What would you say if I told you the folks at Marlboro had assembled a team of dedicated pulmonologists to be part of an advisory panel? Imagine, too, that these hired health professionals would occasionally appear on various media platforms to publicly defend tobacco’s reputation. Although it wasn’t uncommon to see doctors endorse cigarettes on television sixty years ago, these days such tactics would be met with strong indignation, to say the least.
Take that “are you kidding me?” sentiment, multiply it times a hundred, and you have my reaction to recently finding out what some Registered Dietitians choose to align themselves with.
In the past, I have expressed my displeasure at the thought of Registered Dietitians toiling away for the likes of PepsiCo, Vitamin Water, and Con Agra. While some could argue that the presence of dietitians at these companies can bring about the creation of healthier products, I believe these individuals are essentially walking into a job with their hands tied behind their back.
In the vast majority of cases, big food companies are more interested in what hot nutrient of the moment they can sprinkle on a processed cheese puff — and advertise the hell out of — than prioritizing health and nutrition over profit margins. In a sense, these food companies want to have their cake and eat it too: hide behind the presence of Registered Dietitians to “show their commitment to health” while simultaneously extolling the virtues of personal choice.
Alas, my heart was crushed — and my blood pressure rose — when I recently learned that one of the National Sugar Association’s spokespersons is a Registered Dietitian, and that the Corn Refiners’ Association assembled a “Registered Dietitian Advisory Panel”.
Of all the associations, boards, commissions, and panels that promote truly healthful whole foods (i.e.: the Pear Advisory Board, the Walnut Board and Commission, the California Avocado Commission) why would a Registered Dietitian choose to align themselves with — and publicly speak on behalf of — sugar, an ingredient that has zero nutritive value? Sidenote: where is the Kale Advisory Board?
While I do not consider sugar to be the devil (I always tell my clients that a packet of sugar in their coffee is a hundred times better than Equal or Splenda), the point I always drive home is that everyone would benefit from reducing their intake of all added sugars. A soda sweetened with “natual cane sugar” does not get any sort of pass as a “better choice” in my book.
And, again — here we have another classic “have your cake and eat it too” situation. As public health lawyer Michele Simon explains in this article from 2004, The National Sugar Association has thrown its weight around in the past to prevent the World Health Organization’s recommendation to limit added sugars from becoming an official guideline, and yet they hire a Registered Dietitian as their spokesperson. The last thing sugar needs is a health halo. Besides, their PR spin (“it’s a natural sweetener!”, “it’s been used for centuries!”) is a moot point given the sheer quantity of sugar consumed on a daily basis by the average American.
Most of the Sugar Association’s “health-related” message is paltry “don’t look at us!” self-defense. For example, of the 156 pounds of added sugar consumed by the average American each year, The Sugar Association points out that “only 29 pounds” of that comes from table sugar. Oh, and consumption of high fructose corn syrup has increased much more than that of real sugar. Big whoop. None of that makes sugar healthful or “better”.
And how’s this for a pièce de résistance — the Registered Dietitian who serves as the spokesperson for the Sugar Association is also — wait for it — Penn State University’s director of sports nutrition.
Let’s move on to the Corn Refiners Association. Oh, you know them. They’re the folks behind the “Sweet Surprise” campaign (“high fructose corn syrup is no big deal!”) and those dreadful “Mother 1 schools Mother 2 that high fructose corn syrup is safe because it’s made from corn and dietitians say it’s okay in moderation” television ads (if you’re in the mood to cringe, watch this one… or this one!). The Corn Refiners Association is behind more than just high fructose corn syrup, though — their product lineup also includes corn feed (used to fatten up cattle), cornstarch, corn oil (omega 6 overload!), ethanol, and “byproducts”.
And so we come to the first problem. This is not about dietitians speaking up on behalf of corn on the cob or popped corn — which is a good source of fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants. Oh, no — these dietitians have no problem speaking up on behalf of corn syrups, oil, and other ingredients that are basically used as fillers on a variety of products, from cookies to Pizza Hut’s ground beef. Once again, zero nutritional value.
Corn by-products are not even necessary in the diet. No one needs to consume corn oil, corn starch, or corn syrup.. These “foods” serve no purpose; they are simply in abundance in our food supply because of agricultural subsidies that result in their surplus (that’s the only reason why we feed corn to cattle; their digestive systems are unable to handle corn, which results in its own share of health issues and problems).
Additionally, most of these byproducts are genetically modified and loaded with pesticides. The fact that high fructose corn syrup is calorically equivalent to sugar is not reason enough to “approve” of it. I truly can’t think of a single reason why a Registered Dietitian would find the Corn Refiners’ Association worthy of their time or intellect.
Ethics aside, the other problem in having Registered Dietitians representing sugar and corn byproduct lobbies is that it completely muddles the nutrition research. It is no secret that some nutrition research is funded by certain food companies or lobby groups — and then strategically shared with the media — as a way to obtain free advertising.
A few years ago, for example, Kellogg’s funded a study which concluded that children who ate Frosted Mini Wheats performed better in school than — wait for it — children who ate no breakfast at all! So, really, the study was comparing “breakfast eaters” versus “non breakfast-eaters”. Alas, Kellogg’s used it as “proof” that Frosted Mini Wheats are part of a healthy start to the day.
When Registered Dietitians are employed by the likes of The Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association, there is an inherent expectation that they will publicly defend said “foods” to the general public. This requires that industry-funded research be presented under the guise of objective science, which is not always the case.
I don’t buy the “don’t look at who funded the study, look at the science behind it!” argument food industry lobbyists like to repeat ad-nauseum. Science, after all, is a human construct and can therefore be manipulated in a multitude of ways to highlight the desired result. A study on corn oil can focus on total cholesterol and conclude that corn oil is “healthful” because it did not raise LDL cholesterol, all the while never once looking at markers of inflammation (which are very much related to the development heart disease and are often elevated in diets high in omega-6, which corn oil offers in abundance).
Alas, one only need look at the American Dietetic Association’s partnerships with the likes of Hershey’s, Coca Cola, and Splenda — as well as the annual presence of McDonald’s, Chik-Fil-A, and the Corn Refiners Association at its conference and expo — to realize this (willing!) co-opting of Registered Dietitians isn’t exactly frowned upon.
I feel very fortunate to have met Registered Dietitians over the past few years who make the “RD” credential proud by being innovative thinkers, promoting foods that minimal financial and political support behind them (from sea vegetables to chia seeds to millet), supporting companies that truly create healthful products, and prioritizing important issues like sustainability. I also feel very grateful to have worked for RDs who have been in the field for decades and continually challenge themselves to learn about — and embrace — alternative foods as well as emerging theories that challenge previously-held beliefs. It is people like them who have inspired me over the years.
If you know RDs like these, please let them know how much you appreciate and value their commitment to contributing to the solution, rather than the problem.