Thoughts on Junk Food Sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

AND Sponsors 2012

Sponsors of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

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?

  • Ken Leebow

    I was listening to an interview with Dr. Nortin Hadler, author of Rethinking Aging. My favorite quote from the interview:

    If you want to do good: Don’t take the Coca-Cola machines out of the school take the school out of the neighborhood.

    His books and interviews are thought-provoking …

  • Aimee Lynn

    Not that this should influence anyone’s thinking, but these same companies sponsor a number of medical associations: AHA, AMA, PCNA….just to name a few.

    How about if we think of it this way: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. And while you’re at it, take their money to support your cause.

    • Nealie Tebb

      Aimee, I appreciate your comments. Our partnerships are incentives for these companies to include RDs in the development of “healthier alternatives” (though not as ideal as fresh, locally farmed foods, we need to reach consumers where they are). Our partnerships are also incentive for RDs to work for change within these companies. Effective change is activism from the inside.

      • Nealie Tebb

        This said, I do think it important that the AND & RDs regularly discuss the purpose of our partnerships with these companies. We need to address their developments & interventions, and how these correlate with our mission & messaging. Not everyone is going to agree (we are many) but this opportunity for discussion & clarification is missing.

  • Marie

    I wish there was a way to give each registered dietitian a copy of Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, or at least copies of the cover: Eat [Real] Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. It was really my wake-up call to the way I now approach food and supermarkets. Love your blog too.

  • Jen

    This is just one reason why I am a certified holistic health coach and NOT an RD. I don’t need a corporate sponsor. I promote organic and real food. Why would I have to walk the halls of the AND convention looking for NEW healthy food? All the healthy food we need already grows naturally. It does not come from a factory!

  • Amy

    Thanks for this piece. As an RD and member of AND I think it’s unfortunate that this issue could threaten our credibility with some consumers. For myself, and many of my colleagues in the field, a diet of whole foods is still king. And even if food companies try to win our favor, most of us are smart enough to see through the spin and stick with a common sense (and evidence-based!) approach to good food and good health.

  • Tina Marie MS,RD

    Agreed!! Well said.

  • Jessica Blanchard

    This post was well put and I appreciate raising this issue at the national level. I am becoming an RD (now in Internship), after being in the field of wellness through yoga and ayurveda for many years. I decided to go though the RD curriculum precisely because I wanted more credibility and recognition in the wider public arena. I was extremely disappointed when I saw the array of sponsorships at to the Louisiana Dietetics Association meeting – Corn Refiners Association, Cattlemen’s Association, Dairy Council, and even artificial sweeteners. And each one sponsored a speaker to support its cause. Really, if we are to be taken seriously as professionals, the sponsorship needs to stop, at least on the level of speakers at conventions. My opinion is the corporates should have very clear areas of sponsorship – like booths at exhibitions.

  • James Cooper

    Your sponsorship criticism is right to the point, but the fructose issue seems confused.
    Coke contains HFCS which has only slightly more fructose than sugar.
    Pure fructose is a different thing, and may have some dangers to the liver.

  • tgw

    Thank you for raising this important issue and concern. Attending a AND conference resembles attending a Fast Food / Soda /Convention. There is no difference at the state level Dietetics Conferences either. Many RDs choose not to be members of AND because they do not support the direction their leadership is going. Until we start addressing the real issues of obesity and all sorts of diseases caused by obesity we will not turn this epidemic around. I do not want my professional association to accept money from corporate sponsers and indirectly advocate their products. Fast Food is Fast Food , soda is soda. and junk will always be junk………….regardless how it is presented! RDs and all other like minded professionals let us keep advocating for evidence based, non corporate funded information to help the families we work with on a daily basis. Our Food System needs to be fixed and there are many many of us who are determined to help in the effort. For those of us who live and vote in CA please vote yes on proposition 37 (Genetically Engineered Foods, labeling, initiative statute)……a Yes vote means “you should have the right to know what is in your food and whether your food is produced using genetic engineering. In solidarity tgw

  • Hesitant to be an RD

    I work in obesity prevention and have taught nutrition at the college level. I have considered becoming an RD (mainly because I would be paid more for doing the same work at the same organization, and it could increase future professional opportunities), but I am not excited about AND and their sponsorships. I believe part of the reason it’s so hard to address obesity is that so many people make so much money on junk food (from school booster clubs selling junk food to corporate marketing to hospital food service saying they can’t change what they serve in the cafe because they’d loose too much money – too much accessibility and everyone is confused by the masterful marketing). The AND sponsorships indicate AND also feels they need to make money rather than truely support health/nutrition.

  • Health Habits

    It could be worse…in the UK, the gov’t farmed out the nation’s health & fitness promotion program to an association of junk food companies.

    The inmates are running the asylum

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  • EAD

    It seems to me I hear no opposition from AND regarding the new anti-GMO labeling law that is set to go through the Senate.