Food Companies Pledge To Shed Calories, But Will The AND Shed Their Sponsors?

Alteration of the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA)  "MyPlate" to reflect thr corporate sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

An alteration to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “MyPlate”  that helps reflect the corporate sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

In a news-heavy week, two documents surfaced that sparked a heavy discussion on the current status of the U.S. food industry.

Calorie-Reduction Pledges
Barry Popkin, Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was chosen by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to lead an independent evaluation of 16 food-manufacturing companies that took a pledge to remove 1.5 trillion calories from the marketplace by 2015. Some of the companies that pledged under the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) include the Kellogg Company, PepsiCo, Inc, and the Coca-Cola Company. Dr. Popkin’s first publication, Food Companies’ Calorie-Reduction Pledges to Improve U.S. Diet, serves as a benchmark on which future papers will evaluate marketplace efforts. Baseline results found that HWCF companies accounted for roughly 25% of all calories consumed in the U.S., with a pledged 1.5 trillion calorie reduction equivalent to 2.2% of all calories sold by HWCF companies in 2007, or 0.8% of all calories sold across all consumer packaged goods. The proposed monitoring system and analysis is one that has never been done before, merging data from Universal Product Codes (UPC), food codes by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey’s What We Eat in America, as well as Nielsen Scantrack and Homescan data.

A Word From Our Sponsors
In a report entitled, And Now A Word From Our Sponsors, Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food,  Michelle Simon, public health lawyer and President of private consulting firm Eat Drink Politics, pointed to the elephant in the room and questioned the growing number of food industry sponsors under the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ (AND). The report highlighted that the AND experienced a three-fold increase in industry sponsors from 2001 (10) to 2011 (38),  with food sponsors contributing to the AND’s single largest source of revenue in 2011, $1.3 million out of a total $3.4 million, or 38 percent. The report boldly included an image of past Academy President, Sylvia Escott-Stump, draped in red, waving a bottle of coke at a Coca-Cola Hart Truth campaign event. The New York Times published a story shortly after the report’s release.

The AND Responds
In response to Michelle Simon’s findings, new Academy President, Ethan A. Bergman, posted an open letter to all Academy members on the AND website. Bergman’s advice was to “check it out,” implying that the report is a mixture of facts filtered through the author’s opinions. However, Bergman was unable to address Simon’s mention of the Academy’s Sponsorship Program, simply stating , “We have one. And for the record, I support the Academy’s sponsorship program, as does the Board of Directors and our members.” Some of the AND’s largest sponsors include the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (since ’01), General Mills (since ’03), and the National Dairy Council (since ’04).

The AND launched their Sponsorship Program in 2007 and included an Academy Partner Sponsorship Package recently for the first time. The Package hands companies insider access to co-sponsorship at all Academy Premier Events, proprietary components at the Academy’s Annual Meetings, rights to co-creation and branding of Academy-themed informational consumer campaign (Coca-Cola’s the Heart Truth campaign, or the National Dairy Council’s inclusion in the 2010 National Dietary Guidelines), advertising in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,  Academy member mailing list usage, as well as (vaguely stated) “”access and information”).

Questions to Ask
While Michele Simon’s report on the AND was nowhere near a systematic evaluation, Dr. Popkin’s evaluation of calorie-reduction pledges by U.S. food companies is an indication that fair, objective, third party assessment of industry behavior is possible and necessary in the field of public health and research.

Will U.S. food companies keep their promise of shedding 1.5 trillion calories by 2015? Dr. Popkins next few reports will tell us.

Can the AND shed itself of corporate sponsors and regain the trust of fellow members and the public? Or if not, can the AND show us that corporate sponsorship has in no way imposed a conflict of interest? It may take a third party evaluation until we can safely answer these questions. And in the words of the AND President addressing the new year, “Believing is seeing.”


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