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Corporate Sponsorship Report Draws Heated Response
By Lori Zanteson

The association between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the Academy) and Big Food through corporate sponsorships has long been controversial among nutrition professionals who recognize and sometimes resent the conflicting message the connection sends.

The recent report And Now a Word From Our Sponsors by public health advocate and lawyer Michele Simon has thrust the issue into the mainstream and is drumming up a heated response from RDs on both sides of the issue.

Critical Connections
Simon’s report criticizes the Academy for accepting corporate sponsorships, questioning its responsibility and credibility as a leading and influential advocate of healthful eating. According to the report, “A 74,000-member health organization has great potential to shape that national discourse—for better or for worse.” 

Among the findings, Simon reports that the Academy accepted a threefold increase in food industry sponsors between 2001 and 2011, including the processed food giants ConAgra and General Mills, and soft drink leaders Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Some companies, such as Kraft Foods and Nestle, not only sponsor the Academy but also are on an approved list to provide continuing professional education to its RD members, sending the message that sugar is not harmful to children.

Conflicting Signals
Despite these implications, Academy President Ethan A. Bergman, PhD, RD, CD, FADA, told Today’s Dietitian that the Academy does not endorse any company, product, or service, regardless of sponsorship. In addition, he says, “Improving the health of the public is our highest concern, and the Academy is very sensitive to even the perception of conflict of interest that may occur when working with sponsors. We make every effort to make sure that communication for consumers contains credible food and nutrition information that supports the Academy’s existing science-based positions.”
Simon’s report says 80% of RDs in an independent survey said sponsorship implies Academy endorsement of the company and its products, but it doesn’t mention that fewer than 3,000 of the 74,000 members responded to the now two-year-old survey. Bergman says that while the Academy is aware that some members have concerns, the results of surveys show “continued support of the sponsorship program by our members.”

According to corporate supermarket dietitian Barbara Ruhs, MS, RD, LDN, Simon’s report is an “attack on the Academy. It’s counterproductive to the profession. We have a code of ethics. We don’t compromise our own integrity because of these relationships.”

As professionals, dietitians are skilled in separating bias from science, says Marcia Crawford, MS, RD. “I am no more swayed by Big Food sponsorship of projects, publications, and continuing education programs for the Academy than a physician would be swayed to use a new drug after receiving a pen or a donut from Big Pharma,” she says. “Knowing where monetary support and sponsorships originate offers one clue to bias that a nutrition expert uses to evaluate an article, a study, or a product.”

Sponsorships Create Opportunity
Sponsorships are common among nonprofit organizations, Bergman explains, citing a 2012 study by consulting and research firm IEG that says about two-thirds of nonprofits either have or are looking for corporate sponsorships. According to Ruhs, the reality is that these relationships are the way to promote health on a larger scale. “There are great opportunities for the RD to influence health in America,” she says. “Developing partnerships is the key. The only way we can influence consumers is to learn how the food industry has done it since the beginning of time.”

These connections have helped the Academy accomplish its goals of improving the nation’s health through new research, healthful eating messages to consumers, and working with food companies to guide them toward developing healthier options. Bergman cites Hershey’s Moderation Nation program and credits Coca-Cola for the outreach to more than 16 million consumers with the Academy’s Kids Eat Right messages.

Striving for Balance
Simon’s report calls attention to the Academy’s 2012 annual meeting, where there was a disproportionate representation of processed and unhealthful food exhibitors compared with those representing whole foods, fruits, and vegetables. While this may send mixed signals to have a soda company exhibit at such events, large companies that sell unhealthful foods and beverages more than likely also have lines of healthful options.

“I think the balance—of better quality to lesser quality—is what bothers me,” says Ashley Koff, RD. “For example, if Pepsi is going to be at FNCE, then they should be there for their water, coconut water, etc, not their soda or diet sodas. We could have a no soda policy, couldn't we?”

Likewise, she disagrees with Mars being the singular promoter of healthful snacks. “Why not have a group of smaller companies that together can sponsor, like Annie's, Nature's Path, etc?” 

While some dietitians say improvements can be made, the motive behind Simon’s report may be called into question. “I respect Simon’s goal of raising awareness,” Ruhs says, “but I don’t think it’s [the report] productive. We need to stop criticizing and create partnerships. She should spend some of her energy finding solutions. I truly believe if we all come together, we’re going to make a difference.”

— Lori Zanteson is a food, nutrition, and health writer based in southern California.