The Nefarious Ways Junk Food Marketers are Trying to Buy Off Dietitians

Personal Health

“I quit the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics after they gave my contact information to McDonalds,” said Heather Weightman, a registered dietitian. She, like so many dietitians, is committed to promoting nutrition and health, and she doesn’t see membership in an organization that assists with fast-food marketing as part of that goal.

Her sentiments are in line with a new report by Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics that exposes the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), formerly known as the American Dietetics Association, as a major pay-for-play scheme that provides junk food manufacturers endless opportunities to influence registered dietitians. (Or attempt to influence them anyway; dietitians aren’t all sheep.)

Simon, a lawyer with a masters in public health, is the author of the book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. She’s no stranger to the endless ways food companies try to influence consumers and government. For years, she heard from registered dietitians about the food industry presence at the annual AND conference. “I've seen pictures that people come back with of the RDs [registered dietitians] lined up at the Coke machine,” said Simon. So she decided to go check it out herself.

After attending AND conferences in 2011 and 2012 (the latter one was held in Pennsylvania with – get this – a field trip to Hershey to learn about the health benefits of chocolate), she decided to take action by compiling and publishing a report detailing the food industry’s relationship with AND. Although the dietitians within AND were often frustrated and even hoped to change their organization from within, "it seemed to me that things weren't changing fast so shining a brighter light on it could help,” said Simon.

“I think that the food industry is using this profession as a vehicle to educate consumers,” Simon surmises. “They know that RDs are a critical vehicle for information to the American public so that's why they are making sure that RDs hear industry spin loud and clear, so that's why people should be concerned about it.”

It’s not uncommon for organizations to finance large conferences using corporate sponsorships and by selling space in their exhibition halls. But AND goes further than that. Companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft, and Nestle pay to receive accreditation from AND to provide “continuing education” to registered dietitians. Then they are free to teach RDs that, for example, sugar is just fine for our kids.

That’s what a Coca-Cola-sponsored session on Children’s Dietary Recommendations claimed. Coca-Cola also sponsored sessions about weight management and artificial sweeteners, which emphasized the safety of aspartame (the sweetener in Diet Coke) and offered messages contrary to scientific findings about the impact of artificial sweeteners on the body.

“The academy does have some form of guidelines” for sponsorship, notes Simon, adding that the standards “appeared to be violated." For example, sponsors are not supposed to promote specific products. But a continuing education webinar on building bone health that was sponsored by General Mills provided a slide showing foods that “provide essential nutrients.” In addition to calcium supplements and milk, it listed General Mills’ products Kix and Yoplait yogurt. Absent from the slide were calcium-rich vegetables like spinach and collards, which have more calcium per calorie than milk.

"Not only are they promoting products, they are giving out completely insane information from a common sense and science perspective,” said Simon. “There seems to be very little oversight, nobody checking their own rulebook.”

In her report, Simon also points out another problem: “Equally concerning, if RDs are getting their continuing education units from the food industry, what messages are they missing? Coca-Cola or General Mills are not going to sponsor sessions on the harmful impacts of marketing to children despite the numerous studies demonstrating the connection. Nor will they hire a scientist to explain why excess sugar consumption raises the risk of heart disease, despite that growing body of evidence. Where else, other than their own trade group’s approved providers, will RDs get exposed to such information while getting continuing education credits they need to further their career? Moreover, most of industry’s sessions are free, thereby furthering the RD’s incentive to choose these over other options.”

As a national trade group with 74,000 members, AND has the power and opportunity to make a difference. Currently, almost half of all adults in the U.S. have at least one chronic diet-related disease (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and/or cancer). Together, these diseases cause seven out of 10 deaths in our country. But AND is hardly going to bite the corporate hands that feed it by speaking out or taking action to improve the U.S. food system in a meaningful way.

What do AND’s members think? “I would say there's a real mix of RDs out there,” said Simon. On one hand, she saw dietitians “stuffing their bags full of Frito-Lay products and sampling all of the junk food,” and sitting in corporate-sponsored sessions without asking the speakers challenging questions. But when she talked to them one on one, many had what she called “pretty strong reactions.” The dietitians she spoke to “didn't like the corporate sponsorship and were embarrassed by it and didn't know what to do about it to let their voices be heard.” She also knows RDs who have tried to reform the organization from the inside, and others who have quit AND altogether.

Simon calls on AND to follow a number of sensible recommendations, including ending corporate sponsorship of education, setting more meaningful guidelines for sponsorship, listening more to the wishes of its own members, and taking a leading role in nutrition policy on a national level.

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