Registered dietitians aren’t usually a contentious bunch. “Eat your vegetables,” while not the most welcomed message, certainly isn’t controversial. Indeed, we all should eat our vegetables.
But a rowdy band of registered dietitians has taken to Facebook to protest what they see as capitulation to Big Food by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or AND, formerly the American Dietetic Association. The Facebook page, Dietitians for Professional Integrity, garnered nearly 4,500 “likes.” Granted, that’s only a smidgen of the food and nutrition organization’s 73,000 members, but the site has been up only a few months. (Disclosure: I “liked” the page, but only to more easily follow the conversation.)
Their complaint? That AND events, including annual meetings and educational seminars, are sponsored – co-opted, some say – by giant food companies and their spinoffs such as ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Mars International, the Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition and Kellogg’s. They object because most of these companies made their fortunes selling Americans foods high in fat, salt, carbs, sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
“It’s ridiculous when you walk into an AND conference and see exhibits and marketing materials from these companies,” says Andy Bellatti, one of 16 dietitians who launched the page. “It’s a huge conflict of interest.”
They question, for example, how Coca-Cola’s Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness is allowed to sponsor classes examining “urban myths” about the effects of sugar and artificial colors and sweeteners on children’s health. Or how the National Dairy Council can sponsor a seminar during which panelists suggest the lactose intolerant should nonetheless eat dairy products because they’re such a good source of nutrients. Or how the Corn Refiners Association, lobbyists for high fructose corn syrup, were allowed to sponsor three sessions at AND’s annual meeting.
But it’s about more than just sponsorships. DPI has also criticized AND for policy decisions such as not supporting New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to ban “”super-sized” soft drinks in that city. They fear that AND’s relationship with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo is overriding concern for the public health.
For its part, AND defends these partnerships, noting that the relationships are fully disclosed and that the organization’s policies are based on “what the science says,” according to spokeswoman Angela Lemond, a dietitian in Dallas. She says the science doesn’t support banning super-sized drinks.
“We’ve asked the federal government to study the effects of these large sugar-sweetened beverages, but until we have that we’re not going to take a position,” she says. “Without the studies, we don’t know if such a ban is really going to help.”
And, she adds, by working with these companies, AND has “a seat at the table” to help them develop more healthful foods.
AND says its corporate sponsorship program accounts for less than 9 percent of its annual funding. Seems like a small price to pay to protect the organization’s good name.