"Big Food" companies such as Coca-Cola and Hershey have hijacked the largest association of nutrition professionals, according to a damning new report by pubic health attorney and author Michele Simon.
But the "deep infiltration" of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) is largely unacceptable to the vast majority of its 74,000 members.
"The food industry's deep infiltration of the nation's top nutrition organization raises serious questions not only about that profession's credibility, but also about its policy positions," Simon writes in the executive summary of "And Now a Word From Our Sponsors: Are America's Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?"
Among the study's most shocking findings:
- Processed food giants ConAgra and General Mills have been AND sponsors for 10 of the last 12 years.
- Among the messages taught in Coca-Cola-sponsored continuing education courses are: sugar is not harmful to children; "Aspartame is completely safe, including for children over one year"; and "A majority of studies have not found a link between sugar and behavior in children."
Worse, groups such as the Corn Refiners Association—lobbyists for high fructose corn syrup—and companies such as PepsiCo., Kraft Foods and Nestlé remain "partners" of the organization, and for a fee are able to offer continuing education credits to registered dietitians—essentially "free publicity under the guise of education," Simon writes.
Sadly, the event once again demonstrated how this registered dietitians' accrediting organization drags its own credential through the mud by prioritizing Big Food's corporate interests over sound nutrition an health ... I am embarrassed that the nation’s largest nutrition trade organization maintains partnerships with companies that contribute to our nation’s diet-related health problems ... Big Food’s presence was sometimes more covert. One session on food additives was sponsored by the International Food Information Council, the same food industry front group that last year assured us that pesticides are safe.
Members of AND also overwhelmingly find the relationship between the organization and Big Food unacceptable, with 97 percent surveyed contending that the academy should verify that a sponsor’s corporate mission is consistent with that of the Academy prior to accepting them; and 80 percent saying that sponsorship implies academy endorsement of a company and its products.
"Some of the food companies’ products are full of questionable and/or harmful ingredients," registered dietitian Carla S. Caccia told Simon. "Are GMOs safe in moderation? I don’t know. Caramel coloring? High fructose corn syrup? Is lean meat still the healthy choice even though the animal was given general antibiotics? Is grilled chicken still the healthy choice even though it ate feed contaminated with arsenic? I don’t know and I’m supposed to be the expert! I would like to turn to AND for these answers but I can’t trust them because they are in partnership with food companies whose products are full of these things."
“The food companies are being very strategic,” Simon told nutrition educator and journalist Kristin Wartman in an interview. “They know that RDs are the vehicles through which information is carried to the consumers, so they want to make sure that their message gets out loud and clear to these professionals.”
Wartman points to a passage in Simon's report in which she describes a McDonald’s booth offering smoothies and oatmeal.
To visit the McDonald’s booth, you’d think the fast food giant only sold oatmeal and smoothies. I asked a few RDs why they were there and they said they were hungry. Fair enough, but it was clear that McDonald’s had succeeded in positioning itself as a purveyor of healthy food while feeding RDs breakfast.
"Simon points out that food companies are normalizing their products at these conferences," Wartman writes. "'The message is: It’s perfectly fine to promote processed food as your everyday diet, as long as it has whole grains sprinkled on it or has fewer calories.'"