Scott Eells / Bloomberg

Industry-funded nutrition groups shouldn’t dictate health policy

A health organization defending processed foods isn’t coalition politics but a win for Big Food

June 24, 2015 2:00AM ET

Last week, public-health lawyer Michele Simon of the advocacy group Eat Drink Politics published a report detailing various ties between the prestigious American Society for Nutrition and the food and beverage industries. The ASN, one of the most respected nutrition-research organizations, publishes the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, selected by the Special Libraries Association as one of the top 100 most influential journals in biology and medicine over the last 100 years.

The report found that by purchasing “sustaining partnerships” from The ASN, junk-food companies gain “access to the nation’s leading nutrition researchers at their annual meetings, and in their policy positions.” For example, PepsiCo’s chief scientific officer and the chief science officer at National Dairy Council are both on the ASN’s “sustaining member roundtable committee,” which “exchanges ideas and provides corporate financial support for the society's activities.” For $35,000, junk-food companies can also sponsor the hospitality suite at the annual meeting, where corporate executives socialize with nutrition researchers. According to the report, “Official spokespeople for ASN have conflicts with Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, the American Beverage Association, General Mills and Cadbury Schweppes.”

This is not to say that every ASN member agrees with, or has, these ties. It does, however, raise red flags about how these ties may affect the ASN’s positions on certain public-health issues.

Here is one example. Last year, after Brazil adopted revolutionary and much-applauded dietary guidelines that recommended limiting highly processed foods, the ASN published a staunch defense of such foods, claiming that a sliced apple is just as “processed” as minimally nutritious junk foods such as Doritos, Pop-Tarts and Lucky Charms. This is the type of industry-friendly rhetoric that allows purveyors of processed foods to deflect blame and does a public disservice, giving the general public no useful nutritional guidance.

Similarly, while many health groups — including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the American College of Preventive Medicine and the National Center for Health Research — supported a recent Food and Drug Administration proposal to label added sugar on the nutrition facts label, the ASN wrote a terse statement (PDF) against the proposal, writing that “a lack of consensus remains in the scientific evidence on the health effects of added sugars.” This, even though the World Health Organization (WHO) found enough consensus last year to recommend that the total daily intake of added sugars comprise no more than 5 percent of total daily calories.

These examples illustrate why the ties between the food industry and health organizations such as the ASN matter. Is it simply coincidence that WHO, which is free of food industry funding, finds sufficient science to recommend added sugar limits, while the ASN — of which the Sugar Association is a sponsor — claims such science is nonexistent? (It’s worth noting that the WHO has a notoriously frosty relationship with industry. In 2013, the group’s director general, Dr. Margaret Chan, described the food and beverage industry’s involvement in health policy as “dangerous.”)

We need nutrition experts free of problematic ties that may place corporate health over public health.

Of course, the symbiotic relationship between industry and health organizations isn’t new. In the 1940s, tobacco companies were present on the expo floor at the American Medical Association conference, where historian Bernard DeVoto described “doctors lined up by the hundred” to receive free cigarettes. The American Academy of Family Physicians’ “consumer alliance” with Coca-Cola is now in its sixth year; when the alliance was first announced, several members resigned in protest. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), which represents dietitians in the U.S. — including myself — has Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, General Mills and the Dairy Council as sponsors.

Health organizations often try to defend these ties by arguing that industry collaboration is needed to effect change. But sitting at the table with industry erroneously assumes that all players at the table are equal, when in fact industry has deep pockets, seasoned lobbyists and access to influential policymakers. Furthermore, the end goals of large food and beverage companies and health organizations are vastly different. Health organizations have, or should have, one simple goal: to help Americans achieve healthier lives. Meanwhile, companies such as Coca-Cola are expected to sell as much product as possible and keep shareholders happy. Thus, it is in PepsiCo’s best interest to sell as many nacho cheese Doritos as possible. It is not in their best interest to actively discourage Americans from purchasing their products. A nutrition organization drafting a passionate defense of processed foods is strictly a win for industry. Coalition politics might be paramount for success, but health organizations should focus their collaboration efforts on other organizations with similar goals. After all, one reason it took the FDA 40 years to ban harmful trans fats is due to industry blocking the negative science on them for decades.

It was a previous Eat Drink Politics report on the AND’s industry ties that led me, with a few dietitian colleagues, to create Dietitians for Professional Integrity in February 2013. It’s a group that advocates for the AND to sever its ties to problematic corporate sponsors.

While the AND has largely avoided substantial conversation about sponsorship, last year it did form a task force to review such policies. A recent debacle, in which the AND awarded Kraft Singles processed cheese products its “Kids eat right” label, also brought the issue to a head, with many dietitians leaving strongly worded comments in opposition on the association’s Facebook page and signing a “Repeal the seal” petition. Despite the AND’s initial attempts to dismiss concerns as unfounded, the agreement was terminated a few weeks later. Much more progress remains, but these are starts.

Members of the ASN should consider how its organization’s collaborations with industry affect the group’s credibility, messaging and policy recommendations. And the general public should take this as a reminder to seek health experts free of problematic ties that may place corporate health over public health. 

Andy Bellatti, M.S., R.D., is a Las Vegas–based dietitian. He is also a co-founder and the strategic director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group that advocates for ethical and socially responsible partnerships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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