Dietitians Take Aim at Food Industry Sponsorships
Published: Aug 6, 2014
By Kristina Fiore, Staff Writer, MedPage Today
Andy Bellatti has been troubled by some of the continuing education programs he's seen at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) annual meeting.
Registered dietitians have been able to earn educational credits for sitting in on a session sponsored by Frito Lay to discuss the whole-grain benefits of Sun Chips , or for listening to the Corn Refiners Association promote high-fructose corn syrup as healthy, he said.
"We've seen blatant examples of industry co-opting science," Bellatti, a registered dietitian with a master's degree in nutrition , told MedPage Today in a phone interview. "Most of the American public has no idea that its national nutrition organization has McDonald's and Coca-Cola educating its professionals."
That's why Bellatti and 14 other dietitians formed Dietitians for Professional Integrity (DFPI) more than a year ago. They're opposed to what Bellatti calls the nation's top junk-food companies -- Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Nestle, McDonald's, and so on -- sponsoring the country's largest nutrition organization.
Those kinds of relationships drag the registered dietitian (RD) credential through the mud, Bellatti said.
Instead, his organization wants to bring greater financial transparency to AND and advocate for sponsorships that they believe are more ethical.
DFPI came about after a report by public health attorney Michele Simon made headlines for raising questions about the role of "Big Food" companies in sponsoring the education of nutritionists in the U.S. Simon found that the number of food companies and trade groups that are paid sponsors of the academy more than tripled between 2001 and 2011, from 10 to 38.
DFPI made its first big push with a petition on Change.org , which has since garnered 25,000 signatures. Bellatti and the members of DFPI brought the petition before AND at the latter's annual meeting in October 2013, but the organization pointed out that only a few hundred of those signatures came from its membership and declined to take any action.
Bellatti said the group has had ongoing conversations with leadership at the academy, but no action has been taken on its sponsorship policies.
In an email to MedPage Today, a spokesperson for AND said it hires a third-party research company to evaluate the opinions of its membership regarding its sponsorships every year. It would not provide details about the results of those surveys, maintaining that they are for internal use only.
"Our main purpose now is to keep the conversation alive," Bellatti said. "When you engage in systemic change, it takes a long time."
The group has more than 9,300 followers on Facebook and posts frequently. One of its ongoing projects is its "statements of concern" from nutritionists around the country, where RDs have aired their gripes with food industry sponsorship.
During the academy's annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) in 2013, supporters sent in photographs of exhibit floor booths where big food companies were pitching their healthiest products -- even though photography had been banned from the exhibit hall for the first time ever, Bellatti said.
Coca-Cola's booth featured its various drink options, from Vitamin Water and Fuze to Coke Zero and regular Coke under the banner, "Lots of choices. Calories optional." McDonald's opted to feature a mango and pineapple with its smoothie and coffee beans with its McCafe as the most prominent parts of its display.
It's not that companies shouldn't be supporting nutrition education at all, Bellatti said. His team has come up with a rubric for what they see as ethical sponsorships that they would support within AND. Companies would be scored on four areas -- nutrition, labor issues, environmental impact, and social responsibility.
"There's a big difference between Coca-Cola and a company that's selling hemp protein," said Bellatti, who currently works for a national health insurance company in Nevada in its corporate wellness division.
Elizabeth Lee, MS, RD , a co-founder of DFPI and its current co-director of strategy, along with Bellatti, said the group still has a lot of outreach to do, "despite the fact that we've garnered a lot of support," she said. "There are still a lot of dietitians and students who haven't heard of us."
Robert Lustig, MD , a well known obesity and nutrition expert at the University of California San Francisco, expressed his support for the group in an email to MedPage Today.
"Doctors were forced to stop accepting kickbacks from the drug industry for recommending their products, but dietitians are not prevented from shilling for food companies," Lustig said. "The dietitians of America are split over the role that food industry money plays in the promulgation of the obesity and diabetes epidemics. That DFPI even exists is a manifestation of that tension."
"I am supportive of using science to effect dietary policy," Lustig added. "So is DFPI. I hope that the rest of the profession will eventually come round."