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Few institutions have as much influence on the public’s eating habits as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which helps shape national food policy and trains thousands of dietitians who help people decide what to eat.
But newly released documents show that the academy has a long history of financial ties to big food companies, including many that sell and market ultra-processed foods that have been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.
The documents, described in a report published on Monday in Public Health Nutrition, a peer reviewed journal, include thousands of pages of the academy’s financial records, tax returns and internal emails. They show that between 2011 and 2017, the organization took more than $4 million in donations from food companies and industry groups, including some of the world’s largest producers of soda, sugar, candy and ultra-processed foods, such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Hershey, Kellogg’s, and Conagra.
The academy not only accepted sponsorship money from big food companies but invested money in food industry stocks. For example, the documents show that in 2015 and 2016 the academy held more than a million dollars worth of stock in PepsiCo, Nestlé and J.M. Smucker.
The documents were obtained by U.S. Right to Know, an investigative group long at odds with big food companies but also saddled with its own controversies. U.S. Right to Know disclosed on their website that they accept funding from the Organic Consumers Association, which has been linked with the anti-vaccine movement. The organization has also said it’s investigating uncertainty over the origins of covid-19.
The academy has long been criticized for partnering with processed food companies, but the full extent of its financial ties to the food industry had not been publicly disclosed.
In a statement, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics called the new report inaccurate and misleading, and said that it had stringent guidelines and principles for its corporate sponsors and supporters, which “prohibit external influence.”
“The Academy’s programs, leadership, decisions, policies and positions are not influenced by sponsors,” it said in its statement. “The Academy’s procedures and formal agreements with external organizations are designed to prevent any undue corporate influence.”
The academy said that less than 9 percent of its funding comes from sponsorships, and that less than 3 percent of it and its foundation’s investments are in food companies. It said that all sectors of the S&P 500 are represented in its stock portfolios.
The academy is a powerful force in nutrition. It boasts that it has 112,000 credentialed practitioners, including tens of thousands of registered dietitian nutritionists and other nutrition professionals. The academy’s members lobby Congress on health issues and routinely serve on the advisory committee that shapes the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
While the academy has faced criticism over its ties to big food companies for years, it is a private organization and its confidential financial records are shielded from public scrutiny. The new trove of documents only came to light because Donna Martin, a former academy president who works for a public school district in Georgia, used her school email for matters related to the academy, putting those communications into the public domain.
U.S. Right to Know says it spent five years acquiring more than 50,000 pages of documents largely through Freedom of Information Act requests.
The disclosures provide a rare glimpse into how the food industry maintained close relationships with the very organizations and individuals who are supposed to be advising consumers on healthy eating. Here’s what the report found:
Internal emails show that in 2014, Martin, who was then the group’s treasurer, dismissed ethical concerns about investing in PepsiCo and suggested in a message to another academy executive that it would be fine for the group to invest in Coca-Cola as well.
“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 Martin, who couldn’t be reached for comment by The Washington Post. “Hopefully they will be happy like they should be! I personally would be OK if we owned Coke stock!!”
“I’m stunned,” said Marion Nestle, a professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, and the author of “Unsavory Truth,” a book about the food industry’s involvement in nutrition science. “These are people who are supposed to be talking about healthy diets. How can they be investing in companies that are making products that are ultra-processed and making people sick?”
The academy said that its sponsorship agreements with Coca-Cola and Hershey ended in 2015, and that PepsiCo’s sponsorship ended in 2016.
Today, the Academy lists more than two dozen “supporters” on its website, ranging from the Hass Avocado Board and the Mushroom Council to Tate & Lyle, one of the world’s largest producers of high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Another one of the group’s supporters is the National Confectioners Association, a trade and lobbying group for the candy industry whose members include Hershey, Mondelez International, Mars, and the Jelly Belly Candy Company.
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