As partners, the companies have a national platform at nutrition conferences and events, “with prominent access to key influencers, thought leaders and decision makers in the food and nutrition marketplace,” according to the AND, which represents nearly 71,000 registered dietitians (RD’s).
But some members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics say the alliances negatively impact the group’s public image as food and nutrition professionals, according to a report published last summer in an AND newsletter.
In a survey of 370 members of the AND’s Hunger and Environmental Nutritional (HEN) working group, the majority of the respondents disapproved of the corporate sponsorship programs; 61 percent said they were willing to pay higher AND membership fees in order to decrease reliance on corporate sponsors.
Though the survey also reported that some HEN members supported the sponsorships, they found that, on average, HEN members would be more comfortable if the sponsors were ‘green’ companies, farmers and health and nutrition organizations, and less comfortable with sponsorship from fast-food, soft drink and agri-business companies.
“I feel embarrassed and insulted by these partnerships,” registered dietitian Andy Bellatti, a member of AND, said in an email. “These sorts of unions (which give unwarranted legitimacy to Coke, PepsiCo, and Hershey's nutrition messaging) drag the credential through the mud.”
Bellatti originally refused to join the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a way to “protest Big Food's ubiquitous presence within the organization,” he said. But when he learned about the HEN group, he said he signed up “to challenge the system from within.”
“These food companies put out products we as nutrition professionals recommend people limit or avoid -- sodas, nutritionally empty snacks, chips with GMO ingredients, artificially sweetened beverages,” he said. “The current nutritional public health crisis is not going to be solved by 100-calorie snack packs of Baked Lay's or aspartame-laden drinks. We need people to consume more whole foods, and to be connected to their food, for example, by cooking more often.”
Still, AND says it has a “growing interest in building relationships between industry and non-governmental organizations.” In general, partnerships between health-oriented groups and corporations are increasing, as I detailed in "Critics pounce on Coke, Pepsi health initiatives."
Roberta Anding, a spokeswoman for the Academy, said the public-private partnerships offer several advantages that can enhance public health. By uniting, the groups can share ideas, financial resources, advocacy expertise and distribution systems, thereby reaching more people than either group could do alone, she said.
“With escalating health-care costs associated with obesity and chronic diseases and diminished government resources to effectively address this challenge, working in partnership with a variety of sponsors, the academy’s healthy eating messages are extended to a wider audience,” said Anding, director of Sports Nutrition at Texas Children’s Hospital.
The Hunger and Environmental Nutrition dietetic practice group is one of 28 different subgroups. While the academy values the opinions of all its members, “the survey is not reflective of our entire membership,” Anding said. The results of other surveys looking at members’ perception of the academy’s sponsorship program “show that the majority of academy members approve of it,” Anding said.