Should the food industry be allowed to sponsor nutrition conferences? That's the question that Mother Jones' Keira Butler is asking after attending the California Dietetics Association's annual two-day conference in Ponoma, CA, and discovering that it was sponsored by McDonald's.
According to the piece, McDonald's was the sole provider of lunch at the conference, but Butler says she saw numerous other companies, such as Hershey's, the California Beef Company, and Butter Buds, handing out freebies. Moreover, most of the sessions (the "real meat and potatoes of the conference," according to Butler) included panelists from food industry sponsors, from the Wheat Council to Walmart to the Corn Refiners Association. When Butler inquired about the one-sided information she felt she was getting, a spokesperson for the conference told her she hadn't known that some of the panels (such as a panel on high fructose corn syrup) would be composed entirely of trade representatives.
Butler's piece may be surprising, but it's not necessarily new. "There's been a long history of the food industry co-opting health groups," says Andy Bellatti, a Las Vegas-based dietitian. "From a food industry standpoint, it's an easy way to get into the ear of dietitians and minimize criticism of their practices, and from a health group standpoint, it's easy funding. It's easier to take $3 million from Coca-Cola than to make a concerted effort to find alternative sources that don’t present such a conflict of interest.”
Bellatti says more dietitians don't speak out about this for fear of being ostracized. "They're afraid there will be consequences," he says. "People have told me they're afraid they'll be stigmatized, and no one wants to be stigmatized within their profession."
The idea of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) getting into bed with corporate sponsorships might make people uneasy, but the fact is, this type of sponsorship is common across multiple industries, says Mike Roussell, Ph.D., Shape's Diet Doctor. "I don't think it's all bad. In fact, I think it can do a lot of good. Just about all speakers are sponsored. How else would you get great researchers and speakers to travel all over the place to share their research? Someone has to be willing to pay for it."
So is it a problem of perception more than anything? Is it fair to assume that dietitians who attend conferences sponsored by McDonald's are being "bought" by Big Food? Roussell doesn't think so. "If the food industry wasn't funding research, there would be a lot less research being done, and we would know a lot less about the foods we eat. If you're a dietitian, and you're waiting for a once-a-year conference to get the information you need for clients and are worried about skewed information, then you aren't very good at what you do."
While Bellatti may disagree (last June, he petitioned the AND to stop taking money from food corporations, such as McDonald's), he and Roussell both say that you need to trust the experts you're seeing for advice. Bellatti says it's as simple as making sure their advice "makes sense."
“You can trust anyone whose advice doesn’t come across as an advertisement for particular products," he says. "Recommendations to eat mostly whole foods are fine. On the other hand, specific advice to have an Egg McMuffin for breakfast or a handful of Special K chips as a snack should raise some red flags.”