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How Did My Profession’s Conference Get Hijacked by Big Food?

Opinion

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) hosted its 2012 Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) earlier this month. Sadly, the event once again (see last year’s report) demonstrated how this registered dietitians’ accrediting organization drags its own credentials through the mud by prioritizing Big Food’s corporate interests over sound nutrition and public health.

Nutrition Conference or Junk Food Expo?

Academy “partners,” which enjoy top sponsorship status at the expo, included the National Dairy Council, Coca-Cola and the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition (yes, the chocolate company). Event “premier sponsors” included General Mills, PepsiCo and Mars. As a dietitian, 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.

The expo floor did have a few bright spots, such the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Meatless Mondays and independent companies promoting relatively whole-food products (and advocating for California’s GMO-labeling initiative), such as Lundberg Farms, Nature’s Path, Manitoba Harvest and Mary’s Gone Crackers. However, these booths were small and more difficult to locate, while the largest and flashiest booths belonged to the likes of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Hershey’s, Monsanto and the Corn Refiners Association. (Notably, many of these companies are funding the No campaign on GMO labeling). Even the candy lobby had a booth for the first time this year (not surprisingly, their message was one of “moderation,” that meaningless term). Many of these booths shamelessly pandered to me and my colleagues. Coca-Cola for instance, claimed to “promote the registered dietitian.” How exactly they do this is unclear; “co-opt” would be a more accurate term.

Educational Sessions or Big Food Propaganda?

In addition to dominating the expo hall, Big Food also often asserted unilateral control over the messaging at many of the educational sessions. One session on food allergies (“Beyond Belly Aches: Identifying and Differentiating Food Allergies and Intolerances”) was mostly National Dairy Council propaganda. Lactose-free dairy products were presented as the best (and sometimes only) choice for individuals with lactose intolerance in order to “prevent nutrient deficiencies” and confer alleged benefits of dairy, such as weight loss and reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes (these claims were not referenced).

These oft-repeated talking points by the dairy industry are a slap in the face to nutrition science; all the nutrients in dairy are available in plant-based foods, and the research linking dairy intake to weight loss and decreased risks of diabetes and heart disease is tenuous at best, and is often sponsored by the dairy industry. (The weight loss claim has even been deemed by the federal government as deceptive). Many dietitians specializing in food allergies who attended the session expressed their disbelief on Twitter. Others I spoke to walked out, insulted by what they considered to be unhelpful and inaccurate information.

A session on children and beverages titled “Kids Are Drinking What?” – also presented by the National Dairy Council – was essentially an hour-long advertisement for milk. The dairy reps acknowledged that they target African-American and Hispanic communities with a “drink more milk” message, which I found particularly disturbing, as both ethnic groups have high rates of lactose intolerance. The Dairy Council also kept repeating a new slogan – “one more cup” – which, again, is supposed to “reduce nutrient deficiencies.” Notably one of the most glaring deficiencies among U.S. children – low fiber intake – was not brought up at all; and no wonder, since dairy products contain no fiber.

Even more disturbing was all the hand-wringing over children’s high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, as if the dairy council really cares about kids’ health. This alleged concern disappeared when I asked about the added sugar in chocolate milk. The panelists – all of whom were employed by the National Dairy Council — answered that chocolate milk is a “nutrient-dense” beverage. Never mind how, with three teaspoons of sugar per cup, one serving of chocolate milk supplies the maximum daily amount of added sugar for children ages four to eight, as recommended by the American Heart Association.

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. Striking a similar chord, this panel explained how additives are safe because, after all, strawberries and coffee contain “chemicals” responsible for their taste and aroma. So, the logic train went, if we eat strawberries and coffee without a care, why do we fear controversial preservatives such as BHT and BHA? (The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends avoiding BHA.)

Panelist Dr. Roger Clemens enthusiastically defended chemical additives while mocking survey results that showed how a significant portion of the public mistrusts the Food and Drug Administration. When I asked him why other countries have banned additives that the FDA has not, I was told it is simply a result of “a different group of scientists” arriving at “a different conclusion.” How convenient. What concerned me even more was how most of the audience appeared to find Dr. Clemens’ defense of additives humorous. Sadly, it appeared that Dr. Clemens did not have to work very hard to convince many dietitians that chemical additives were safe.

Does Sound Nutrition and Common Sense Require a Debate?

Some semblance of balance was attempted at two sessions. At one, titled “Why Can’t We All Just Work Together? Public Health vs. Industry,” panelist Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest explained how industry and public health have two very different goals. Food industry consultant Beth Johnson, meanwhile, claimed the food industry is committed to improving Americans’ health by continually reformulating products to include more whole grains and lower sugar and sodium. But this approach is really not going to cut it given the seriousness of diet-related health problems this nation faces. To my surprise and disappointment, during the Q&A, one RD sided with the food industry saying that consumers should be blamed for not making healthy choices.

At another point-counterpoint session, this one on processed foods, Susan Crockett from kids’ cereal giant General Mills passionately defended processed foods. Her opponent, Jessica Kolko, an RD from Whole Foods, explained how Americans’ reliance on highly processed foods is responsible for a litany of public health ills. Ms. Kolko argued that the solution is for people to increase their intake of “real food.” While this session finally delivered the “eat real food” message that I espouse (shouldn’t all RDs?), why was a critique of the food industry framed as a “controversial” topic that can only be discussed in a debate format?

Taking Back the RD Credential

On the bright side, there is an emerging subgroup of RDs who are increasingly unhappy with Big Food’s ubiquity in the Academy, and who voice their disappointment. The Hunger and Environmental Nutrition dietetic practice group, of which I am a member, concerns itself with issues of corporate control, food justice, environmental regulations and other “big picture” ideas. This summer, they released their guidelines for responsible corporate sponsorship. These encompass environmental sustainability, humane labor practices and support of sound public health policy. The Academy leadership would greatly benefit from reading and applying these criteria more broadly.

At its annual “Film Feastival,” HEN hosted a screening of Split Estate, a captivating and sobering documentary about the tragic consequences of fracking in New Mexico and Colorado. In between harrowing stories of children, adults and ecosystems sickened by pollutants, oil and gas industry representatives reassured viewers that fracking was a completely safe practice. As the documentary went on, their lies were exposed, and I thought of the striking similarity to spin and untruths from Big Food – the very companies that my professional organization partners with. Bleak subject matter aside, I was happy to spend a few hours utilizing my brain, thinking critically and listening to a panel of concerned individuals – a doctor, an RD, an activist and a farmer – all advocating against powerful lobbies that prioritize profits over health. Sound familiar?

Now more than ever, members of the Academy who recognize the insidious nature of partnering with Big Food must speak up and let the leadership know how and why these partnerships are detrimental to the profession. We cannot allow ourselves to be steamrolled by the inane notion put forth by many in power that partnering with the likes of PepsiCo and McDonald’s benefits our profession and the health of Americans. It is simply untrue. I am growing increasingly tired of having to defend the credential I worked so hard for, which in many circles is seen as promoting Diet Coke and Baked Cheetos. We will never be taken seriously as nutrition experts when our messaging and credential is co-opted by junk food companies who think we are just an easy sell.

I urge my colleagues to think critically, ask tough questions and relentlessly defend the ideas of healthful, real food. Yes, you will have detractors. Yes, at times you may feel you face a well-oiled – and well-budgeted – PR machine that is ready to discredit and stomp you. However, this is not the time to admit defeat. Many people are now recognizing the power of food to promote – or destroy — health. It is up to us, as registered dietitians, to take back our credential.

This post originally appeared on Appetite for Profit October 15, 2012.

© Food Safety News
  • doc raymond

    So, Andy, what is it that you really dislike about milk? That it comes from an animal perhaps?

    • Pathancock

      look at the china study which proves a milk cancer link, also we were not designed to drink milk from another species, dairy milk also has been shown to contribute to asthma, 93% of the world is mildly or badly lactose intolerant because again we were not meant to drink milk from another species about the closest one is goats milk which mimics breast milk but our kids are not 900 pound calves which is what cow milk is designed for, also most big dairy farms hook cows up 24/7 for milking which produces blood and pus with the milk, so I guess that what I have wrong with it?

      • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

        Andy makes very good points about the dairy industry. 

        As for the China Study:

        “This is a cautionary tale. It shows how complex issues can be over-simplified into meaninglessness, how epidemiologic data can be misinterpreted and mislead us, and how a researcher can approach a problem with preconceptions that allow him to see only what he wants to see. The China Study was embraced by vegetarians because it seemed to support their beliefs with strong evidence. Minger has shown that that evidence is largely illusory. The issues raised are important and deserve further study by unbiased scientists. At any rate, one thing is clear: the China Study is not sufficient reason to recommend drastic reductions in protein intake, let alone total avoidance of meat and dairy foods.”
        http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/the-china-study-revisited/

    • Andy Bellatti

      My issue with milk is that it is overhyped as a beverage that offers exclusive nutrients, when it doesn’t. Every nutrient in milk is available in other foods. Furthermore, the Dairy Council likes to propagate the myth that a lack of milk in the diet leads to nutrient deficiencies, which is untrue.

  • Stephger

    I am completely with you! Thank you for writing this article!!

  • Frankie M.

    Moderation is a “meaningless term” and “real food” is not?

    Oh, please.

    Ha, ha. One fledgling BS artist and spinmeister offended after being fairly upstaged by truly professional operators. These RD quacks pitch one silly fad diet then the next. At least “big food” is consistent.

  • Thetruth

    All that matters is big money.  Not a single government agency is out there to protect health and happiness.  They are all just tools of the ultra wealthy corporations.  America is a sham.

  • FoodSci

    Ah yes, CSPI. One of the groups that pressured “big food” to use trans fats. Don’t believe me? Ask Mary Enig. can’t find her? Google it.

    If “Big Food” and processed food (including that made by littler food) is so bad, you should be gleefully taking their sponsorship money to take them down. Sugary soda and faux juices and fried corn chips are terrible foods, but these same companies make oatmeal, orange juice and frozen broccoli. Maybe you need to teach the public the right choices so they can sell more of the latter and less of the former? And for cryin’ out loud, show me the studies that say a candy bar once a month is going to cut your life short or cause an incurable disease. Or than Nature’s Path’s “evaporated cane juice” is more healthy than than General Mills “sugar”.

    Dr. Clemens is correct. Being a chemical and being synthetic doesn’t make something inherently dangerous. Actually, in the case of nitrites/ates for example, I’d rather take my changes with something that you can find in celery or saliva than tangle with botulism. And I doubt a tiny level of BHA is going to do any more damage than the multitude of free radicals and toxic compounds in oxidzed fat. Ask a toxicologist about the concept of “the dose makes the posion”.

    I would think that getting a degree in Dietetics is rigorous enough to understand science and decode studies - perhaps that’s changed. Although I know plenty of Dietitians that seem to be able to figure things out, so it must not be that widespread. Just because everyone’s got an angle doesn’t mean the science is wrong or something is harmful. For example, in general, the only people who are anti-dairy are animal rights/vegan people, not some consensus of nutrition scientists.

    How are the book sales for Ms. Simon’s ”Appetite for Profit” going BTW? 

  • Krishnamachari

    A nice article true to the core

  • Colleen Webb

    Andy, I completely agree with you and was especially outraged at the fructose lecture sponsored by Coca Cola where I felt the takeaway message was to drink more soda (truthfully, I was surprised they weren’t handing out samples of Coke at the door). However, I have yet to formulate a plan for how A.N.D. will make their money if they terminate these types of contracts.  Would love to hear your thoughts.