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How Big Food is Lining the Pockets of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

January 23, 2013

Sugar is not harmful to children? Aspartame is completely safe even for toddlers? Current school nutrition standards are too restrictive?

As shocking and false as these assertions may be, they are taught as fact in courses sponsored by Coca-Cola for registered dietitians and other nutrition professionals. According to a new report from IIN guest speaker and president of the industry watchdog group Eat, Drink, Politcs Michele Simon, corporate ties are corrupting the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the largest American association of nutrition professionals – and Americans are suffering as a consequence.

As Simon emphasizes in her report, with 74,000 members who are committed to distributing health and nutrition advice, AND is in an extremely powerful position to shape national discourse and reverse the American health crisis. Yet the group is largely controlled by troubling ties to the food industry.

The number of Big Ag sponsors – such as Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, General Mills, PepsiCo, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, and more – tripled in ten years, and in 2011, AND generated $1.85 million in revenue from these sponsorships. Furthermore, nearly a quarter of the 300 speakers at its annual meeting had undisclosed financial ties to the food industry.

What’s the impact? AND has been co-opted by powerful private interests, and these sponsors are perpetuating health and nutrition information that’s harmful to people’s health.

In a piece published last year entitled “Pesticides are Good For You”, Simon reported on the group’s Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo, which brought together 7,000 registered dietitians. Rather than addressing real health issues and their solutions, major industry players used the panels as an opportunity to market their products and special interests. Frito-Lay held a session on healthful snacking, the National Dairy Council led a panel called “Dairy Innovations,” and Big Ag-sponsored researchers dismissed the risk of pesticides as “negligible.”

Yet a growing number of registered dietitians and health professionals are challenging AND’s corporate ties. Simon reports that in a survey, the majority of RDs considered Coca-Cola, Mars, and PepsiCo “unacceptable” sponsors; 80% said sponsorship implies AND’s endorsement of that company and its products; and 97% think AND should be sure that a sponsor’s corporate mission is consistent with AND.

As food policy expert and IIN conference speaker Marion Nestle muses, “Let’s hope this new report gets AND members talking about how to change some current AND policies.”

What are your thoughts on this discussion?