The Academy, however, argues that its “highly educated and professional” members are more than capable of distinguishing facts from spin when listening to a Coke- or Hershey-sponsored education session at its annual Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE).
So are critics of AND's ties with 'Big Food' right to be concerned, or has this issue been blown out of all proportion?
FoodNavigator-USA spoke to AND president Glenna McCollum and AND member Andy Bellatti (a vocal critic of AND's corporate sponsorship program), to find out.
AND members are capable of distinguishing facts from spin in industry-sponsored education sessions
First we asked whether it's appropriate to run education sessions at AND events sponsored (or presented) by companies that many of AND's own members believe are partly to blame for the problems they are trying to solve.
The majority of members, insists McCollum, recognize that simply banning all industry speakers would be counterproductive.
“Some of the world’s best scientists, researchers, thinkers and world-changers have come from the private sector.
“What’s problematic about an argument that sweepingly discredits the work or integrity of anyone who works for a business or company is that it eliminates a significant and important portion of bodies of research", she adds.
“To limit the sharing of science and research findings doesn’t solve anything.”
Some of the world’s best scientists have come from the private sector
Meanwhile, AND’s 75,000+ members, 72% of whom are registered dietitians (RDs), are more than capable of weighing up what they hear from big food companies at FNCE and coming to their own conclusions “based on science and evidence” she says.
"Registered dietitian nutritionists are highly educated and dedicated professionals who base expert advice and services on science and evidence. Academy members are absolutely capable of distinguishing facts from spin, and it is dangerous to limit an entire profession’s access to information based on personal opinion or ideology.”
And while many people would argue that McDonald’s is the last organization that should be educating RDs - or anyone else - about healthy lifestyles, AND is taking a more pragmatic approach, she adds:
“We are very clear that the Academy endorses no products or services. [But] an organization that expects to have any truly meaningful effect on population-based health promotion and disease prevention on a large scale must recognize the contribution and inclusion of all parties in the solution.”
The Academy’s relationships with these sponsors are what make these opportunities possible
Meanwhile, the money Hershey et al bring in is being used to promote positive messages, she claims. “Hershey’s Moderation Nation program covered the costs for more than 1,300 consumers to work with registered dietitians on their personal health goals.
“Our Kids Eat Right campaign featured on electronic billboards across the US to an audience of more than 16.5m for nearly a year thanks to Coca-Cola. The fact is, the Academy’s relationships with these sponsors are what make these opportunities possible.”
Not everyone is going to agree about the sponsorship program, and we understand that
But isn’t the mere association of brands associated with chocolate, soda and chips with a nutrition and dietetics association sending out some very odd signals to members and the public?
“If we weren’t so extremely transparent about our sponsors and vigilant about every message the Academy puts out to consumers being backed by sound science, we wouldn’t have developed the program”, says McCollum.
“Not everyone is going to agree about the sponsorship program, and we understand that. But the Academy regularly evaluates the program to ensure it aligns with the organization’s mission and vision, and independent surveys show general acceptance of the program by membership.”
Meanwhile, AND membership has not suffered as a result of concerns over corporate sponsorship, she notes: “Actually we just recently reached our highest membership numbers ever.”
Petition calling for AND to sever ties to ‘junk food’ sponsors has 21,000+ signatures
However, wandering through the expo hall at FNCE in Philadelphia last year made many AND members feel very uneasy as they passed booths run by Coca-Cola, Kraft, Hershey, Mars, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Nestlé and the Sugar Association, claims Bellatti.
Indeed Bellatti - whose petition on Change.org calling for AND to sever ties with ‘junk food companies’ has now garnered more than 21,000 signatures - felt so queasy he set up a group called Dietitians for Professional Integrity urging “greater financial transparency, as well as ethical, socially responsible, and relevant corporate sponsorships within the AND”.
Support grew strongly last year following the publication of a report from Eat Drink Politics: ‘And Now a Word from Our Sponsors’ which argued that AND - which has 38 corporate sponsors from Mars to McDonald’s - has a “serious credibility problem”, he says.
AND’s ‘everything in moderation’ stance is highly convenient to corporate sponsors
But where’s the hard evidence that AND’s corporate ties have compromised its integrity? And aren’t there some decent R&D professionals working at PepsiCo et al that have a useful contribution to make at FNCE and other events?
Of course there are, accepts Bellatti, and no one is accusing AND of actively encouraging people to drink more soda or chips.
But by accepting cash from Pepsi and Coke, AND is less likely to take sides on issues such as Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on super-sized sodas, he contends.
Meanwhile, some recent AND position statements - which can be paraphrased as 'there is no such thing as good and bad foods, only good and bad diets' - also play into the hands of corporate sponsors, he claims.
While occasional treats can be part of a balanced diet, some foods are self-evidently better and worse than others and AND’s ‘everything in moderation’ message is highly convenient to firms actively opposed to any kind of government interference in the formulation, distribution or promotion of ‘junk’ foods and beverages, he argues.
If you go to a presentation supported by the National Dairy Council, you’ll come out thinking that milk is the only source of calcium
So what does he hope to achieve with the petition, and will he and fellow concerned colleagues all quit AND if bosses do not take notice when he presents them with his petition at FNCE in Texas this fall?
“We’ll present the petition first and see where we go from there”, says Bellatti, who says he’s not trying to present an ultimatum, but wants to work with the AND leadership to either define tougher criteria for choosing corporate sponsors, or to help identify other revenue sources that will enable it axe such sponsors altogether and regain complete independence.
In 2012, corporate sponsorship contributed just 7% to AND’s revenues, so ditching it will not be financially catastrophic, he argues. Meanwhile, there are plenty of experts that don’t work for big food and beverage companies that can lead great education sessions at AND events, he insists.
“I go to plenty of events with great speakers that are independent. I’m not knocking dairy, but if you go to a presentation supported by the National Dairy Council, you’ll come out thinking that milk is the only source of calcium.”
It's not that industry experts will tell lies, he says (no self-respecting scientist would do that, even for a big paycheck) but they may omit information that casts their company's products in a negative light, or fail to mention other sources of a particular nutrient under discussion.
"They're operating with one arm tied behind their back."
When junk food giants are allowed to sponsor our conferences, our credential loses credibility in the eyes of the public
Crucially, he says, perceptions matter, even if AND is not influenced in any way by its corporate partners.
“If AND is sponsored by companies that spend millions marketing the very products that contribute to our nation's ever-worsening health and actively fight initiatives for better health, as AND members, it looks like we're all the puppets of big food.
"When junk food giants are allowed to sponsor our conferences and provide continuing 'education' to RDs, our credential loses credibility in the eyes of the public."
Click here to read about Coca-Cola’s take on this issue in our sister site BeverageDaily.com