Revealed: Group Shaping US Nutrition Receives Millions From Big Food Industry

Newly released documents show an influential group that helps shape US food policy and directs consumers to nutritional products has financial ties to the world’s largest processed food companies and has been controlled by former employees industry who have worked for companies like Monsanto.

The documents reveal that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a counterparty record with a range of food giants, owns shares in ultra-processed food companies and has received millions in contributions from beverage producers fizzy, candy and processed foods linked to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other health problems.

The findings are part of a recently released peer-reviewed study that examined a trove of financial documents and internal communications obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“It’s incredibly influential, so if the Academy is corrupt, nutrition policy in the United States will be corrupt,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of US Right to Know and co-author of the study. The nonprofit investigative body developed the study with researchers from nonprofits and universities in the US and UK.

“If we are ever going to solve the problems of obesity and diabetes in the United States and elsewhere, we will have to tackle corruption in our healthcare institutions,” Ruskin added.

The Academy calls it an independent voice and a “trusted educational resource for consumers.” He lobbies Congress and represents and provides information to more than 110,000 American dietitians who help people make decisions about what to eat.

Although the academy has long been criticized for its ties to big food, the study reveals for the first time the depth of its financial ties.

The Academy accepted at least $15 million from corporate and organizational contributors from 2011 to 2017, and more than $4.5 million in additional funding went to the Academy’s foundation. Among the most significant contributions came from companies such as Nestlé, PepsiCo, Hershey, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Conagra, the National Dairy Council and formula producer Abbott Nutrition.

The Academy and its foundation have also received funding from the food industry through sponsorships, which are in effect counterparties. In a 2015 email, an Academy employee defined a sponsorship as “when a company pays a fee to the Academy/Foundation in exchange for specific rights and benefits defined by the Academy/Foundation” .

Kellogg's, one of the largest contributors to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Kellogg’s, one of the largest contributors to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Photography: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The email reveals that the Academy in 2015 was in a sponsorship deal with Abbott and was discussing how the Academy could use the influence of its dietitians in pediatric practices to push Pediasure, one of nutritional products for infants from the pharmaceutical giant. Abbott had then put in place a two-year, $300,000 sponsorship deal.

The Academy also owned Abbott stock at the time of the deal and plan, records show. He also owned shares in companies he had a sponsorship deal with, PepsiCo, as well as financial contributors, like Nestlé.

“It’s amazing,” Ruskin said. “It’s in the conflict of interest hall of fame – it’s off the charts.”

The leadership of the Academy at the time seemed aware of the optics.

“I personally love Pepsico and have no problem with us owning it, but I wonder if anyone will say anything about it,” Donna Martin, then Academy Treasurer, wrote in an email from 2014. “I hope they will be happy as they should be! Personally, I would be ok if we had stock of Coke! »

The 2015 email also described an extension of a sponsorship deal with the National Dairy Council. Under the proposed expansion, the National Dairy Council would pay $1.2 million for a package that would fund “support for both the Academy and the Foundation to continue collaborative work around food , nutrition and agriculture”. Other sponsors listed in the email include Coca-Cola Industry Group and Conagra, which owns brands such as Reddi-Wip, Slim Jim and Banquet.

The Academy at the time of the 2015 email was also in discussions with Subway about how the Academy could “endorse” the fast food chain’s “healthier products”, the email states, and discussed a partnership with candy bar company Mars.

Separately in 2015, a partnership between the Academy and Kraft sparked controversy when the Academy agreed to allow the company to put its “Kid’s Eat Healthy” seal on Kraft Singles packaging, which suggested a source independently verified the nutritional value of the product.

But critics were quick to point out that the product had poor nutritional value; it is not federally classified as a cheese but as a “pasteurized prepared cheese product”; and it includes dyes and other chemicals. Faced with the backlash, the Academy canceled its stamp.

About $4.5 million in corporate funding from companies like General Mills has gone to an initiative called the “Champions Program,” which has awarded funds to hundreds of non-governmental organizations to support projects “promoting healthy eating and active lifestyles for children and their families”.

The Academy did not respond to specific questions from the Guardian, but directed it to a response for consideration on its website. He denied wrongdoing, said the study contained factual errors, and said the study took its financial data out of context. He said “strict” guidelines are in place to prevent corporate influence on his programming.

The Academy added that corporate funding is only a small portion of revenue and that an independent company manages its stock portfolio.

“By their assumptions, omissions and distortions, the authors of the report have done a serious disservice to the Academy, our members and the entire nutrition and dietetics profession,” the statement said.

The documents only surfaced because Martin, a former academy president who works for a public school district in Georgia, used her school’s email for Academy business, which meant the communications were subject to the FOIA.

The study also highlights the revolving door between the Academy and industry. Its staff and members of its board of directors include current and former public relations employees for companies that represent the food industry, as well as consultants or employees for large food entities such as Monsanto, Sodexo, the Sugar Association , Bayer and the International Food Information Council, and the industry front group.

The Academy, formerly known as the American Dietetic Association, appears to have been controlled by big food interests for “as long as I know of the Academy,” said Marion Nestle, a nutritionist and public health advocate who wrote about the links. in his 2002 book, Food Politics. She said the financial ties raised “fundamental questions about credibility”.

“How can the Academy advise the public to avoid ultra-processed foods, for example, if it is funded by the manufacturers of these foods?” she asked. “The question of trust is essential for nutrition counselling. The Academy seems to represent the food industry, not the public interest.

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