Thursday, May 15, 2014

Communicating with the dietetics profession

In Mother Jones this week, Kiera Butler has a striking report about the food industry presence at a conference of the California Dietetic Association. The description of attendees consuming and discussing their free McDonald's salads makes the association seem careless with its valuable public image and credibility.

One might ask, how on earth could dietitians ally themselves with major fast food chains, instead of with advocacy groups -- or hard-hitting magazines -- that seek to better represent the public interest?

Part of the answer, surely, is that the food industry provides funding to the dietetics associations. This is the answer Mother Jones might emphasize.

Another part of the answer is that the food industry publicly endorses the best judgment of dietitians and nutrition scientists on the leading diet and health questions of the day. Actual products may not follow this judgment, but the industry's public communications are deeply respectful of the profession. Industry representatives endlessly tell the profession, "We listen to your advice, while those would-be do-gooders in the public interest community foolishly pursue one nutrition fad after another."

For example, consider the claim in the Mother Jones article that mounting scientific evidence shows that "high-fructose corn syrup prompts more weight gain than other sugars." The article links to this four year old 2010 press release from Princeton University, which imprecisely summarizes its supporting scientific journal article (.pdf), which in turn has been strongly criticized by NYU's Marion Nestle, who is quoted as a trusted authority in the same Mother Jones article (!), and who further links to a more detailed evisceration of this research.

It is fine to criticize high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) along with sugar, because of strong evidence that both are associated with risk of weight gain. But the current evidence does not support Mother Jones' claim that HFCS prompts more weight gain than other sugars. That claim -- and more specifically the casual and uncritical link to the Princeton University press release -- plays into the industry's strategy for befriending dietitians.

Writers and advocates who care about the public interest really can persuade the dietetics profession to adopt a more independent and skeptical stance in its relationships with the food industry. We could begin by avoiding these failures in summarizing the best scientific evidence.


Kelly Moltzen said...

We need more positive sponsors of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, and people willing to help create those partnerships. They don't necessarily need to be food companies sponsors either. And we need more dietitians committed to adopting sponsorship guidelines within their own Dietetic Practice Groups and state affiliates, such as those developed by the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition (HEN) DPG, and the Greater New York Dietetic Association (both of which are transparent and available on the respective websites). Seeing RD's leave the Academy as many have been and are doing is running away and failing to address the issue head-on. We also need to encourage the Academy to take up the recommendations for changing the sponsorship program that HEN Provided to the Academy in 2013 (also available on the HEN website).

usfoodpolicy said...

Yes, for major dietetics associations, a good start would be sharper policies to govern sponsorships and the appearance of endorsement for food companies.

The Hunger & Environment Nutrition (HEN) practice group has made more progress than anybody else in exploring the potential for such a policy. Here is the link to HEN's policy.

I have a suggestion, though, for dietetics organizations considering next steps in developing such policies.

HEN's sponsorship policy focuses on accepting only sponsors that meet a whole battery of criteria for health promotion, working conditions, and environmental sustainability. Most of the information needed to evaluate those criteria well is absent from the public domain. If one reads corporate annual reports, one would think most major companies do terrific already. If one reads coverage in Mother Jones, perhaps no company is satisfactory. Within advocacy circles, many people reading the HEN policies might think it forbids most major companies, but allows just a few whose public identity is explicitly about health and sustainability. For example, Chipotle's online animated advertisements about food system sustainability seem to be adored in some food movement circles, but I don't trust such appeals to food movement themes.

As an alternative for HEN to consider in further developing this policy, one could focus less on choosing companies that are paragons of virture, and more on removing the implied endorsement by the dietetics organization.

Here is my draft:
1. Some companies are out of bounds entirely. No money will be accepted (tobacco, sugar sweetened beverages).
2. Other companies may donate money as free gifts but there will be no co-branding of any sort (no McDonald's salads at the conference lunch).
3. Some companies may hire booth space at a conference (because it is understood that the dietetics association provides a public forum, rather than an endorsement), but logos and sponsorship never are permitted intermixed with the programming of the conference.
4. Finally, some organizations, perhaps just non-profit organizations and foundations, can have co-branding opportunities.

None of us should be naive about the cost for the dietetics associations. It is a fact that there would be fewer corporate contributions under such conditions. We can recognize that fact and accept it.