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America's Largest Group of Dietitians Was Almost Run by Big Soda

"There’s a point at which you’ve blurred the lines between your mission and that of your corporate sponsorships so much that your mission itself comes into question.”

Alex Swerdloff

Photo via Flickr user Adrian Scottow

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) is the largest group of dietitians in the US—and they just happened to have a hell of a week. That's because last week, the 100,000-member organisation elected Mary Russell to be its new president, but in the process, we all learned a little bit about prominent members of the group that have deep ties to the very companies they are meant to be pushing back against—ties that AND seems intent on sweeping under the rug.

It all started back in December, during the campaign period when Neva Cochran and Mary Russell were running against each other as the only candidates for AND president. The candidates were supposed to reveal the entirety of their affiliations and sponsorships to AND membership, but Anna Macnak, a member of the academy and a dietitian from Texas, was certain that Cochran had not done so—at least not completely.

Cochran, it turned out, had worked for the American Beverage Association, the soda industry's lobbying group, and the Calorie Control Council, a group that represents the low-calorie food and drink industry—in other words, the trade group for artificial sweeteners.

Macnak thought members should know the affiliations of the candidates running for president, and tweeted as much. That's when she got a strong email from AND, which seemingly tried to silence her. Mic obtained the emails that were sent to Macnak; it accused Macnak of "provid[ing] a negative bias against Cochran" and using Twitter to spread negative messages. The Academy even said the tweet violated the organisation's ethics requirements.

Macnak, of course, says she was using Twitter ethically, to let her followers know what they should have learned from AND itself—the client list of one of its presidential candidates. She believes she was being silenced, and that the information was being suppressed.

So does Kyle Pfister, founder of Ninjas for Health, a public health advocacy group. He wrote a blog post on Medium about Macnak's struggles with AND—and then that publication received a complaint from the organisation, accusing Medium of publishing "private communications...without the consent of all parties involved."

As it turned out, Cochran lost the election, which was held on Friday, but we wanted to know just how prevalent industry affiliations were at the Academy purporting to protect our national nutrition and why AND would want to keep those affiliations quiet.

Macnak wasn't willing to speak with MUNCHIES, saying that she had already made her point, but other prominent policy advocates and nutritionists would offer insights to us. We learned that Cochran had a pro-soda stance, going so far as to tweet this bit of questionable nutrition advice: "Calorie needs R personal. Active teens: soda, lemonade, sweet tea & choc milk can replace calories & fluid. #Advisor." Hell, Cochran is quoted as saying she feels "plain water isn't that appealing."

While the World Health Organisation and much of the rest of the nutrition world is telling us to reduce sugar intake—drastically—AND, which is, to reiterate, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, was going to lengths to protect a candidate who was employed by the soda lobby.

How was this possible?

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. According to the Wall Street Journal, AND has accepted millions of dollars from food and drink companies. Only in 2015, under mounting pressure from AND members and several advocacy groups, did Coca-Cola choose to terminate its sponsorship with the Academy; PepsiCo followed suit in 2016.

Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and the author of a 2015 report that looked into the pervasiveness of industry ties among nutrition scientists, told MUNCHIES: "[AND] didn't change their policy to keep Coke out—and that's a very important distinction. The Academy gave some lip service to concerns that were raised and made some changes like setting up a committee, but I haven't seen any substantive change come out from them aside from rearranging some deck chairs."

Simon found the conflict of interest during this election to be "the most blatant that I can remember… beyond the pale."

A spokesperson for AND provided MUNCHIES with the following statement: "The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' 2017 national election was conducted in exactly the same manner as previous years' elections. The Academy is committed to transparency and requires all candidates to provide their employment history, which is made public on the Academy's website prior to elections. Candidates on the ballot fully disclose business relationships and clients on their websites for anyone to examine."

Regardless of who actually initiated AND's breakup with Coke, Pfister points out, "Soda industry infiltration of the Academy and its dietitians did not end — it only evolved."

Food policy expert Marion Nestle says that the problem of industry ties in nutrition is, in fact, endemic: "Many dietitians work for food companies. Many others think that working for food companies is a reasonable thing to do (and pays better than hospitals do). They do not recognise the inherent conflict, as most people who take industry funding do not."

The bottom line? "If you are paid by a company, you are unlikely to criticise its products or advise others not to consume them. That's a conflict of interest," Nestle told MUNCHIES.

READ MORE: What Would Censorship of the USDA Mean for America?

Nestle, who is not a member of AND, also added, "AND is well-known for suppressing dissent. It has a code of ethics that discourages public expressions of dissent. On the other hand, an organised group of AND members—Dietitians for Professional Integrity—encourages the organisation to clean up its ties with industry."

Kaylan Crowther, a nutritionist who is a member of AND, told MUNCHIES she believes that Cochran's loss of the election is indicative that members of AND have had enough of old-style, secret affiliations with Big Food: "The recent election for AND president-elect Mary Russell showed that dietitians want change and professional integrity, not more food-industry insiders. In the future, this lack of transparency could be avoided by simply requiring candidates to disclose their full employment history, rather than allowing them to cherry pick."

Pfister says it is essential that candidates running for Academy president reveal any Big Soda or other corporate affiliations: "The soda industry funds fake science, lobbies against health policy, and deliberately targets poor black and Latino kids with products that hurt their health for a lifetime. Like the tobacco industry, it's sole goal is to sell more unhealthy product. And like the tobacco industry, their profit motive can never align with public health no matter how many dietitians they pay to pretend it does."

He is hopeful that transparency will lead to change: "It's hard to believe tobacco companies paid doctors to sell cigarettes for years. It will be just as hard to justify dietitians selling soda."

Andy Bellatti, a Las Vegas-based nutritionist and the co-founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, told MUNCHIES that his group "took a wait-and-see approach to this election." Still, he says, "The Academy appears to view connections to industry as a positive thing. We need to get rid of this mentality."

First, he says, AND must tighten up its ethics guidelines, including those that apply to paid social media posts. Also, he explains, the idea that sitting down with the corporate lobby and educating them on good nutrition is useless. What's more, "I would say that there was some stifling or censoring that occurs during this election. There have definitely been many dietitians who have told me they are afraid to speak out because of repercussions."

Corporations will likely always play a role in American nutrition given that our food is largely produced by corporations. As Simon points out, "It's not to say that there's no role for industry interaction. You can work with the industry without them having a soda fountain at your annual trade show."

Although some of the experts we spoke with see Cochran's loss of the election as a signal that AND's members are done with corporate-affiliated leaders—and are less that pleased with the organisation's lack of transparency—the relationship between the nation's largest organisation of nutritionists and Big Food is still a work in progress.