Eat Right Academy Influenced by Food and Pharma Corporations

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics calls itself “the world’s largest organization of nutrition and dietetics practitioners” representing “more than 112,000 credentialed practitioners” including registered dietitian nutritionists and other food and nutrition professionals. 

Eat Right or Eat Wrong?

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But a study published this week in Public Health Nutrition found that the Academy “accepted millions of dollars from food, pharmaceutical and agribusiness companies, had policies to provide favors in return, and invested in ultra-processed food company stocks.”

The study titled – The Corporate Capture of the Nutrition Profession in the USA: The Case of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics –  was produced by public health scholars and U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative public health group that obtained tens of thousands of pages of internal Academy documents through state public records requests. 

The study describes a “symbiotic relationship” between the Academy and corporations, and found the Academy acts as a “pro-industry voice” with policy positions that sometimes clash with its mission to improve health globally.

“The documents reveal a depressing chapter of corruption at this influential nutrition group,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know, and one of the study’s co-authors. “If we’re going to get healthier, live longer and lower our astounding rates of obesity and diabetes, we’ve got to clean out the corruption at health groups like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.”

The study reveals that the Academy accepted more than $15 million from corporate and organizational contributors in the years 2011 and 2013-2017.

The top contributors to the Academy in 2011 and 2013-2017 were: 

National Dairy Council $1,496,912; 

Conagra Inc. $1,414,058; 

Abbott Nutrition $1,246,389; 

Abbott Laboratories $824,110; 

AND Foundation 801,261; 

PepsiCo Inc. $486,335; 

Coca-Cola Co. $477,577; 

Hershey Co. $368,032; 

General Mills Inc. $309,733; 

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality $296,495; 

Aramark Co. $293,051; 

Unilever Best Foods $276,791; 

Kellogg USA $273,272.

The documents show that the Academy and its foundation invested funds in ultra-processed food companies. 

The Academy’s investment portfolio in January 2015 included $244,036 in stock holdings in Nestle S.A. and $139,545 in PepsiCo. 

The Academy foundation’s investment portfolio in June 2013 included $209,472 in stock holdings in Nestle S.A and $125,682 in PepsiCo.

“Nutrition groups should not buy ultra-processed food stocks. They are a blaring conflict of interest,” Ruskin said. “Public health groups should not invest in companies that make products that detract from our health or directly conflict with their mission.”

The Academy appears to have allowed quid pro quo purchases of “rights and benefits” by corporate sponsors. 

Internal communications show that the Academy “distinguishes its ‘sponsors’ from its ‘supporters’. 

Corporate sponsors ‘pay a fee, and in return the Academy provides a right or a benefit’…Corporate ‘supporters‘ provide ‘a charitable contribution with no (explicit) expectation of a commercial return.’”

The study found “striking similarities” between the Academy and “other cases of institutions captured by corporations, such as ILSI and the Global Energy Balance Network, orchestrated by the soft drink industry to promote its commercial agenda in scientific institutions.”

“Although AND has changed some of its internal policies to manage corporate interference and funding, it continues to advance corporate interests in several ways, and serves as a voice for its corporate sponsors,” Ruskin said.

“The current AND/ANDF policies and public statements are not sufficient to explain why the AND continues to accept financial contributions of corporations whose products (such as ultra-processed foods and formula milks) are associated with ill-health.”

In response, the Academy said the report “contains numerous factual and methodology errors, omissions and information taken out of context.”

“The report is in fact a secondary survey of internal correspondence from a single source – a member of the Academy’s leadership – over a period of several years. There is no scientific rigor in the methodology and the data is presented without context.”

“The report falsely alleges ‘interactions between corporations and the AND… has implications for the profession in the USA and globally.”’ However, there is no reference in the report to the Academy’s stringent guidelines and principles that prohibit external influence from sponsors or any other group or individual.”

“Nor does the report cite the fact that less than 3% of the Academy’s and its Foundation’s investments are in food companies; or that less than 9% of the Academy’s funding comes from sponsorship.”

“The Academy’s response doesn’t deny that it has taken millions of dollars from ultraprocessed food companies and that it even owned stock in Nestle and PepsiCo,” Ruskin said in response. “The Academy says that it is not influenced by sponsorship money, but its own internal documents say the opposite. The Academy wants to trumpet its guidelines for corporate sponsors, and that they ‘align with the Academy’s Vision, Mission and Strategic Goals.’ But the Academy’s 2022 sponsors include the National Confectioners Association, which represents the candy industry, Bayer CropScience, a leading manufacturer of toxic pesticides, Tate & Lyle, which manufactures sugar and Splenda sucralose, an artificial sweetener of dubious safety. How exactly do they all align with the Academy’s vision?”

The study was co-authored by Angela Carriedo, research fellow at the University of Bath and policy secretary of the World Public Health Nutrition Association; Ilana Pinsky, consultant to the Pan American Health Organization; Eric Crosbie, associate professor of public health at the  University of Nevada, Reno; Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know; and Mélissa Mialon, research assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin.

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