Food Industry Money Talks, and It Says Coke and Kraft Singles Are Healthy

Everyone in the food industry is paying for endorsements from nutrition experts.

(Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr)

Mar 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

With Americans increasingly demanding healthier foods, the grocery store is turning into a new kind of battleground. It may appear that kale chip and quinoa brands are the ones duking it out for market supremacy, but the real stakes are being decided in a hidden fight. While corporations are launching new, healthier products, they’re also continuing to sell their old standby brands—those newly endorsed as healthy by nutritionists and registered dietitians.

How did soda and processed cheese suddenly become healthy? The answer, in short, may be a simple one: money.

Last week, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest trade group for nutrition professionals, appeared to offer an endorsement for Kraft Singles—the processed cheese product that’s rarely, if ever, been referred to as a health food. The “Kids Eat Right” seal, it turns out, is more like an ad. “Though, in a reversal of how most ads work, Kraft paid the advertiser—the academy—an undisclosed amount to place the logo,” ABC News reports.

That has incensed some of the group’s 75,000 members, who launched a campaign Monday calling on their leadership to #RepealtheSeal.

“A logo on a product label is an endorsement, an alignment, and recognition of a paid relationship,” the petition reads. “Simply stating otherwise in a press release, no matter how emphatically, doesn’t change this fact.”

One of the people behind the repeal effort is Ashley Colpaart, a registered dietitian based in Fort Collins, Colorado, who has been an academy member for more than a decade. She explained that there’s a difference between the academy and the “Kids Eat Right” campaign—and that one doesn’t speak for the other.

“There’s a very small group on the academy foundation side of things that are making decisions on behalf of the whole profession,” she says, noting that some dietitians and R.D.s working on the children’s nutrition program didn’t know about the label until The New York Times broke the news.

Although Colpaart admits that during her three years as the chair of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, she was part of a “rogue” faction within the academy that pushed a more progressive agenda, she believes that people in her profession need to work with the food industry to be part of the solution.

Still, “if this is supposed to be a mutual relationship, what are we getting out of it?” she asks. “We are supposed to be the experts on nutrition in the country, but a lot of people would think that we’re selling out to the industry.”

It doesn’t take too much searching to find other examples of nutritionists and dietitians making seemingly cynical recommendations. On Monday, The Associated Press ran a story looking into an industry-wide practice of food companies paying experts to mention their products in blog posts and other media outlets. Furthermore, Candice Choi writes, “companies, including Kellogg and General Mills, have used strategies like providing continuing education classes for dietitians, funding studies that burnish the nutritional images of their products, and offering newsletters for health experts. PepsiCo Inc. has also worked with dietitians who suggest its Frito-Lay and Tostito chips in local TV segments on healthy eating.”

The influence of corporate money touches on the academic side of the field too, where food companies sponsor scientific research on their ingredients or products—studies that often cast their sponsors in a positive light, according to Marion Nestle, professor of food studies and nutrition at New York University.

“The food companies have learned from tobacco and drugs and other industries like that how to play this game,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Let’s confuse the science, let’s cast doubt on the science, let’s shoot the messenger, let’s sow confusion.”

But since everyone has to eat, the food industry has been given a pass on its pay-to-play practices, Nestle said.

“The capital N news,” she continued, “is that dietitians are fighting back at last.”