The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is an influential group that helps shape US food policy and steers consumers toward nutritional products. The Academy says it as an independent voice and “trusted educational resource for consumers”. It lobbies Congress and represents and provides information to over 110,000 US dietitians who help people make decisions about which foods to eat. Newly released documents show it has financial ties to the world’s largest processed food companies and has been controlled by former industry employees who have worked for companies like Monsanto.
A recently published peer-reviewed study that examined a trove of financial documents and internal communications reveal it has a record of quid pro quos with a range of food giants, owns stock in ultra-processed food companies and has received millions in contributions from producers of sugar-heavy soft drinks, candy, and processed foods linked to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other health problems.
The study for the first time reveals the depth of its financial ties. The Academy accepted at least $15m from corporate and organizational contributors from 2011-2017, and over $4.5m in additional funding went to the Academy’s foundation. Among the highest contributions came from companies like Nestle, PepsiCo, Hershey, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Conagra, the National Dairy Council, and baby formula producer Abbott Nutrition. The Academy and its foundation also received food industry fundings via sponsorships, which are effectively quid pro quos.
“It’s incredibly influential so if the Academy is corrupt then nutritional policy in the US is going to be corrupt,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of US Right to Know, and a co-author of the study. “If we’re ever going to solve the problems of obesity and diabetes in the US and elsewhere, then we’re going to have to tackle the corruption in our health institutions."
An email reveals the Academy in 2015 was in a sponsorship deal with Abbott and was discussing how the Academy could use its dietitians’ influence in pediatricians’ offices to push Pediasure, one of the pharmaceutical giant’s infant nutritional products. Abbott at the time had 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. It also owned stock in companies with which it had a sponsorship deal, PepsiCo, as well as financial contributors, like Nestle.
A 2015 email was also in discussion with Subway about how the Academy could “endorse” the fast food chain’s “healthier products”, the email shows, and discussed a partnership with the Mars candy bar company.
“That is astounding,” Ruskin said. “That belongs in the conflict of interest hall of fame – it is off the charts.”
The study also highlights the revolving door between the Academy and industry. Among its staff and board members are current and former public relations staff for companies that represent big food, as well as consultants or employees for large food entities like Monsanto, Sodexo, the Sugar Association, Bayer and the International Food Information Council, and industry front group.
Marion Nestle, a nutritionist and public health advocate who wrote about the ties in her 2002 book, Food Politics said the financial ties raise “fundamental questions about credibility”.
“How can the Academy advise the public to avoid ultra-processed foods, for example, if it is funded by the makers of those foods?” she asked. “The issue of trust is critical to nutrition advising. The Academy looks like it represents the food industry, not the public interest.”