Today’s statement of concern comes from Claudia Zapata, MS, RD (Twitter handle: @claudiazapata):
“A few years ago, a fast food company approached my husband, a former NBA player, about endorsing a new dish. Sean had worked with them in the distant past, and the pay was good.
“They’re saying this is a healthier menu item,” he said, after my “not a chance” reaction.
“Forget the calories. Have you read the ingredient list?”
A kidney transplant recipient in 1999, Sean was the first athlete to return to professional sports after an organ transplant and quickly became a role model for those with kidney disease. Appreciative of his new kidney and lease on life, Sean has since fueled his body with healthy fare. We still have a few old fast-food 32-ounce cups with his likeness on them, which we now fill up with water, but his fast food days and those endorsements are far behind him . And, as Sean recently told me, accepting such an offer these days would not be congruent with his message of living a healthful lifestyle. “It’d be wrong,” he said.
In the world of sports, advertising is a huge piece of the ad game. Getting loyal fans of a team or player to become loyal fans of their sponsors produces big returns. Go to any event (for any sport) and Big Food is likely to be a major sponsor. You’ll see McDonald’s on Jumbotrons, Gatorade banners under the scorer’s table, and visit arenas like The Pepsi Center in Denver.
Been to a Lakers game recently? I thought I’d seen it all, but last season, the Laker Girls’ (their cheerleaders) uniforms were emblazoned with the Carl’s Jr. logo. Meanwhile, players’ jerseys are slated to be prime advertising real estate in the near future.
When an individual athlete partners with Big Food or Big Soda, the irony is inescapable – athletes, who push their bodies to the limits, push junk food on their fans, many of them children already burdened with the early stages of chronic disease.
And, when female soccer star Alex Morgan pairs up with LeBron James and Johnny Football for a McDonald’s commercial, you might think that given the chance, all athletes compromise for cash. Hey, if the seemingly flawless – and Let’s Move! ambassador – Beyoncé did it…
Not all. Early in what has been a very successful NBA career, one of the league’s current best players told me he would never endorse soda. Why? “I don’t believe in it.” And last season, during a dinner with another formidable NBA star, my husband and I discussed the same subject. The other player said he regretted some of the deals he’d made with a big beverage company when he was younger and would never consider endorsing a food or beverage he wouldn’t serve to his kids.
In my mind, athletes and junk food go together about as well as dietitians and… well, junk food.
The zeroes behind the dollar signs may be vastly larger for professional athletes, but integrity comes into play no matter what your career or salary. As dietitians, we are spokespeople for sound nutrition choices, and our reputation – not just individually, but collectively – is at stake. This is where professional integrity comes in.
Earlier this month, a publicist approached me about representing a new food company and asked about my rates, which, honestly, I didn’t have prepared. “So you’ve never been a spokesperson for some kind of food or beverage?” she asked me. Nope. No one that I had any interest in working with had ever asked. And, anyone else would garner that “not a chance” glance.
As someone who advocates for healthy living, I theoretically have a world of possibilities available. I could hawk diet sodas as low-cal options, “healthier” menu items from fast-food chains, and, since I love to exercise, perhaps a protein bar or supplement company to aid in exercise recovery. None of that fits my standards of professional integrity, though.
These standards are the reason I waver each year before I renew my membership to The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). As our governing body, they represent my fellow registered dietitians and me, but when they invite Coca-Cola to sponsor our annual conference and allow McDonald’s to host an educational session without disclosure they fail to uphold the standards and integrity of the thousands of RDs, health professionals and concerned public who support Dietitians for Professional Integrity’s mission to lessen the food industry’s grip of what should be an impartial health organization meant to serve the public, first and foremost.
I vividly remember the first — and only — time I went to the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE), AND’s annual meeting. A nutrition newbie in my last year of my master’s degree in nutrition, I was excited about the networking opportunities; but mostly, the learning. Cutting-edge research was something I valued as a student and future RD.
Hmmm. A hydration lecture sponsored by Gatorade. A protein seminar sponsored by The Texas Beef Council. The benefits of breakfast cereals by General Mills. Meal replacement and weight loss by Abbott. PepsiCo – owner of Frito-Lay – talking about the whole grains in their SunChips snacks. This wasn’t cutting-edge research. This was PR in “our house.” This was wrong.
Until ties to Big Food are severed, I won’t waste my time or money attending FNCE, and I won’t pay for or sit in a single hour of biased continuing education. Thankfully, I’ve been able to maintain my certification without compromise (for fellow RDs looking for conflict-free CEUs, check out DFPI’s list).
Ultimately, after much debate, I did join AND again this year, because I enjoy and learn from the smaller dietetic practice groups, including Nutrition Entrepreneurs, Nutrition Authors, and Vegetarian Nutrition, and the networking that comes from their listserves, especially as I grow my business.
It remains my hope that as more of us continue to speak out about Big Food’s constant presence in our organization, we can begin a frank discussion on an issue that has our credibility and professional integrity front and center.
Interestingly, when I received my new credentials card in the mail, it came with a few inserts. Among them was a pamphlet, “Code of Ethics for the Profession of Dietetics Resources: Making it Relevant.” It outlined what constituted an ethics violation, and gave references on where to find ethics articles, videos, case studies, and the Academy’s Code of Ethics.
And, for the first time in a long time, I looked up AND’s Code of Ethics and read it in its entirety. I then looked at their Powerpoint presentation, “Code of Ethics for the Profession of Dietetics.” Slide 1 reads, “Ethics is the struggle between…‘right and wrong.’”