Are America’s nutrition professionals in the pocket of Big Food? That’s the question posed by public health lawyer Michele Simon’s 2013 report “And Now a Word From Our Sponsors“. Simon examines the apparently cozy relationship that exists between the food industry and the organization responsible for the training and credentialing of registered dieticians (RDs), the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, or “the Academy”).
For Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, reading the report was a defining moment, one that moved him to take action.
As a child growing up in Argentina, and later the US, Bellatti never expected to become a dietitian; he intended to be a journalist. After graduating from New York University with a double major in journalism and gender studies, his original plan hit a wall when he discovered a non-existent job market for his specialty, investigative journalism.
At the same time, seeing the movie “Super Size Me” changed the way he looked at food. Working at NYU to pay the bills while pondering his next move, Bellatti decided the time was right to pursue a second degree, this time from NYU’s famed Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health.
But after training as a journalist, he was shocked by the way the course material for dietetics was presented. “Sadly, the RD curriculum is one that relies mostly on rote memorization,” he explains. “Want a 4.0 GPA in your courses? Then be a good student and repeat exactly what is in your book. I found it appalling, especially after doing a bachelor’s in journalism, which is all about asking questions.”
Bellatti began blogging about nutrition in 2007, combining both his dietetic and journalistic training. “I consider myself 50% RD, 50% journalist,” he says. “I get irritated with the idea that the ‘only’ way to be a journalist is to be objective. I think the most powerful journalism takes a stand FOR something.”
That’s why Bellatti decided to organize Dietitians for Professional Integrity(DFPI), to object to food industry sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “I went to school to be a dietitian, ” he says, “not a Public Relations and damage control expert for Big Food.”
Q. – What led you to establish DFPI? Was there a defining moment when you knew you had to do it?
A. – I have been very vocal about my concerns surrounding the Academy’s Big Food partnerships for several years. In January 2013, Michele Simon’s terrific report got quite a bit of national media attention and set up the perfect opportunity to keep that ball rolling. I reached out to some RD colleagues who shared my views; they committed to forming a group to advocate for more responsible and ethical sponsorships within our professional organization.
We started a petition asking the Academy to sever its ties with junk food companies and adopt more transparent sponsorship guidelines, and over 25,000 people signed it, including RDs, health professionals, and concerned consumers.
The Academy’s response was to claim that only 600 of the signatories were AND members; I guess they don’t care that, in addition to RDs, many members of the public are obviously troubled by Big Food’s infiltration of the organization whose members they trust for advice based on sound nutrition, not company profits.
Q. – How did your colleagues react to DFPI? Did their reaction surprise you?
A. – The staunch supporters and detractors immediately identified themselves. The opposition was largely made up of dietitians who work or consult for industry. I believe the majority of my colleagues are somewhere in the middle.
Many RDs have thanked DFPI for opening their eyes to this issue. Most were unaware of the fact that the International Food Information Council is a Big Food front group, that many of the Academy’s partners have gotten into hot water for deceptive marketing and questionable environmental practices, and that many of the Academy’s partners lobby behind the scenes against public health nutrition policy. It’s encouraging to see how many dietitians want to learn more about this.
However, I am very disturbed by the numerous emails I have received from RDs telling me they support DFPI, but are afraid to do so publicly because they fear their jobs, leadership positions within the Academy, or chances of landing a dietetic internship could be compromised. That paints a picture of an oppressive, fear-based professional organization.
Q. – What are some of the most egregious examples you have seen of nutrition advice tainted by food industry interests?
A. – I find the defense of soda particularly deplorable. This is a substance that has no redeeming health qualities whatsoever! Despite the ever-growing pile ofevidence showing how soda contributes to a variety of health ills, I still see some dietitians employed by soda companies claiming that concerns about soda are “anti-scientific”, and that there is “no truth” to the fact that sugar is harmful.
I have also seen some RDs (again, most of these folks work or consult for the soda industry) repeating industry talking points against soda taxes.
It is particularly disturbing knowing the millions of dollars that soda companies have funneled into lobbying against public health and nutrition policy.
The thinking that accompanies this is “We need to all sit at the table!”, which is to say that the only way we can hope to solve our current public health crisis is by coming together with Big Soda. The problem with that is that Coke and Pepsi have one very simple mission: sell as much product as possible. A health organization has – or should have – a different mission: improve the health of Americans.
I am all for sitting at the table, but let’s do that with individuals and organizations that have the same goal. Otherwise, this is like a three-legged race where a 9 foot tall, 600 pound giant (Big Soda) wants to go left, while its 4 foot tall, 80 pound partner (a health organization with a smaller budget and less political clout) wants to go right.
Q. – What do you think of the AND position that “All foods can fit in a healthy diet”?
It is a toothless, vague, apolitical and industry-friendly message. This is precisely why taking money from the likes of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, and Kellogg’s is so problematic. In trying to keep financial backers happy, compromises are made. In this case, the Academy’s nutrition messaging gets watered down. The food industry is well aware of this quandary and takes advantage of it.
Those defending this sort of messaging claim that anything deviating from it “demonizes” foods and judges people. Talking about the detrimental, scientifically proven health effects of smoking, alcohol, soda, and highly processed or fast food is not about judging people; it is about providing a public service.
Health advocates who are outspoken about certain foods being harmful also advocate for better access to healthful foods in low-income communities, improved labor practices in the restaurant industry, and more equal distribution in our food system. This is the antithesis of judgment, standing up for the average American while decrying corporate abuse of power.
I have worked with hundreds of patients and seen the casualties of the food industry’s deceptive practices. Clients who think Nutri-Grain bars are healthful because the box states they are “made with real fruit,” or patients who think sugary cereals are a fine breakfast choice because they are low in fat. I don’t judge these people; I feel for them because they have been tricked, and cheer for them when their health improves after largely eschewing highly processed foods.
Equalizing the food playing field by saying “All foods fit” helps no one. A much better approach is to talk about foods that fall into these categories: “Eat on a daily basis,” “Eat no more than two or three times a month” and “Eat rarely, if at all.” At least that gives weight to actual nutrition science. “All foods fit” operates from a framework where Pop-Tarts, lentils, donuts, and carrots are all supposed to be equal.
It doesn’t help to keep putting an “All foods can fit in a healthy diet” message out there when the average American diet isn’t very healthy to begin with.
Q. – What’s your opinion of Coca-Cola’s Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness?
A. – It’s the epitome of damage control; essentially, a well-done Public Relations effort to defend Coca-Cola’s product portfolio under the guise of “health education.”
Big Food and Big Soda have huge budgets, which allow them to hire the best marketing, consumer psychology, and communications experts. None of this is an amateurish production.
One thing these “Institutes” do well is throw in just enough science and common sense to sound reasonable. For example, Coca-Cola’s Beverage Institute willstate that “all calories count.” And that is true. The average person will read that and think about how they’ve heard respected, independent health experts say that very same thing.
Alas, what Coca-Cola fails to mention is that while all calories count, not all calories are created equal, and there is a huge difference between taking in 400 calories from soda versus taking in 400 calories from eating two bananas with two tablespoons of peanut butter for breakfast.
The calories from soda come exclusively from sugar, which does not satiate and does not nourish. Meanwhile, bananas with peanut butter offers fiber, healthful fats, minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, and protein; after eating it, you feel satisfied. After drinking soda, your body is still asking, “Where’s my nourishment?”
Q. – Other well respected groups, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, theAmerican Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Society of Nutrition (publishers of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) and the World Health Organization, as well as the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, and the National Black Nurses Association, to name just a few, have all taken substantial donations from Coca-Cola. Just how extensive is Big Soda’s reach when it comes to influencing the dietary advice Americans receive?
A. – It is pretty extensive. The irony is that all these partnerships and donations are justified as being used “to help fund obesity prevention efforts,” while Coca-Cola forks over millions to lobbyists to make sure any policies that would affect its bottom line don’t become a reality.
It is also important to point out that the World Health Organization’s General Director, Dr. Margaret Chan, was highly critical of Big Food and Big Soda’s partnerships with the public sector in an address last year. I think we can all agree that WHO is not a radical organization, so when they start speaking out against the soda industry, you know that the ship is beginning to turn, even if slowly.
There is no doubt industry has had a vice grip on health education and health policy for a while now. Any time you talk about systemic change, you have to give it several decades. Will I, in my lifetime, see the change for which my colleagues and I are advocating? I’m not sure.
What I do know is that the deck is stacked against public health, and that’s enough to motivate me to keep going.
Read other articles in the Soda Tax Myths series:
Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverage Companies Friends to the Poor?
Soda Tax Myths: The Arkansas Argument
Soda Tax Myths: Soda Taxes Distract from Real Issues
Truth an Early Casualty in SF’s Soda Tax Fight
Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverages Being Unfairly Targeted?
Soda Tax Myths: Do Soda Taxes Reduce Obesity Rates?
Can Big Soda’s Statistics Be Trusted?
Soda Tax Myths: Does Big Soda Support Free Choice?
NY Soda Tax Advocate’s Advice for SF and Berkeley
Heartless Big Soda Terrifies Mom and Pop Businesses
Soda Tax Myths: Big Soda Says It’s Your Fault If You’re Fat
Soda Tax Myths: Do All Foods Really Fit in a Healthy Diet?
More on debunking soda tax myths.