Conflict of Interest Colored Dietitians’ Annual Food and Nutrition Conference

Sponsorships are generally beneficial and non-controversial. They’re a way to keep doing business without having to worry about funds. But what happens when those sponsorships are in direct conflict with the mission of the sponsored?

AND sponsors

When this happens in the field of dietetics, advocacy groups like Dietitians for Professional Integrity (DFPI) are formed. Founded in February by a group of citizens and 14 dietitians, they were primarily a Facebook group discussing concerns like the connection between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and Big Food.

Last month AND held their annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. DFPI attended the event, commonly referred to as FNCE, and have now released a report entitled “The Food Ties that Bind,” summarizing and detailing the message Big Food shared with the attendees.

According to the report, the Expo hall was liberally peppered with information from AND’s various partners and sponsors, including but not limited to: Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Unilever, General Mills, PepsiCo and the National Dairy Council. Corporate sponsors of FNCE had the opportunity to include “educational materials” in the tote bag provided to each attendee.

One handout, “Aspartame: One of the Most Studied Ingredients in the World,” was provided by Coca-Cola’s Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness. It detailed how long aspartame has existed and stated that it is used in 100+ countries around the world. It failed to include information from a recent study that found artificial sweeteners can alter the food reward-system response in the brain. This after Coca-Cola got blasted for being the health and wellness sponsor at BlogHer by the social media community.

It’s omissions like this that concern the DFPI. Because AND and its events are sponsored by Big Food companies, the nutritional information they can provide about those companies is limited. Information provided by PepsiCo at FNCE outlined Frito-Lay’s chips as the best snack choice based on sodium content. The chips were compared to large muffins, beef jerky, bagels and cheese. Other common snacks like fruit, nuts and vegetables were not included in the comparison.

Many companies are attempting to “health wash” the products they sell, and information about their nutritional benefit becomes skewed and less reliable. From the report, “DFPI’s main mission is to advocate for the Academy to sever its ties to its current Big Food partners and sponsors since these partnerships compromise professional integrity, get in the way of sound nutrition messaging, and can inhibit public criticism of the companies’ more egregious practices.”

Sponsorship issues are not the only problems detailed in the report. At FNCE a highly anticipated point-counterpoint debate was to take place on the subject of partnerships between private and public sectors. Instead, two different speakers were scheduled. One of which, journalist Michael Spector, spent his time defending GMOs, mocking those who make organics and sustainability a priority, and making statements that made it so that blaming Big Food and Big Ag for societal problems was akin to blaming the Wright Brothers for the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Many who attended the session were unimpressed with those statements, and further objected to the continuation of support from Big Food to AND. Ultimately, the report asks that AND strongly consider severing ties with many of the companies from which it currently receives sponsorship and engage in dialogue with dietitians to find ways to improve FNCE in future years.

Image from Dietitians for Professional Integrity 

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