Remember the organization formerly known as the American Dietetic Association (ADA)? Well, since 2012 it’s been going by a different, equally official-sounding name: the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
Yep, after operating for nearly a century under its old moniker, the country’s largest nutritional professional society — the one to which more than 100,000 credentialed practitioners belong — decided it was time for a facelift.
The purpose of the switch, according to the organization’s website, was “to complement the focus of the organization to improve the nutritional well-being of the public, while communicating the academic expertise of Academy members and supporting the organization’s history as a food and science-based profession.”
I can’t help but think it might also have had a little something to do with its desire to avoid being endlessly confused with the American Diabetes Association (also known by the same ADA acronym).
But whatever the case, if a primary goal of the former American Dietetic Association was to convey a more high-minded, science-based sense of mission, that didn’t work out so well. Because in January of 2013, not long after the name change was announced, a well-researched, widely publicized report stripped the organization of whatever science-based luster it had hoped to gain by donning its shiny new “Academy” robes.
The 50-page report, titled And Now a Word From Our Sponsors: Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?, was authored by Michele Simon, JD, MPH, a public-health attorney and author who specializes in food-industry ethical and legal issues. It documents the extent of the Academy’s increasingly entrenched food-industry funding and ties, and it raises serious questions about its institutional ethics, objectivity, and credibility.
It also reignited long-standing concerns about the increasingly powerful role that big food, beverage, and agricultural companies had been playing in shaping AND’s guidelines, policies, and professional nutrition-education platform.
Simon’s report was damning, not just because it revealed the extent to which the nation’s leading professional nutrition organization was funded by corporate contributions from candy, soda, and junk-food giants like Mars, Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, Kraft, and McDonald’s (as well as the beef and dairy industries), but also because it presented disturbing evidence of how directly AND’s educational messaging and materials were being affected by those industry ties.
Unfortunately, aside from causing many scandalized AND members to complain vigorously about their organization’s practices and policies, the report didn’t seem to have much immediate effect on the Academy’s willingness to put its own credibility ahead of its corporate partners’ agendas.
It certainly didn’t prevent the great Kraft Singles dustup of 2015, in which AND approved (in exchange for an undisclosed sum) the placement of its “Kids Eat Right” logo on packages of Kraft American Singles — a plastic-sleeved “pasteurized prepared cheese product” that cannot legally be called “cheese.”
Perceived by virtually everyone (including Kraft) to be a de facto seal of approval, the logo-emblazoning sparked outrage on the part of many registered dietitians (RDs).
It also made national headlines and even got a shout-out on The Daily Show, where Jon Stewart quipped that the corporate-funded Academy was “as much an academy as [Kraft Singles] is cheese.”
Frustration with the Academy’s questionable practices even sparked some concerned RDs to create their own watchdog group, Dietitians for Professional Integrity (DFPI).
The DFPI’s three core beliefs, as listed on its site, IntegrityDietitians.org, would read like no-brainers to most:
• Sponsorship affects public perception of dietitians. [Yes, duh!]
• The public deserves nutrition information that is not tainted by food industry interests. [Indeed!]
• The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics should prioritize public health instead of enabling and empowering multinational food companies. [Gee, ya think?]
But these are evidently not view-points that AND has been willing to get behind. One glance at a Monsanto-sponsored, propaganda-laden “bio-technology quiz” (offered to RDs in exchange for a chance to win a Coach handbag at a recent continuing-education conference) tells you everything you need to know about how industry-underwritten “education” works at AND, and it’s not pretty.
Meanwhile, the DFPI’s strategic director, Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, has written a series of illuminating articles for the Civil Eats website — including one (“Why the Makers of Animal Growth Hormones Shouldn’t Control the Hunger Debate”) that highlights the relationship between the Academy and a relatively new sponsor, Elanco.
Elanco is an Eli Lilly subsidiary that manufactures livestock pharmaceuticals like recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH. The purpose of Elanco’s grant to AND (amount undisclosed) was ostensibly to educate our nation’s dietitians on friendly topics like “Farming 101.”
But internal documents suggest a more nuanced and activist goal: “to arm Academy members with resources to educate themselves and the public about issues relating to [sustainable farming, global food insecurity, and nutritional and safe feeding of a growing world population.]”
In other words, the central thrust of AND’s Elanco-funded “Future of Food” initiative seems to be fueling a highly controversial, agribusiness-driven biotechnology agenda. And Bellatti posits that beyond simply securing a one-way public propaganda machine, Elanco may also be “looking for an easy way to keep tabs on criticism or concerns about its practices and quickly engage in damage control, if needed.”
Looking at Bellatti’s insider writings, at Simon’s 2013 report, and at AND’s own educational and marketing materials, it’s clear why the DFPI feels decisive action is called for. It’s also abundantly clear they’ve got their work cut out for them.
The AND website still hawks corporate advertising as “a great way for organizations to target . . . members who are the world’s acknowledged leaders in providing food and nutrition-related health information and services.” And its media kit entices corporate sponsors to take advantage of “direct access to a select group of engaged Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics members by conducting online surveys using the eatright Market Research Panel.”
It’s no wonder that a growing number of RDs are concerned that people might regard their AND-associated credentials with mistrust — not because the title suggests a lack of professional education, but rather because it now connotes a surfeit of industry-influenced miseducation.
Combine that with AND’s outdated emphasis on calorie counting, its excessive enthusiasm for low-fat dairy and grain-based products, its slowness to integrate new research findings on dietary cholesterol and healthy whole-food saturated fats, its early opposition to trans-fats labeling efforts, its apparent unwillingness to acknowledge non-celiac gluten intolerance, and its all-around out-of-touchness with contemporary science, and, well, you’ve got an Academy that — in a lot of experts’ view— has no business educating anybody but itself.