The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) is squirming over a recent report written by Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics that address ANDs corporate sponsorship program. The president of AND warns members not to believe everything they read and to mind the source (I supposed the assumption is RDs would be too sheep-like to do otherwise? Good thing Daddy Sheep warned us!), saying ” . . . the majority of the report consists of publicly available facts filtered through the author’s opinions. She is of course entitled to her opinions. But opinions are not facts.”
I’m no fan of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), although they haven’t yet revoked my membership. I’m also no fan of industrialized food, although I do think the food industry has an important role to play in reforming our food-health system. I am also not a big fan of hypocrisy, which is why I have a good bit of trouble with the report, entitled Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?
The answer is—I believe—a resounding “yes,” and Healthy Nation Coalition has explored how this compromised position extends not just to the food industry but the USDA itself. Clearly, the AND is an industry-friendly organization, and the USDA relies on AND-trained dietitians to confirm its own industry-friendly guidelines.
While I applaud Simon’s efforts to hold the AND more accountable for its relationships with industry, AND leadership is correct in pronouncing Simon’s reporting as one-sided and biased. Simon is happy to slam the health-washing, cultural insensitivity, and hidden agendas of food manufacturers and the Academy, but if the propaganda, insensitivity, and agendas are vegatarian*—well, then she’s just fine with it, thank you very much.
Simon complains that “the banners at the McDonald’s booth showed images of healthy foods like smoothies,” but didn’t show McRibs and Big Macs. The implication, of course is that “healthy” smoothies” (with 78 grams of sugar and 4 grams of protein) aren’t so bad—even if they are from McDonald’s—compared to those meaty, cheesy foods like a Big Mac. Never mind that your body actually needs the protein that a Big Mac can provide and has little use for the 78 grams of sugar in a smoothie, except for fat storage.
Simon quotes an RD who points out that it is culturally inappropriate for the National Dairy Council to target African-American and Hispanic communities, considering the high rates of lactose intolerance in those populations, a remark with which I fully agree. Simon then goes on to complain about the inappropriateness of the Pork Board handing out educational material at “a nutrition conference where almost no countering information could be found about how a meat-centered diet can lead to chronic disease”? In fact it would inappropriate to provide such “countering information” as the declaration that a meat-centered diet leads to disease is an ideological stance and not a scientific one. I would go on to add that it is also a culturally-insensitive stance, as pork is at the center of not only African-American and Hispanic food culture (barbeque, chorizo), but Chinese and Eastern European cuisine as well (lup cheong and kielbasa). It seems cultural sensitivity is fine if it means we can take away meaty, cheesy foods—but not when such sensitivity would allow them.
Simon’s take on the not-so-hidden relationships between the AND and the food industry is well-trod ground as she herself acknowledges, but to Simon some associations are apparently more odious than others:
In 1995, New York Times reporter Marian Burros wrote about criticisms of the [AND] for taking funding from industry groups such as the Sugar Association, the Meat Board, and companies such as McDonald’s, CocaCola, and Mars. According to Burros: “Nothing negative is ever included in materials produced by the association, a fact that critics attribute to its link to industry.” In that same article, veteran sustainable food advocate and Columbia University Professor Joan Gussow noted that giving money to registered dietitians is how industry silences its critics.
Simon pointedly calls out the National Cattleman’s Beef Association as an “especially loyal” sponsor. But if giving money means AND will only say positive things about your food product, it’s difficult to explain AND’s resounding endorsement of vegetarian and vegan diets, with “tips of the day” like “Endless Meat-Free Options” and articles that show you how to “Build Muscle, No Steak Required,” plus the promotion of stories such as “All Red Meat is Bad for You” in their daily newsletter. If I were the Beef Association, I’d want my money back.
I fully commend Simon’s calls for transparency, but the transparency knife cuts both ways. The AND/industry report was authored by Simon under the auspices of Eat Drink Politics, a self-described (by Simon) “industry watchdog” group that is also a “private consulting firm.” As such, while Simon is willing to disclose some of its clients, she states that “Some of our clients and funders prefer to remain anonymous for various reasons and we respect those wishes” (emphasis mine). So while she accuses the International Food Information Council of being “an industry front group” (which I think is pretty accurate), we can’t really tell who or what Eat Drink Politics is a “front” for, although we can take an educated guess.
The Eat Drink Politics website alerts us to an alarming situation regarding Deceptive Health Claims:
“The food industry has a challenge on its hands. Most health experts agree that the optimum diet is one based mostly on whole, plant foods, the kind that come from nature and not a factory. So, to convince Americans they can still eat their favorite meat, cheese, soda and junk food, many companies are using meaningless labels such as “all-natural” and engaging in other deceptive marketing practices” (emphasis mine).
Yup, meat and cheese—that’s about as un-natural as it comes.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look through the science and figure out that “most health experts” don’t actually agree that the “optimum” diet is based mostly on whole, plant foods (actually I’m pretty sure it just takes a journalist, specifically Gary Taubes). It’s also pretty easy to figure out what Simon’s idea of a “whole, plant food” diet is:
Can you say—vegan?
Simon goes to great lengths in her book Appetite for Profit to deny that she has any vegan agenda, as she has been accused of by the Center for Consumer Freedom (a group Simon depicts—again, accurately, in my opinion—as a food and beverage industry front group). She’s clearly sensitive to the fact that the word “vegan” is too loaded with negative connotations to actually use it when she suggests that “a diet that resembles my own would be optimal for most people.”
She accuses Center for Consumer Freedom of keeping its corporate sponsorship anonymous in order to engage in more provocative PR claims and of manipulating language to make it look like she’s pushing a personal agenda. But she seems pretty comfortable with keeping her own sponsors anonymous, with using provocative claims to alarm the public, and with using consumer-friendly language to gloss over aspects of her own personal biases that the public may find off-putting. I guess she figures it’s okay because she’s believes she’s got “decades of accepted nutrition science” and a “scientifically supported view” on the side of her personal nutritional biases.
I think Simon’s 5 recommendations to AND are long overdue. There is no doubt that AND would benefit from increased transparency; more input from members; sponsorship guidelines; an elimination of corporate-sponsored education; and stronger policy leadership.
But I cannot support is what I think is Simon’s most disturbing suggestion, that AND commit itself to policy action now—specifically taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages**—before a full review of scientific evidence and long-term implications can be ascertained.
According to Simon, “not every policy issue or decision can wait for months (or years) of committee review and analysis.” On the contrary, I would argue that more policy decisions that attempt to manipulate the health behaviors of Americans by relying on unproven assumptions about the relationships between food and health can and should wait for months or years or indefinitely, until consistent, quality experimental data is obtained or until observational data reveal consistent and unmistakably-high risks. Right now, the health crisis that Simon seems intent on addressing (and I applaud her intentions, if not her methods) is at least in part a result of sweeping changes made to our food system 35 years ago without such evidence in hand.
Simon’s unquestioning belief in her own nutritional agenda is a result of that policy experiment, but it isn’t the solution. It’s time we stop trying to change the eating habits of our fellow Americans—which is the underlying intention behind taxing soda and believing that a diet that resembles your own is best for everyone else—and start trying to change the regulatory, economic, and political framework that restricts access to both the food and the knowledge that individuals need to make their own decisions about their own health.
In case you missed my interview with Bob Fenton, a fellow blogger who has type 2 diabetes, you can find it here:
Next up is a guest post from a friend and fellow graduate student, James Woodward, whose background in economics and public policy gives him a rather different perspective on how we might go about accomplishing the task of reforming our food-health system. It will also provide a bridge to my next series on “Eatanomics” which will explore how food, health, and the economy are intertwined.
*”Vegatarian” is a term I use to indicate veganism disguised as vegetarianism. While lacto-ovo-vegetarian dietary patterns are complete and perfectly healthy, vegan diets must rely on fortification or supplementation to be complete, as acknowledged by the promoters of such diets (just read the “fine print”).
**Sugar-sweetened beverages are usually pretty nutritionally useless, but we simply don’t know what sort of unintended repercussions a soda tax will have, or where to draw the taxation line. One study has shown that beer-drinking households responded to a six-month soft drink tax by buying more beer.