Last week, the American Dietetic Association announced a new corporate sponsor: The Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition. The press release is vague but states that they:
“…will collaborate with ADA on consumer and health professional initiatives including an innovative, national consumer-focused nutrition education campaign.”
Whatever that means. But the goals of these partnerships are always primarily to improve brand image so more people will include their products in a “healthy” diet, or at least reduce negative perceptions of the brand. Hey, if the ADA allows them to sponsor, their products must be ok to eat, right? That is what I might think, or at least subconsciously perceive, if I didn’t study nutrition.
While clearly moderation does seem to be a good rule in most cases for food products, this is moving in the wrong direction. The evidence clearly suggests that whole foods should be priority. But people hardly understand the boundaries of a healthy diet, and partnerships with food companies that influence public perceptions may blur the lines even further.
This sponsorship adds to the growing list that also includes companies such as: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the National Dairy Council, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Soyjoy, and Unilever.
Now, I realize sponsorships help pay for conferences and other “ADA events and programs,” and I have no idea what is possible without their assistance. But for an organization that proclaims its members are “experts in nutrition,” these corporate influences are very dangerous. A large body of evidence suggests that processed foods often have negative effects on health, and there is still much to learn. I wonder to what extent these companies change image perception among dietitians and the public? We know that simple health halos on labels such as “organic” or “low fat” cause consumers to feel safer about the caloric content or health effects- what happens when they see these companies partnering with the major organization that tells us how to eat?
While I haven’t yet checked thoroughly to see if there is any relevant research on this, The Fodder File highlights a recent study (1) that should be considered here. Social factors and preexisting perceptions (along with cognitive bias‘) seem to largely shape how people eat, and this helps to explain why counseling interventions generally aren’t that effective. This study (more like an interview for trends, which is a limitation) suggests we need to have a deeper appreciation for how people are interpreting health messages. People may be making changes (or not making them) based on how they interpret a healthy diet, but these interpretations may be incorrect. The authors interviewed 46 mothers of a low socioeconomic status about issues relating to healthy eating messages and their interpretation and barriers to making change. The first thing that made me cringe is that the subjects mentioned that television was their major source of diet information. I don’t know about the UK (where this study was done), but I rarely see any good nutrition advice on TV in the U.S. Additionally, all of the corporate sponsors of the ADA run television advertisements which influences purchases.
The authors note that: “Good food was discussed as flavorless, boring, and associated with self-denial.” They seem to think that a healthy diet reduces immediate quality of life. This reflects consumer surveys (FMI) show that Americans are increasingly less interested in nutrition and moreso taste. Convenience was a main factor on food selection, as well as time, money, cooking skills, and food availability. These are clear indications that food education is lacking, but companies that sponsor the ADA target all of these. If the ADA is trying to reverse the trends of seeking only convenience, and promoting home cooking, they are at war with their sponsors. Is the ADA instead accepting defeat in these areas?
Most of the mothers understood that an unhealthy diet was a main reason for poor health, but demonstrated a difficulty with interpreting what is healthy. They note that for smoking, the message is clear, but for healthy eating it is more difficult to understand what constitutes a healthy diet, because there are so many different messages coming at them. Interestingly, a number of the mothers misinterpreted the concept of a “balanced diet” as one that means balancing good food with bad food instead of balancing nutrient requirements. It also seems that the people interviewed tended to justify their bad food choices (and guilt) with good ones (or good lifestyle activities). People shouldn’t have to stress and rationalize about their choices in an ideal environment. That isn’t healthy either.
Because behavioral change in general won’t occur unless the message is perceived as important, mixing corporate sponsorships with nutrition organizations may downplay the importance of reducing/eliminating processed foods. To draw an analogy from smoking campaigns, they would certainly be less effective if smoking corporations sponsored major medical organizations and this was prominently displayed to the public.
Instead of relaying the responsibility to the individual dietitian as the ADA does, they should better understand how public health messages are perceived, and work to fund more research on how to build effective campaigns, because clearly what they are doing now isn’t working. After that, this information should be taught to the dietitians to use in personalized settings to get to the root causes of poor eating habits and address the importance of change of these individual factors, because as the authors note “simply being exposed to public health messages is not enough to achieve lasting behavior change.”
I don’t doubt that the ADA has good intentions- they likely perceive sponsorships as potential to change corporate behaviors, working with them instead of against. But it is a huge conflict of interest, and there is a high risk that the companies will use the partnership to improve their image- here is Hershey already using it (and RDs) to tell the public that their chocolate products are ok- never-mind doses or which types, or the other ingredients that may come with it.
“Respected ADA colleagues: as long as your organization partners with makers of food and beverage products, its opinions about diet and health will never be believed independent (translation: based on science not politics) and neither will yours. Consider the ADA’s Nutrition Fact Sheets, for example, each with its very own corporate sponsor (scroll down to the lower right hand corner of the second page to see who paid for the Facts). Is the goal of ADA really the same as the goal of the sponsors–to sell the sponsor’s food products? Is this a good way to get important scientific messages to the public? ADA members: how about doing something about this!”
Or from Michele Simon, who highlights a blogger who spoke up against Canada’s ADA equivalent:
“Professional associations such as the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada must renounce their corporate affiliations and stop taking money from the very companies that are undermining their own members’ ability to do help people eat right. Until they do so, these groups risk becoming little more than a tool of corporate interests, which is exactly what Big Food wants.”
One of my favorite bloggers, Yoni Freedhoff (twitter) frequently comments on industry’s influence on nutrition in Canada on his blog Weighty Matters. Yoni covered a topic that I followed very closely this month: PepsiCo’s attempted “advertorial” sponsorship of ScienceBlogs. ScienceBlogs is a prestigious blogging platform with many great bloggers who cover science topics much more accurately and in depth than you get from traditional media outlets. So when the parent company, Seed, announced a new blog which from PepsiCo scientists would:
“Discuss the science behind the food industry’s role in addressing global public health challenges”
Many were angered with the decision that threatened to undermine the independence of science and advertising, something that is difficult to find anywhere. In fact the debacle, dubbed “PepsiGate,” cause about a third of them to temporarily stop posting or move their blogs elsewhere. It was quite a shift in a very fragile intelligent community from one offensive move.
The majority of the bloggers were not scientists covering nutrition (Obesity Panacea left as expected), either, simply concerned with upholding the integrity of science. They were understandably furious, which makes me wonder… why isn’t the ADA, whose advice is purported to be evidence-based? Why are these scientists so sensitive to these obvious commercial interests while most dietitians look the other way for the ADA?
I have no plans to become an ADA member, but will be sharing my opinions from the outside with my blog, and I suggest that others use social media outlets to do this as well. If more people voice their opposition to these partnerships, the ADA will be forced to establish a dialog with nutrition professionals and corporate interests will become more transparent. Please share your thoughts, especially if you are a RD, in the comments.
1. Wood F, Robling M, Prout H, Kinnersley P, Houston H, & Butler C (2010). A question of balance: a qualitative study of mothers’ interpretations of dietary recommendations. Annals of family medicine, 8 (1), 51-7 PMID: 20065279