just guarding the chicken coop here, it built the coop and kept the only copy of the key.

The new report details how the likes of Coca Cola, Nestle, Hershey’s, Monsanto, Cargill, and many other food giants control what studies get funded and published, steering researchers toward projects that benefit the industry, while silencing research that doesn’t. It focuses on the American Society of Nutrition, which Simon characterized as a trade organization for nutrition scientists when we spoke by phone, though casual readers of the ASN’s mission statement might not glean this.

“The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing together the world's top researchers, clinical nutritionists and industry to advance our knowledge and application of nutrition for the sake of humans and animals.”

The researchers, nutritionists and industries in question are brought together twice a year for ASN’s conventions, where industry sponsors pay big money to get access to nutrition researchers, and even host sessions. While most of the sponsored sessions disclose the corporate funder, the report notes, industry ties are not always so obvious. A recent session, “Sweeteners and Health: Current Understandings, Recent Research Findings and Directions for Future,” was sponsored by the Rippe Lifestyle Institute. The Institute’s founder James Rippe, according to the report, has been paid a $41,000 a month retainer by the Corn Refiners Association, which represents the makers of high fructose corn syrup.

One of the session’s ‘learning objectives” was to “Understand whether or not there is a linkage between sugar consumption and obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as other metabolic diseases.” The sugar lobby, “has more than a passing interest” in this matter, the report notes. Rippe has consulted for many other members of the junk food industry as well, including Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, McDonald’s, Kraft Foods, General Mills, and Kellogg.

Meanwhile, ASN publishes the one of the most respected scientific journals dedicated to nutrition, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition(AJCN). Several ASN executives with close ties to industry sit on AJCN’s editorial board, where they help decide what gets published and what doesn’t, Simon told me.

“It’s hard for good nutrition researchers to get funding and published, she said. "That’s why people turn to industry sources. But the ones with too much integrity to take money from industry are facing difficulty and hostility in getting published, because the gatekeepers are on the take from industry. So a lot of good science isn’t getting published. That puts a chill on the research climate in general.”

“People need to understand when they see the latest nutrition science story being reported, it’s always good to question where the funding comes from.”

And when the evidence against a mainstay of Big Food grows to the point where it can’t be contained, the food industry uses platforms like AJCN to confuse the issue, or kick the can down the road a little further with claims that “more research is needed.”

The AJCN has repeatedly propagated the notion that processed foods are being unfairly vilified, and that any time a piece of food is cut, frozen or cooked, it’s by definition processed.

Many processed foods contain added sugars, which have frequently been in the news since the FDA recommended they be noted on the nutrition label as distinct from naturally occurring sugars, which are usually associated with fiber and other nutrients that partially counteract the effects of sugar. Not surprisingly, the American Sugar Association, an ASN sponsor, has come out strongly against the FDA’s recommendation. The ASN has too, couching its true motives behind wording that inaccurately suggests its concern is for consumers’ health.

“This topic is controversial and a lack of consensus remains in the scientific evidence on the health effects of added sugars alone versus sugars as a whole. There is also lack of evidence on the usefulness of a declaration of added sugars on the label to improve food choices and the health of consumers.”

But the topic is only “controversial,” Simon’s report notes, “because the food industry is worried that consumers are becoming more aware of the health effects of too much added sugar, and differentiating naturally occurring sugars from added ones may negatively impact sales of some of their products.”

“The food industry is all about confusing American consumers, making sure they don’t really understand how to eat right,” Simontold WBEZ in Chicago. “Nutrition science is not that complicated. We’ve known for decades that we should be eating more whole foods, staying away from junk food and processed food, and making plant-based foods the center of your plate.”

A prior report by Simon, in 2013, focused on Big Food’s influence on the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), which represents thousands of registered dieticians (RD) nationwide. The AND annual convention “looks like a junk food expo,” Simon told WBEZ.  

In its publications, AND and its representatives have advocated ideas like taking one’s family to eat fast food once a week, so they don’t feel deprived. In 2011, the AND convention included a session that downplayed the potential harm caused by pesticides on food. Both Monsanto and McDonalds are AND sponsors.

In order to ensure that RDs remain the messengers of Big Food’s propaganda, the organization has helped put laws on the books of 47 states making it illegal for unlicensed individuals to give dietary advice for medical conditions, which keeps control of the messaging firmly in the hands of RDs and their trade group, AND. Memos that were leaked to Forbesin 2012 by concerned RDs show that AND members are encouraged to file legal complaints against any incidence of unlicensed individuals giving nutritional advice.

By managing which nutritional research is funded and published, and how nutritional advice is disseminated and by whom, Big Food corporations are trying their best to keep consumers eating their products. But this powerful cocktail of information control tactics is not impregnable. The propaganda machine can’t completely stop informed consumers from gathering information from truly independent journals and media outlets, and from sharing this information among themselves. Or from calling BS on the notion that a sliced apple and an apple Pop-Tart are both processed foods.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.
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