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Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: corporate ties and funding

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: corporate ties and funding

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, with over 100,000 credentialed dietitians, nutrition practitioners and students – is one of the most influential professional health associations in the U.S.

This fact sheet discusses the Academy’s relationship with ultra-processed food, beverage, pesticide and pharmaceutical corporations, including accepting contributions from and even investing in those companies. Evidence from the Academy’s own internal documents suggest the group serves up favors for their corporate sponsors at the expense of public health.

The Academy and its website eatright.org promote themselves as “your source for science-based food and nutrition information.” The group is seen as an authority in food policy-making and influences the development of the US dietary guidelines.

How reliable is the Academy’s advice on diet and nutrition?

The Academy has been repeatedly criticized for its close ties to ultra-processed food companies, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills and Kraft. A 2022 study published in Public Health Nutrition, co-authored by public health scholars and U.S. Right to Know, found that the Academy has a “symbiotic relationship” with multinational food, pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations, and that it acts as a “pro-industry voice” with policy positions that sometimes clash with its mission to improve health globally.

The study is based on a five-year investigation and tens of thousands of pages of internal Academy documents that U.S. Right to Know obtained through public records requests. (The documents will be posted at the University of California San Francisco Industry Documents Library. They are currently posted here.) This paper is the first to review the Academy’s internal communications and its interactions with corporations. See:

Study: The corporate capture of the nutrition profession in the USA: the case of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, published in the peer-reviewed journal Public Health Nutrition.

Washington Post: Group shaping nutrition policy earned millions from junk food makers; New documents show that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics invested in food stocks and accepted donations from junk food, sugar and soda makers, even as it trained the dietitians who teach us how to eat, by Anahad O’Connor (10.24.22)

Epoch Times: Can the Nutrition Industry Be Trusted? New Report Says ‘No’. By Emma Suttie, February 22, 2023.

What do the Academy’s internal documents reveal?

Public health researchers and U.S. Right to Know assessed the Academy’s dealings with food, pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations, and reported these findings:

  • The Academy accepted millions of dollars from food, pharmaceutical and agribusiness companies, and had policies to provide favors and benefits in return.
  • The Academy and its foundation have invested in ultra-processed food and pharmaceutical companies.
  • Academy leaders have been employed by or consulted for multinational food, pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations.
  • The Academy has discussed policies to fit the needs of its food, agribusiness and pharmaceutical industry sponsors.

Documents are posted here.

Corporate financial contributions to the Academy

The study reports that the Academy accepted more than $15 million from corporate and organizational contributors in the years 2011 and 2013-2017, according to its draft IRS forms 990. It provides the most comprehensive reporting to date on the Academy’s financial dealings with food, agribusiness and pharmaceutical corporations.

The Academy’s top contributors 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
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 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

Here are the Academy’s draft IRS form 990s (with donor data): 6/11-5/12, 6/13-5/14, 6/14-5/15, 6/15-5/16 and 6/16-5/17, and the Academy’s Foundation’s draft IRS form 990s for 6/12-5/13 and 6/13-5/14.

Current financial ties to corporations

The Academy is not fully transparent about its corporate financial contributors. It does not disclose the size of contributions received from companies or industry groups. In 2023, the Academy’s sponsors include:

  • American Beverage Association, a trade group that represents and lobbies for the soda and sugary beverages industry and other non-alcoholic beverage companies.
  • General Mills, a leading multinational food processing company that produces ultra processed foods including breakfast cereals, snacks, baking mixes, yogurt, and other packaged foods.
  • Tate & Lyle, which manufactures sugar and Splenda sucralose, an artificial sweetener linked to leukemia, weight gain, obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.

According to the Academy website, this list identifies participants in the Academy’s sponsorship program but does not includeadvertisers of the Journalof theAcademy of Nutritionand Dietetics, exhibitors of the Food and Nutrition Conference Expo (FNCE), marketing email list rentals, or sponsors of dietetic practice groups, member interest groups (DPG/MIG) or Foundation events and programs.

In 2022, the Academy’s sponsors included:

Large corporate contributions to the Academy’s Foundation

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation, the Academy’s charitable arm, also serves as a vehicle for accepting large corporate contributions. The Foundation bills itself as the “only charitable organization devoted exclusively to supporting nutrition and dietetics professionals by empowering them to help consumers live healthier lifestyles.” Between 2011 and 2014, the AND Foundation received more than $2 million each year from corporations, representing approximately a third of its total revenues for that period. In 2015, the corporate funding dropped under $2 million, but corporate funding still represented more than 62% of the Foundation’s revenues.

Academy investments in food and drug company stocks

Internal Academy documents show that the Academy has also invested 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.

In other words, the Academy was actually a part owner of ultra-processed food companies.

The documents also show the Academy also invested in several pharmaceutical companies, including Abbott, Johnson & Johnson, Perrigo Co, Pfizer Inc., Allegra and Merck & Co.

The Academy’s annual conference, the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo, courts corporate sponsors from the ultra-processed food and pesticide industries. Billed as the “world’s largest meeting of food and nutrition experts,” the 2023 event was held in October in Denver, Colorado.

The floorpan of exhibitors included PepsiCo, Mondelez, The Sugar Association, General Mills, Cargill and CropLife, the pesticide industry trade association.

Below is an example of how FNCE serves up corporate messaging for its sponsors. The poster Keri Gans is among a dozen social media influencers who received warning letters from the Federal Trade Commission for not fully disclosing industry sponsorship in Instagram and TikTok posts promoting artificial sweeteners.

FTC warns dietician influencers to disclose industry funding

In November 2023, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to two trade groups (the American Beverage Association and The Canadian Sugar Institute) and 12 registered dieticians and other online health influencers warning them about the lack of adequate disclosures in their Instagram and TikTok posts promoting the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame or the consumption of sugar-containing products.

The influencers, who have a combined six million followers on the social media platforms, failed to adequately disclose that they were “apparently hired to promote the safety of aspartame or the consumption of sugar-containing products, respectively,” FTC said. 

In a warning letter sent to registered dietician Mary Ellen Phipps (who goes by the handle @milknhoneynutrition on Instagram), the FTC said, “You posted dietary advice on Instagram endorsing the safety of aspartame. … Among the other things you said, ‘The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American Cancer Society both aligned with the extensive body of scientific research that supports the safety of low and no calorie sweeteners including aspartame.’ … It appears that you were paid by the American Beverage Association to make this post.” The FTC listed a number of concerns about the inadequacy of Phipp’s disclosure that she was paid by the beverage industry trade group. (Her post also doesn’t disclose that her key source, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also receives money from the American Beverage Association.)

FTC guidelines require that “if there is a ‘material connection’ between an endorser and the marketer of a product…that connection should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed.” The agency gave the influencers 15 days to respond to the concerns, and put them “on notice” that continuing to engage in the behavior described in the letters could subject them to civil penalties of up to $50,120 per violation.

See reporting in The Washington Post:

What’s at stake for our health?

Recent studies provide strong evidence that ultra-processed foods are increasing rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, weight gain and obesity, cancer, dementia, and – most alarmingly – all-cause mortality. Yet many people are confused about the health risks of ultra-processed foods, primarily because they are deliberately misled by ultra-processed food and chemical companies that profit from an industrial food system.

There is also extensive evidence showing how food and beverage corporations influence science and policy efforts aimed at protecting health and well-being. One key strategy is to capture and use health professionals and health institutions as vehicles to achieve their policy goals.

U.S. Right to Know has co-authored 15 peer-reviewed studies based on internal corporate and government documents that describe how the ultra-processed food and beverage industries work to shape science, policy and public opinion to protect their profits at the expense of public health.

What is the evidence the Academy “serves as a voice for corporate sponsors”?

The Academy helps to mainstream nutrition advice that often dovetails with corporate product defense messaging. For example, the Academy does not offer advice about particular foods to avoid to improve health; instead, it promotes the messaging of the ultra-processed food and beverage industries, claiming that classification of specific foods is overly simplistic — even though strong scientific evidence links ultra-processed foods to cardiovascular disease, overweight, obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes, dementia and other chronic and dangerous health problems, including increased risk of all-cause mortality.

The Academy has also rewarded its corporate sponsors. One well known example: in 2015, the Academy announced a partnership with Kraft, which was widely seen as an endorsement of some of Kraft’s products as “healthy” options to include in children’s menus at schools. The Academy’s first nutrition seal, the “Kids Eat Right” label, was put on Kraft Singles, individually wrapped slices of processed cheese product. This was a “major coup for the Kraft Foods Group,” reported the New York Times. The Times reported, “Kraft is a frequent target of advocates for better children’s nutrition, who contend that many of its products are over-processed, with too much fat, sodium, sugar, artificial dyes and preservatives.”

In their review of the Academy’s corporate financial deals, researchers of the 2022 Public Health Nutrition study concluded that the Academy and its Foundation, “assist the food and beverage, pharmaceuticals and agribusiness industries through their large network of professionals and students, their lax internal policies on corporate partnerships and their topical position papers.” The Academy and corporations “interact symbiotically. This sets a precedent for close corporate relationships with the food and nutrition profession in the USA, which may negatively affect the public health agenda in the USA and internationally.”

How are the Academy’s leaders tied to corporations?

Several members of the Academy’s governance boards have close relationships with ultra-processed food and chemical corporations, and public relations firms. Current Academy and Academy Foundation Boards of Directors include:

  • Mary Lee Chin, member of the Academy Foundation Board of Directors, currently consults with Ajinomoto, Bayer and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. She has consulted for Monsanto. See, Why I Consult with Food Industry, and omg Monsanto [sic], by Mary Lee Chin and Leaked email reveals dietitian’s murky relationship with Monsanto, by Alex Orlov, Mic.
  • Hope Warshaw, former chair of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation and member of the Academy’s Board of Directors. Documents show that Warshaw has been a consultant to the Calorie Control Council, which promotes artificial sweeteners, and McNeil Nutritionals, which manufactured Splenda/sucralose. On her website, Warshaw discloses that her client list includes Heartland/ Splenda. Warshaw has worked with many public relations firms, including Powell Tate, Weber Shandwick, Fleishman Hillard, Edelman and Porter Novelli.
  • Deanne Branstetter, past treasurer of the Academy’s Board of Directors, and member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation, is vice president of nutrition and wellness at Compass Group North America, a foodservice company. She is a former board member of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a food industry funded front group that aids ultra-processed food and pesticide companies with product defense campaigns.

Further reading

A Cheese ‘Product’ Gains Kids’ Nutrition Seal, by Stephanie Strom, New York Times (3.12.15)

Dietitians Group Negotiating to End Labeling Deal with Kraft Singles, by Stephanie Strom, New York Times (3.30.15)

Food Politics Creates Rift in Panel on Labeling, by Stephanie Strom, New York Times (4.10.13)

Coke Spends Lavishly on Pediatricians and Dietitians, by Anahad O’Connor, New York Times (9.28.15)

How the Food Lobby Affects Nutrition Advice, Associated Press (11.1.16)

And Now A Word From Our Sponsors: Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food? By Michele Simon, Eat Drink Politics (1.13)

Soda and Snack Food Companies Welcomed at Nutrition Conference, by Alexandra Sifferlin, Time magazine (10.14.16)

America’s Largest Group of Dietitians Was Almost Run by Big Soda, by Alex Swerdloff, Vice (3.1.17)

Dietetic Association lets Bayer, owner of glyphosate, educate its members about pesticides, by Marion Nestle, Food Politics (9.9.20)

Dietitians Take Aim at Food Industry Sponsorships, by Kristina Fiore, MegPage Today (8.6.14)

Marketing to dietitians: the benefits of MSG, by Marion Nestle, Food Politics (1.24.22)

Is the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Committed to Telling Americans the Truth About Genetically Modified Foods? by Carole Bartolotto, HuffPost (4.22.13)

Leaked email reveals dietitian’s murky relationship with Monsanto, by Alex Orlov, Mic (3.22.17)

Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, by Marion Nestle, Basic Books 2018