Seven years ago, when I was conducting research for my second book about food, farming, and healthy eating, I spent some time digging into the website for the American Dietetic Association (what’s now called the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). What did the nation’s association of registered nutritionists tell us about healthy eating? Stuff like monosodium glutamate (or MSG) is a great flavorant for seniors whose taste buds might be fading, never mind that there have been health concerns raised about the additive. Scroll to the bottom of the MSG webpage, though, and you’d discover that the ADA nutrition fact sheet was sponsored by Ajinomoto, the world’s leading maker of — you guessed it — MSG. It didn’t take long to discover this conflict of interest was rampant across the nutrition information presented by the academy. Nutritionist friends would send me programs from the annual meeting with workshops about the benefits of dairy and beef consumption — sponsored by the dairy and meat industry.
In a powerful just-released report [PDF], public health attorney and author Michele Simon delves into just how deep the ties are between America’s food industry and those dieticians and nutritionists who are supposedly helping inform the public about what’s good to eat.
In her report, Simon documents how the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), a 74,000-member trade group, has longstanding partnerships with dozens of food companies, including Coke, Hershey’s, and more. Since 2001, the academy has tripled the number of food-industry sponsors listed in its annual report. Perhaps most shocking to me was the engagement of food corporations to run continuing education units for academy members. All AND members are required to take educational courses every year, and many of the approved food-industry providers include companies like Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Nestlé, and PepsiCo. It also turns out that many of the corporate-sponsored courses are offered for free.
Simon describes attending the academy’s annual meeting, with a convention hall floor that looked more like a junk food trade show than a symposium on healthy eating. At the 2012 annual meeting she attended, 18 organizations — less than 5 percent of all exhibitors — filled one-quarter of the exhibitor space, and only two of them represented whole, non-processed foods.
It’s encouraging to know that many members of AND are concerned about the impact of this corporate sponsorship on their profession. Simon writes, for instance, about the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition practice group that has been trying to work within the AND to raise concerns about these corporate ties. And over the years, I’ve met many members concerned about the academy’s alignment with corporate interests. Perhaps the most encouraging was an internal survey of AND members that found among a subset of members (370), the majority of respondents were willing to pay higher membership fees to offset the need for corporate sponsorship. In another survey of 3,000 members, researchers found 83 percent of respondents agreed “that members should have a say in deciding who the academy sponsors are.” As Simon says, that’s certainly not the case now.
Why does this matter so much? Because questions of diet and health are of utmost importance to all of us. Diet-related illnesses are afflicting millions of Americans, including many of the nation’s children. One in three children born today will get Type II diabetes. For African-American and Hispanic children, it’s one in two. And it’s not just diabetes. It’s heart disease, certain cancers, and asthma.
In an open letter to AND members in response to the report, President Ethan Bergman defends the academy against Simon. Of the 67 references Simon uses, he says, “at least 24 (more than one-third) consist of links to the academy and the foundation’s websites; the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s website; and research articles published by academy members.” So, wait, his complaint is that Simon used the academy’s own information in the report? Isn’t that all the more damning? She didn’t make this stuff up.
I’ve met many wonderful registered dieticians in the 12 years I’ve been promoting food access, healthy eating, and sustainable farming. Many are part of a group within AND which is highly critical of this kind of corporate partnership. As a membership organization, I would hope that every one of the 74,000 members read this report and decide if they’d like to stand with their fellow members against this pervasive corporate sponsorship.