Over the past few weeks, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has sent a survey — with a focus on the topic of corporate sponsorship — to a random selection of dietitians. Some dietitians received a very similar survey last year as well (we are unaware of results being publicly available, though).
We were able to get screenshots of this year’s survey, and are encouraged that this issue is being addressed and RDs are given an opportunity to voice their concerns. Here are some additional thoughts we have about the survey:
1) We are glad that last year’s very problematic question about the National Dairy Council was eliminated. To refresh your memory: last year’s survey asked dietitians what “gap or opportunity” the National Dairy Council could help fulfill. In order to continue with the survey, one of the answers (i.e. “nutrition education for the public,” “education of health professionals”) had to be selected, and “none of the above” was not an option.
2) The question on whether RDs are aware that the Academy has guiding principles which they adhere to regarding relationships with corporate sponsors (page 15 of PDF) refers to this list. While the Academy points to these principles as ‘proof’ that there are guidelines in place, we don’t see how Coca-Cola or PepsiCo “are committed to the vision and mission of the Academy.” Additionally, the notion that “the Academy does not endorse any brand, company product or service” seems silly when the Academy’s journal has advertisements for some partners’ brands.
3) The question asking if a company aligning with the Academy gives RDs the impression that they are more or less interested in supporting the organization (page 19 of the PDF) is a moot point. Of course Big Food wants to come across as supporting RDs; it’s called co-optation of health professionals and it is right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook. They certainly want to “give the impression” that they are supporting the Academy, but it is for the wrong reasons (hence the problem).
4) It appears that some of this survey operates from the unhelpful and divisive “you’re either for or against sponsorship” framework that doesn’t recognize the many shades of gray in this dialogue. While many of us do not recommend the current Academy partners’ products (page 20 of the PDF), that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t recommend the products of more ethical sponsors down the road. The issue here is not that “all sponsorship is bad”, but rather that the current sponsorship model does not align with the values of a health organization.
5) Out of all those possible answers for “What quality is most important to you in a sponsor?” (page 22 of the PDF), what is missing is one of the most important factors — that they make nutritious, wholesome products that truly enhance health. It’s also too bad that only one answer can be chosen for that question. For example, responsible marketing to youth is a factor; perhaps not the most important, but important nonetheless. The way the question is presented, though, the Academy can say: “only 1.5% of respondents thought responsible marketing to youth was an important factor when choosing a sponsor,” minimizing its importance.
6) Some of the questions about Kellogg’s (page 34 of the PDF) are problematic. One asks if RDs agree that “Kellogg’s offers a variety of fiber-containing cereals [they] can recommend to [their] clients.” Why is the focus solely on fiber? Why not phrase that as: “Kellogg’s offers healthful cereals”? We can see how some taking the survey could think, “Well, Special K doesn’t have a great ingredient list, but it IS high in fiber, and I guess technically I *could* recommend it…”
7) Having to categorize one’s additional free-from comments (page 46 of the PDF) as “positive” or “negative” perfectly exemplifies how the Academy actively stigmatizes critical thinking in an attempt to silence those who think differently from the party line. Is raising concerns about having Coca-Cola and General Mills as sponsors “negative”? We prefer the term “constructive,” especially since the concerns have to do with how these partnerships affect the credibility of the RD credential.
We hope that those of you who were selected to take the survey spoke up about your concerns.