Something has been troubling me periodically as I learn more and more about the ridiculousness of our food and healthcare systems. I first learned of this problem when I read Food Politics by Marion Nestle, and was reminded of it as I just read Whole by T. Colin Campbell (who also wrote The China Study). I am referring to the so-called co-opting of nutrition professionals by the food industry.
According to Campbell and Nestle, the latter of whom I consider to be one of the least biased voices in the public health nutrition field, Big Food sponsors a significant portion of nutrition research. Studies that are sponsored by a food company are far more likely, statistically speaking, to find favorable effects or not to find unfavorable effects of consumption of the company’s product. There is also a revolving door of nutrition professionals through academia, industry, and government, making conflicts of interest and bias toward industry profit nearly unavoidable in nutrition research, even when it isn’t directly funded by a food company.
If this weren’t bad enough, food companies also sponsor the activities of nutritionists’ societies and professional organizations. The “largest organization of food and nutrition professionals,” the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is evidently a huge offender in this respect. You have to understand that the Academy is the organization that accredits all registered dietitians. They outline the curriculum requirements for students planning to get certified (including myself), as well as offer continuing education. Most all RDs are Academy members, and the Academy does all they can to discredit self-proclaimed dietitians who are not registered. The Academy provides publications, advocacy, and networking opportunities for its members.
Members pay dues, but the Academy also receives a ton of industry funding from sponsors such as the National Dairy Council, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, and PepsiCo. If you don’t believe me, it’s on their website. The result of all this corporate sponsorship is
- a PR dream for industry at Academy conferences, including the food expo at the Academy’s biggest annual conference where food companies promote their new products to thousands of dietitians
- advertisements for all kinds of food products in the Academy’s research journal and magazine
- likely bias favoring sponsors’ products in articles published in the Academy’s journal and education material published by the Academy on their website and in handouts meant for dietitians to give to their patients
This is so concerning to me because as I’ve said before, I hope to become a registered dietitian. I’m even a student member of the Academy now! The R.D. license is perceived as an essential credential in order to be hired and credible in the field of nutrition. Now knowing about all this corporate sponsorship and hijacking that goes on, I feel really conflicted! I don’t necessarily want to be a member of an organization that’s supposed to certify scientific professionals and base its recommendations on scientific inquiry whose hands are tied by corporate money. But I have to if I want to make it in this field, even if I want to use my career to silence the influence of some of those sponsors.
Please do not take this to mean that all registered dietitians are minions of the Academy’s sponsors. So many of them are caring, passionate individuals who want the best for public health, and either don’t know about the sponsorship, don’t know how it biases Academy activities, or are unhappy with it.
I sometimes fantasize about rising up the ranks of the Academy and making changes in their sponsorship policies and positions on certain aspects of diet. Because that’s the only way I would know how to reconcile this hypocrisy I feel. I’m joining and supporting an organization that is perpetuating the problem of healthcare professionals supporting profit over health that I am so passionately against.
I still plan on getting certified as a registered dietitian, even though I feel like it implicates me in this system I’m trying to break down. It seems very ironic that it would be very hard for me to contribute to the upheaval of the current food and healthcare systems if I didn’t implicate myself in this way.
Drs. Nestle and Campbell, if you ever read this, please help me reconcile this inner struggle I’m having about my career. How do I become an authority on good nutrition without supporting bad nutrition?