Newly released documents show an influential group that helps shape US food policy and steers consumers toward nutritional products has financial ties to the world’s largest processed food companies and has been controlled by former industry employees who have worked for companies like Monsanto.
The documents reveal the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a record of quid pro quos with a range of food giants, owns stock in ultra processed food companies and has received millions in contributions from producers of pop, candy, and processed foods linked to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other health problems.
The findings are a part of a recently published peer-reviewed study that examined a trove of financial documents and internal communications obtained through a Freedom of Information act (FOIA).
“It’s incredibly influential so if the Academy is corrupt then nutritional policy in the US is going to be corrupt,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of US Right to Know, and a co-author of the study. The investigative nonprofit developed the study with researchers from nonprofits and universities in the US and UK.
It’s incredibly influential so if the Academy is corrupt then nutritional policy in the US is going to be corrupt
“If we’re ever going to solve the problems of obesity and diabetes in the US and elsewhere, then we’re going to have to tackle the corruption in our health institutions,” Ruskin added.
The Academy says it as an independent voice and “trusted educational resource for consumers”. It lobbies Congress and represents and provides information to over 110,000 US dietitians who help people make decisions about which foods to eat.
Though the academy has long received criticism for its ties to big food, the study for the first time reveals the depth of its financial ties.
The Academy accepted at least $15m from corporate and organizational contributors from 2011-2017, and over $4.5m in additional funding went to the Academy’s foundation. Among the highest contributions came from companies like Nestle, PepsiCo, Hershey, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Conagra, the National Dairy Council, and baby formula producer Abbott Nutrition.
The Academy and its foundation also received food industry fundings via sponsorships, which are effectively quid pro quos. In a 2015 email, an Academy employee defined a sponsorship as “When a company pays a fee to the Academy/Foundation in return for Academy/Foundation defined specific rights and benefits.”
The email reveals the Academy in 2015 was in a sponsorship deal with Abbott and was discussing how the Academy could use its dietitians’ influence in pediatricians’ offices to push Pediasure, one of the pharmaceutical giant’s infant nutritional products. Abbott at the time had in place a two year, $300,000 sponsorship deal.
The Academy also owned Abbott stock at the time of the deal and plan, records show. It also owned stock in companies with which it had a sponsorship deal, PepsiCo, as well as financial contributors, like Nestle.
“That is astounding,” Ruskin said. “That belongs in the conflict of interest hall of fame – it is off the charts.”
Academy leadership at the time seemed to be aware of the optics.
“I personally like Pepsico and do not have any problems with us owning it, but I wonder if someone will say something about that,” wrote then-Academy treasurer Donna Martin in a 2014 email. “Hopefully they will be happy like they should be! I personally would be OK if we owned Coke stock!!”
The 2015 email also described an extension of a sponsorship agreement with the National Dairy Council. Under the proposed extension, the National Dairy Council would pay $1.2m for a package that would fund “support for both the Academy and the Foundation to continue the collaborative work around food, nutrition and agriculture”. Other sponsors listed in the email include Coca-Cola’s industry group, and Conagra, which owns brands like Reddi-Wip, Slim Jim and Banquet.
The Academy at the time of the 2015 email was also in discussion with Subway about how the Academy could “endorse” the fast food chain’s “healthier products”, the email shows, and discussed a partnership with the Mars candy bar company.
Separately in 2015, a partnership between the Academy and Kraft ignited controversy when the Academy agreed to allow the company to put its “Kid’s Eat Healthy” seal on Kraft Singles packaging, which suggested an independent source verified the product’s nutritional value.
But critics quickly pointed out that the product has poor nutritional value; it is not classified by the federal government as cheese but “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product”; and it includes dyes and other chemicals. In the face of blowback, the Academy rescinded its stamp.
About $4.5m of corporate funding from companies like General Mills went to an initiative called the “Champions Program”, which granted funds to hundreds of non-governmental organizations to support projects “promoting healthy eating and active lifestyles for children and their families”.
The Academy didn’t respond to specific questions from the Guardian, but directed it to a response to the study on its website. It denied wrongdoing, said the study contains factual errors, and said the study takes its financials out of context. It said “stringent” guidelines are in place to prevent corporate influence on its programming.
The Academy added that corporate funding only makes up a small part of revenues, and an independent firm manages its stock portfolio.
“Through their assumptions, omissions and distortions, the authors of the report have done a serious disservice to the Academy, our members and the entire nutrition and dietetics profession,” the statement reads.
The documents only surfaced because Martin, a former academy president who works for a public school district in Georgia, used her school email for Academy business, which meant the communications were subject to FOIA.
The study also highlights the revolving door between the Academy and industry. Among its staff and board members are current and former public relations staff for companies that represent big food, as well as consultants or employees for large food entities like Monsanto, Sodexo, the Sugar Association, Bayer and the International Food Information Council, and industry front group.
The Academy, previously called the American Dietetic Association, has appeared to be under the control of big food interests for “as long as I have been familiar with the Academy,” said Marion Nestle, a nutritionist and public health advocate who wrote about the ties in her 2002 book, Food Politics. She said the financial ties raise “fundamental questions about credibility”.
“How can the Academy advise the public to avoid ultra-processed foods, for example, if it is funded by the makers of those foods?” she asked. “The issue of trust is critical to nutrition advising. The Academy looks like it represents the food industry, not the public interest.”