In 20 Years, We Won’t Believe Junk Food Companies Once Sponsored Dietitians

Earlier this week, we attended the annual dietitian conference known as FNCE (Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo), organized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association). Aside from interesting educational sessions, there is the expo floor, where many companies have booths with food for dietitians to sample and learn about.

One of the most contentious issues at the conference is its sponsorship by companies that common sense would exclude: Coca Cola and PepsiCo. These 2 companies represent fun brands, not healthy brands. Not only are they sponsors, thanked by the Academy, they get prime location for their booths. Coca Cola is the first thing you notice entering the expo floor.

There are many questions to be asked:

  1. Should junk food companies be allowed to exhibit at a nutrition conference?
  2. Should junk food companies be a sponsor of a nutrition conference?
  3. Should junk food companies be a sponsor of the organization that represents 70,000 registered dietitians?
  4. Does the public perception of dietitians diminish as a result of said sponsorships?

Regarding question #1 – The junk food companies may have new products that are healthy, so perhaps showing them off to dietitians is a good idea. But who gets to decide the cutoff between healthy and not healthy? The result is that dietitians are fed misguided information about products. See for example the Coca Cola billboards explaining how they have no part in this country’s obesity crisis.

Regarding questions #2-#4 – Being a sponsor implies that in some way the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is endorsing these companies and their products. And that sends of the wrong message to the public. It’s like physicians’ groups receiving money from cigarette manufacturers as late as the sixties. We look back on that now and realize how ludicrous such sponsorships were. No doubt, in decades to come we will look back to 2013 and smack our collective forehead in disbelief.

For more information check out Dietitians for Professional Integrity (DFPI), a group of dietitians that is petitioning Academy leadership to change its course. DFPI was founded earlier this year by 14 dietitians, among them Andy Bellatti and Elizabeth Lee, who were representing the group at FNCE this week. DFPI has amassed over 6,300 “likes” on its Facebook page, collected almost 25,000 signatures for its petition to change sponsorship policies. The Facebook “likes” and petition signatures are not all from dietitians, as they are open to the general public.

The petition was submitted to Academy leadership during the conference, and has created quite a conversation in the nutrition community. Academy Media Relations Manager Ryan O’Malley confirmed that the petition signatures have been received. AND will analyze and compile a summary of the signatures which they will share with Fooducate. Stay tuned.

  • Casey

    Well said! The AMA wouldn’t publicly acknowledge the harms of cigarette smoking until 1978. How long will AND continue to accept money from Coke and Pepsi? It will depend on the willingness of RDs and the public to speak out and demand change.

  • Hugh

    In twenty years? I find it difficult to believe now :-(

  • Zach

    In all fairness, it is not like receiving money from cigarette manufactures. Because that argument is too easy. As a fellow RD, I have to say that this is a tricky subject – because food is not cigarettes, the minute we start banning food on people (like we do to a small extent in NYC), people feel like their civil liberties are being taken away. Simply said, food is not cigarettes.

    Also, dietitians HAVE to work with companies such as this BECAUSE they have money that enable the research and events take place that the Academy holds. Do you think small organic companies have the funding to support the Academy? Members already pay hefty fees, and we know the government isn’t going to support a nutrition based organization. So where is the funding going to come from? Also, the rest of the non-nutritional world is a part of big food – they buy it, they eat it, and they create chronic illness within themselves with it. It is our duty as dietitians to WORK WITH these companies to make changes. Ever heard of the phrase, “keep your enemies closer?” That is what the Academy is doing.

    Lastly, if you take a look at the petition, there are not 6,000 signatures. There are 70,000 members of the Academy firstly, so this is less that 10% of the entire dietitian community. Not really a lot. Also, a lot of the names on the petition are fake. How do I know? I saw the petition. So before leading into the outrageous claims made from a few loud voices, its best to consider the voice of the mass of dietitians that understand the inevitable evil of working with these companies to truly make a change in our society.

    • Fooducate

      So you’re saying 65,000 dietitians are fine with Coke as a sponsor?
      The argument that Coke has many products that are low calorie is not valid. Their top selling products are sugary sweetened beverages. They continue to promote them heavily. And with your support, the company gets credit for being part of the solution when in fact it’s part of the problem

      • Zach

        No, i am saying that this argument is not the majority vote. Simply put. Also, I am not arguing that Coke has many low calorie products. Coke does not get MY support, but I support the Academy for making business decisions to allow businesses like Coke to sponsor them. The fact of the matter is, it is not an ideal situation – but big food business is not going to go anywhere and it is up to dietitians to work with them to help make changes. The featured items at the booth was their diet line of teas and whatnot. By promoting Dasani water, you are promoting Coke. It’s more complicated. But these businesses are going to get business whether we like it or not. So why not work WITH them to help make positive changes than cut them out of the equation completely?

    • John Ranta

      Really? Really??? Soft drinks, corn chips, pop tarts and their ilk are JUST as damaging to our health as cigarettes. True, the result of long term consumption of junk food is not lung cancer. But are you honestly arguing that obesity, diabetes and heart disease are any less lethal? The growing body of evidence is overwhelming, a steady diet of junk food makes us very sick. And the PR denial campaigns of junk food manufacturers mirror those of tobacco companies from 30 years ago. The only difference between junk food and tobacco is that you chew and swallow one, and smoke the other. They are both lethal.

      • Zach

        My response was that it is a tricky situation, which it is. Food is a basic necessity for life, cigarettes are not. I, nor any one who has knowledge on this subject, has claimed that the chronic diseases from obesity are not lethal or real problems in this country. This discussion forum is about whether or not Big Food should have a role in sponsorship for the Academy. So let’s stick to topic. Thanks.

        • John Ranta

          This discussion is about whether or not JUNK food should have a ole in sponsorship of AND. Food is a basic necessity, of course. Coca Cola, Fritos, Pop Tarts etc. are not! It is not a stretch by any means to argue that they are poisons. You know that we would all be better off for never eating such junk.

          Food should and can be both tasty and healthy. The focus of the AND should be on which foods are best for us, not which manufacturers have the deepest pockets to fund PR campaigns at AND conferences. This is not a confusing topic. The issue is simple, which foods should Americans be eating, and which should they avoid? And what does it mean when the foods we should avoid are spending a lot of money to influence nutrition professionals?

  • Chef Mike in Burlington ON

    “No doubt, in decades to come we will look back to 2013 and smack our collective forehead in disbelief.”…..we should be smacking ourselves now, especially the “Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics”…


    There should be a question #5. Should Coca-Cola provide continuing education classes to Dietitians? This Coke sponsored “education” includes gems like how sugar, artificial flavors, and other ingredients in Coke products are safe for kids. People RIGHT NOW can’t believe that is happening (it’ll likely be criminal in 20 years)!

  • John Ranta

    I am a “civilian”. Meaning that I am not a dietitian or a medical professional. I am self-educated about nutrition, diet and health. In answer to your question #4, i can assure you that the AND has zero credbility with folks like me. I respect the scientifically based work of Drs. Lustig and Eenfeldt, and the reporting of Gary Taubes. Surely you and all your “professional” colleagues know, without any doubt, that junk food is terrible, doing great damage to the health of Americans. To allow them to sponsor your conferences, and fund your “research” destroys your credibility. The AND is a house of prostitution…

  • Catherine

    It is absolutely ludicrous and destroys the Academy’s credibility. Zach’s reasoning will eventually destroy this group. Why would anybody take seriously any research that is being funded by massive, self interested junk food companies? I, for one, don’t listen to any ‘registered dietitians or nutritionists’ for this very reason. If you will tolerate the misinformation being bandied about by these companies at YOUR conference than why on Earth would I listen to you?

  • Katie

    As a dietitian, it’s disheartening to know that the integrity so many smart, truly good-hearted nutrition professionals is undermined by the co-opting of our conference by the likes of Coca-Cola. If we want change, there needs to be conversation to work out what the new world order looks like. I wonder where we draw the line in the sand and how we decide what stays and what goes. But, yes, something must change. Having companies that market super-sized junk food to the public help to underwrite our conference has made it remarkably cheap, but at what cost?

    • Jessie

      Well said Zach.

      As a fellow RD I do believe we have embraced the “all foods fit” mentality, please see the articles on our site. Those that we council on a daily basis sure have, maybe to an extreme, so why
      should we forbid relationships with companies that provide so many Americans their daily diet?

      I believe what has hurt the reputations of Registered
      Dietitians is the lack of aptness to read scientific journals (albeit nonfood corp. sponsored) to decipher the truth, versus the chaos in the media.

      Perhaps it’d behoove of us to reconsider and spend time
      reviewing company sponsored research (because that’s who pays for research) and determine if they’re credible sources ourselves. After all, why would a company spend money on research that is transparently flawed or bias?

      Let’s recap why the general mass goes to work every day, simply
      put, money. Some of you are thinking, “I work for a non-profit organization, I go to work because I like what I do”. Tell me, have you considered exploring other careers for better pay? Or have you modified your career path because the non-profit organization you once worked for closed their doors?

      In my humble opinion, this is a much larger issue than the credibility
      of Registered Dietitians. Rather, this is an issue that affects America; it
      affects our freedom, our Bill of Rights. I propose we allow folks to make their own decisions, rather than dictating everyone out of what freedom remains. The strongest will survive.

  • wholehealthgirl

    I do believe this sponsorship has hurt the reputation of dieticians among other reasons. 3 years ago I chose to go back to school and continue my degree towards becoming an RD, I could not bring myself to align with the message that was being sent out.
    I chose to go a holistic route instead, which meant throwing away 3 1/2 yrs. of schooling. Yes, this has limited my ability to work in certain sectors and has also generated nasty/demeaning remarks from RD”s. However, I do know I can state that I am not aligined with an association that is sponsored by companies that are direct contributors to the obesity epidemic in the country and don’t have to explain myself or make excuses.

  • Bill

    And for my answer to question #4: This member of the public has a diminished opinion of dietitians as a result of those sponsorships! It does not speak well of your profession to have poor nourishment providers so loudly present! I would not recommend to anyone to trust a dietitian or nutritionist who claims qualification by being a Registered dietitian. It’s meaningless.

  • Mike Luque

    Oh man… you have to “love” that Coke banner, especially the massive lie that it’s just a matter of “calories in vs calories out”.
    Yup, cause 300 calories of Coca-Cola is nutritionally the same and treated by the body the same as 300 calories of chia seed. Honestly, that this is displayed at a conference for so called “professionals” is pathetic. Coke is both pandering to you and demeaning you at the same time and it’s being accepted.