Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent report by a public health lawyer exposes the deep conflicts of interest between the processed food industry and the trade organization for food and nutrition professionals
  • Virtually all of the major junk food purveyors buy sponsorships to be at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ annual trade meetings. Besides showcasing their food products in the largest booths on the expo floor, they’re also allowed to hold educational sessions, teaching dietitians about everything from the virtues of aspartame to the appropriate place of sugar in a child’s diet
  • Food companies are equally as powerful and pervasive as the pharmaceutical industry, and perhaps even more pernicious in their influence on people’s health because more often than not, it’s your food choices that produce the disease
  • A group of concerned registered dieticians have formed a more formal organization called Dietitians for Professional Integrity, aimed at pushing for more transparency and independence from industry

By Dr. Mercola

Can you rely on the government to provide objective, health-promoting dietary advice via the food guide now known as MyPlate? The short answer to that question is “No.” The reality of how the government bows to the food industry interests is shocking, and most certainly plays a role in the obesity epidemic.

How about registered dietitians (RDs)? Surely you can trust their advice? After all, their specialty is nutrition and food science.

Disturbingly, a recent report exposing the deep conflicts of interest between the processed food industry and the trade organization for food and nutrition professionals in the US shatters any illusion you may have had that RDs are the go-to source for well-researched, science-based nutrition advice that will improve your health...

The report, aptly titled: And Now a Word from Our Sponsors... Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?1 is written by Michele Simon, who has practiced public health law as long as I’ve been doing this site — about 17 years.

Many of you may not be aware that public health law even exists as a specialty, but it does. Michele has been a real white-hat advocate for public health, developing strategies to fight corporate tactics that deceive and manipulate you.

Michele’s motivation for entering into public health law began with her own foray into eating a plant-based diet and learning more about the impact of nutrition on health.

“I realized that there weren’t many people at that time making the connection between what we eat and our government policies,” she says. “I look at the politics of food and then apply my legal background to expose the various ways the industry influences our government policies and so forth.”

Her most recent exposé involves the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association), and the corporate politics involved in making public dietary recommendations.

It all began with people sending her photos of all the big junk food companies exhibiting their wares at the Academy’s annual meetings, showing her there was a problem going on. Two years ago, Michele decided to investigate the situation, which turned out to be an eye-opening experience:

“You walk into this expo show floor, and you think you’re in the wrong place. You think you can’t possibly be in a nutrition conference. It actually looks like one big junk food expo,” she says.

“After that first year of writing about it (an article on the influence of the various presenters there), I took a much deeper dive over the last six months or so to really uncover exactly how these relationships work between the major junk food companies and this very influential trade group.”

Why Are Dietitians and Nutritionists Sponsored by Junk Food Companies?

As Michele discovered, food companies like Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nestlé, Kraft, and all of the major junk food purveyors buy sponsorships to be at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ annual trade organization meetings. They typically end up having the largest booths on the expo floor. Besides showcasing their food products, they’re also allowed to sponsor or hold educational sessions at the meeting.

According to Michele, Nestlé paid $50,000 for the benefit of doing a special session in which they talked about optimum hydration, for example.

“It’s probably no coincidence that Nestlé is also the largest bottled water company in the world,” she says. “So, it’s basically a pay-to-play operation, where these companies pay big money. In exchange, they also get to teach registered dietitians (RDs) for continuing education units.

So, the RDs who are there to make sure they get their continuing education units can do that by learning about optimum hydration from the nation’s biggest bottled water company. And that’s just one example.”

Coca-Cola also sponsors ongoing educational webinars year-round. So, to get CEU’s, registered dietitians can be “educated” by Coca-cola on the virtues of aspartame, for example, and that sugar in children’s diet is okay “in moderation.” According to Michele, these ongoing integral relationships between major food companies and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (which is the nation's largest trade group organization of food and nutrition professionals) represent HUGE conflicts of interest.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics represent 74,000 of the nation’s health professionals whose job it is to help Americans to eat right. At each annual meeting, as many as 13,000 registered dietitians are in attendance.

“Some have been in the profession for a while. Some are students – young and impressionable. This is a huge meeting that happens every single year, where these companies get to show off their latest, slightly-better-for-you junk food, and teach these RDs [about nutrition],” she says.

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Americans Are Clearly Being Given the Wrong Message About Nutrition

Most physicians, as most people reading this know, don’t receive much training in nutrition, if any. So typically, a physician who is really busy in his practice and doesn’t feel it’s worth the time, effort, and energy to counsel his patients on nutrition will refer them to an RD, and then assume that their patient will receive the correct and proper advice, seeing how the RD is trained, licensed, and attend continuing education.

It’s a “a nice loop,” as Michele says, where corporate interests massively undermine and manipulate any real knowledge of what it takes to get healthy, in terms of the foods you eat. Clearly, the dietary advice Americans get is fatally flawed.

A staggering two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and about one-quarter to one third of adults are in the obese category. This in turn drives skyrocketing diabetes rates. According to the latest report from the American Diabetes Association,2 an estimated 22.3 million people were living with type 1 or type 2 diabetes in 2012, up from 17.5 million in 2007.

The food industry is quick to point out that the choice is always yours — they’re not making you buy something you don’t want. They also want to blame the obesity problem on people’s unwillingness to exercise. However, when the largest junk food manufacturers on the planet are the ones teaching dietitians about nutrition and what makes for a healthy diet, clearly the food industry carries a much larger burden of responsibility than these companies are willing to openly admit.

As little as 25 years ago, the public was still being told smoking cigarettes was perfectly harmless, and many believed the propaganda. Since then, society has paid the price for that fraudulent piece of misinformation. What you’re seeing now is the next phase of this sad trend, where food manufacturers, trade groups, lobbyists, and government are in cahoots to deceive you for profit, without regard for your health.

Many are now well-aware of the influence of the drug industry on our health care system, but food companies are equally as powerful and pervasive and perhaps even more pernicious in their influence on people’s health, because more often than not, it’s your food choices that produce the disease. Besides overly generous helpings of sugar, more than 3,000 food additives -- preservatives, flavorings, colors and other ingredients -- are added to foods in the United States. Many of these additives are banned in other countries, and many others, including aspartame, have never been properly tested for long-term safety.

Who Is Educating Dietitians on What You Should Eat?

Major food companies that have a close and cozy relationship with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics include:

  • Nestle
  • Coca-Cola
  • Kraft
  • PepsiCo (the nation’s largest food company, which beside soda also owns Frito-Lay — the largest snack food company — Gatorade, and other junk food brands)
  • ConAgra (one of the biggest processed food companies)
  • General Mills (purveyor of “candy cereals” aimed at children) and many others

For the past 12 years the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has been a significant sponsor as well, as has the National Dairy Council. Even fast-food companies like McDonald’s are represented at the annual meetings.

“They want to make sure that they’re being viewed as a good-for-you fast food company. So, at their booth, they would be sampling salads, smoothies, and oatmeal,” Michele explains.

“[Food companies] are basically trying to use these [nutrition] professionals to carry their message to their clients. That’s the name of the game here: To make sure the next time an RD talks to a client, they’ll say, 'Gee, you should really try this better-for-you, Baked Lays potato chips, because it has a few less grams of salt or fat.' It’s to make sure that RDs are recommending these still highly processed, nutrient-deficient junk foods to their clients.”

The same goes for hazardous food ingredients like aspartame. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has adopted the position that artificial sweeteners are okay. Based on these conflicts of interest between major food companies and the trade organization for dietitians, it’s no stretch to imagine that this stance is connected to the fact that Coca-Cola Company is the one educating dietitians about aspartame!

“Of course, there are many independent-minded, scientifically trained RDs who are able to ferret out the good information about these types of products. There are many RDs, in fact, that have rejected membership in the academy, mostly because of these relationships,” Michele says. “The problem really lies with the leadership of this organization and the fact that they’re putting their stamp of approval on these types of webinars and companies that obviously are contributing to the very problem that the profession is trying to address.”

Concerned Dietitians Band Together to Fight for Reform

Michele’s report3 was released in January. Not surprisingly, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics was none too happy about it.

“They engaged in what I would call typical industry tactics such as shooting the messenger," Michele says. "They made me the problem as opposed to my criticism of them. They said that I was biased and I had an agenda. And then they accused me of inaccuracies. This went on for several weeks, where they claimed there were inaccuracies in the report without naming them... Then they finally came out with this supposedly damning list of inaccuracies, and there really weren't any! They were just arguing with me over opinion-related matters such as whether a field trip to Hershey's was a legitimate way for RDs to earn continuing education credits.”

The good news is that in the wake of her report, a group of RDs have formed a more formal organization called Dietitians for Professional Integrity, aimed at pushing for more transparency and independence from industry.

You can see corporate interests reflected in a number of illogical stances the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has adopted. As a general rule, the Academy shies away from taking any stand that may upset their corporate sponsors, such as not marketing junk food to children or supporting GMO labeling. This is particularly befuddling considering the fact that while corporate sponsorships do bring needed funds to the organization, these sponsorships only account for five to 10 percent of their reported income. The rest comes from membership dues. So it seems they could easily make up that revenue from some other source.

“That really does raise the question: what is going on here?” Michele says. “Is there something deeper to these relationships? Is it just this philosophy? In any case, if your organization can only survive by taking money from the likes of Coke, Pepsi, and McDonald’s, then I think maybe it’s time to really rethink your mission and whether you should be in existence at all.”

Dietitians’ Trade Group Seeks to Censor Nutritional Advice

Then there’s the issue of the Academy’s questionable attacks on people’s right to freely talk about nutrition. Last year, the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition, a state chapter of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), threatened legal action against a blogger for writing about the Paleo diet without being a registered dietitian.

An internal document suggested the agency was forging ahead with a "strategy for gaining legal control over the term "nutritionist," as a path to limit competition for its members, against competing types of nutrition counseling." In other words, the Academy only wants you to be able to get your nutritional advice from one of their conventionally trained registered dietitians, who have undergone the nutritional brainwashing revealed in Michele’s report.

Other health experts such as your chiropractor, naturopath, personal trainer, or any number of other contacts in your life who may have amassed personal experience in their lifetimes, including yours truly, would not be allowed to share nutritional advice, should the Academy get its way. Considering the very obvious industry connections revealed by Michele’s report, this would be an absolute disaster — it would be nothing less than a monopoly on bad advice. But it sure would protect the processed food industry that is increasingly being scrutinized for its role in demolishing the health of the entire nation...

Teaching Advocates to Effectively Counter Corporate Tactics

Michele now has a couple of other reports in the works, including one on the dairy industry. She’s also hoping to develop stronger ties with various health advocate groups to work together on countering the corporate tactics that are currently misleading the masses.

“I have a whole new talk I’m doing now that looks at how the food industry lies, and how it engages PR professionals — really unpacking the types of messaging that the industry engages in [during] these policy battles,” she says.

“I feel there’s a role for assisting people who advocate – policy makers or whoever is going up against the industry. What I envision from my long-term plan is workshops, trainings (training the trainers), and really thinking about countering corporate tactics as a legitimate field of study, even for academics, and also as a specific skill... really building the skills of advocates and countering corporate tactics, exposing the front groups, exposing the PR, exposing everything the industry is doing, so that you can be better equipped when you start down the road [of advocacy].

... It’s not enough to just expose the problem. It’s not enough to do research reports on yet more marketing-to-children problems. I’m so tired of reports about this problem. We know this is the problem. Let’s get smarter and more strategic about how to counter the industry and how to beat them at their own game. That’s where I feel like there’s just a tremendous opportunity.”

Where Can You Find Truly Unbiased Nutrition Info?

Such changes are certainly desperately needed, because so many people’s lives and the quality of lives are at stake. There’s simply no doubt that health is being sacrificed for corporate profits.

Do you want some nutrition advice that isn't influenced by corporate agendas? The easiest way to optimize your health is by focusing on WHOLE, unadulterated foods, meaning foods that have not been processed or altered from their original state. Such "real" foods like those you can find at a local farmers market are not the subject of commercial jingles or billboards, but they are the types of foods that will properly nourish your body and support your health.

You can find more examples of real, healthy, non-corporate food in my free nutrition plan. Also, I hope you’ll take the time to learn more about Michele Simon’s work by visiting her web site,