This weekend, 10,000 registered dietitians convened in Philadelphia for the annual convention of the Academy of Nutrition an Dietetics (AND). The Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) is an opportunity for dietitians to participate in continuing education sessions and walk the expo floor to see what’s new (and hopefully healthy) in the food and supplement world.
We’ve been covering FNCE for the past 4 years and commend the organizers and the AND for putting together a tip top event. This year, free wifi was an added bonus! It is always great to meet in person those online friends with whom we have been tweeting and cross posting in the last year. There is an amazing energy at this conference, with passionate professionals who have a burning desire to turn around this country’s obesity and obesity related disease around.
There is however, one matter that seems to dampen our enthusiasm, and that is the sponsorship of the AND by junk food companies. Placed throughout the convention hall were these huge banners thanking sponsors such as Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Hershey, and Mars.
In a recently published study – Members’ Attitudes Toward Corporate Sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition – the conclusions are worrying. Several registered dietitians, members of the AND conducted an online survey to learn how their peers feel. While there was an understanding of the need for sponsorship to fund the operations of AND and help keep membership fees low, a large number of dietitians felt very uncomfortable with the relationship the AND has with specific companies. Can you guess which companies?
The survey’s conclusion –
the Academy should be more selective as to which corporations should be allowed to sponsor the association.
Here are some points to consider, when thinking about the matter:
The AND is a non profit organization that is mostly funded by its membership dues.This year, sponsorships accounted for less than 9% of its total operating budget.
One of AND’s missions is to elevate the Registered Dietitian as THE GO-TO resource for nutrition advice for individuals. Public perception of RDs may be harmed by the association with junk food companies.
The academy asserts that the sponsors do not have any influence on the nutrition messages to the public. We respectfully disagree. Obviously the AND is not going to say that Coke is healthy (even if Coca Cola would buy first class tickets for all 10,000 dietitians to participate in the conference ).
But the AND’s message to the public regarding soft drink consumption could and should be much firmer than it is today. “Moderation” is a favorite word of the junk food industry. It should not be AND’s motto.
The AND should be more supportive of public policy regulations for reducing the consumption of soft drinks, but it does not initiate any such programs, nor does it endorse measures enacted by others. In another example, several years ago AND opposed restaurant nutrition labeling. After pressure, it altered its stance to some extent. One would expect the AND to be at the forefront of such activities.
Specific sessions at FNCE are sponsored by industry. Coke sponsored yesterday’s session “Is fructose a friend or foe?“. Although a very respected scientist was chosen to present his findings, it is very hard to trust the “latest science that shows that there is more to fructose than commonly understood.”
Some of the messages from the session seem as if they are right out of a soft drink marketing manual:
- Fructose is not the driving force in the obesity epidemic and why it is not innately bad
- Keeping an eye on your total calorie consumption is the key to healthy living not eliminating certain ingredients, foods or beverages
- Fructose might provide benefit when consumed in moderation
The session would have been much more credible without the polar bear hug of Coca Cola.
Proponents of sponsorship by junk food companies state the wide portfolio of products they have – Coke sells Dasani water and Minute Maid OJ, for example. Further, Coke funds many other nutrition education activities in the US that are not direct contributions to AND. Some people we spoke with feel that if a major sponsor like Coke would withdraw from AND, many of the other sponsors would follow suit.
While reducing sponsorships could cause some financial harm in the short term, we have no doubt that in the medium and long term the AND would be better served, and the public perception of the dietetic profession would be elevated.
Dietitians, what do you think?