Industry PR flap raises more questions about professional nutritionists’ ties to big food.
If you’re looking for a textbook case of corporate PR gone horribly wrong, look no farther than your dairy aisle. By slapping the “Kids Eat Right” logo from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on packages of its American “cheese” Singles, Kraft no doubt hoped to score brownie points with busy parents concerned about what their kids are eating. Instead, the company has found itself trying to clean up a publicity nightmare.
Even as the label is set to start appearing on packages of Kraft Singles as soon as Wednesday, the food giant has already agreed to stop using it, and the academy—the world’s largest organization of nutrition professionals—is squirming under the spotlight that has exposed its all-too-cozy relationship with the processed food industry.
Just two weeks ago, The New York Times broke the story of how Kraft’s individually wrapped slices of knock-off cheese would be the first grocery item to feature the “Kids Eat Right” logo, a sort of crayon-script label that, at first glance, would seem to make sense on a snack long associated with the Yo Gabba Gabba! set.
You have to look closely to see the words proud supporter of in an arc above “Kids Eat Right”—those extra three words are in the same shade of blue-on-blue as the words that identify Kraft Singles as a “pasteurized prepared cheese product.” Just as Kraft is trying to hide, in plain sight, that its “cheese” isn’t really cheese at all, it is attempting to make parents believe that it’s good for their kids—when what it’s actually saying is that it has thrown a bunch of money at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to support the group’s “Kids Eat Right” campaign.
The Times’ story led to an uproar among a vocal faction of the academy’s members as well as outside critics and public health advocates. After all, it doesn’t take a degree in nutrition science to be skeptical of the notion that a processed cheese product packed with 2.5 grams of saturated fat per slice is part of a healthy kid’s diet.
Initially, the academy tried to defend itself, a quixotic effort that boiled down to more technicalities: It’s not an endorsement—it’s publicity for the campaign.
Now the group has reversed course entirely. “The academy and Kraft are in discussions to terminate the contract for our pilot program,” the organization wrote in an email statement, as reported by the Times. “This will take a short period of time to complete.” As for the packages of Kraft Singles featuring the logo that are already headed to stores? “We are working with Kraft to limit the time it remains on shelves,” according to the emailed statement.
It seems both Kraft and the academy are hoping this blows over faster than you can melt an American Single in a hot skillet; the academy declined to comment further on the fracas in the Times story.
But the cozy relationship between big food and professional nutritionists has been getting more scrutiny. The Associated Press writer Candice Choi has filed at least two eye-opening stories in the past couple of months that show how companies such as Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, General Mills, and Kellogg’s are spending huge money behind the scenes to “educate” nutritionists and pay for PR that comes off like objective diet advice.
Such corporate ties have led a number of disgruntled members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to break away to form their own group, the aptly named Dietitians for Professional Integrity. Commenting on the Kraft Singles fiasco, the organization’s founder, Andy Bellatti, told the Times, “Hopefully, this is the beginning of much-needed and much-overdue dialogue on the academy’s corporate sponsorships. Dietitians need to continue advocating for an organization that represents us with integrity and that we can be proud of rather than continually have to apologize for.”