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

This article 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 U.S. 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.

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.

The 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 2022, the Academy’s sponsors include:

Large corporate contributions to the Academy’s foundation

The Academy 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 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 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.

The Academy has invested in food and pharma company stocks

Internal Academy documents show that it has 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.

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 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, the Academy 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.

Kraft Singles, individually wrapped slices of processed cheese product, earned the Academy’s first nutrition seal, the “Kids Eat Right” label.

This was a “major coup for the Kraft Foods Group,” reported the New York Times. The paper noted that, “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:

Hope Warshaw, current chair of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation and member of the Academy 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, Fleischman Hillard, Edelman and Porter Novelli.

Deanne Branstetter, 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 food service company.

She is a former board member of the International Food Information Council, a food industry-funded front group that aids ultra-processed food and pesticide companies with product defense campaigns.

Sylvia Rowe, member of the Academy Foundation Board of Directors, is a strategic consultant to Edelman Public Relations.

She is a former president and chief executive of the International Food Information Council, a food industry-funded front group that aids ultra-processed food and pesticide companies with product defense campaigns. She is a former vice president for communications of the Sugar Association.

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.

Susan Laramee, member of the Academy Foundation Board of Directors, was an employee of Sodexo, one of the world’s largest food service companies.

Sonia Vora, member of the Academy’s board of directors, is the interim chief human resources officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which aggressively promotes ultra-processed food and industrial agriculture.

Originally published by U.S. Right to Know.