HOUSTON – The same snack- and soda-makers that often are blamed for fueling the nation’s obesity rates also play a role in educating the dietitians who advise Americans on healthy eating.
Frito-Lay, Kellogg, Coca-Cola and others are essentially teaching the teachers. Their workshops and online classes for the nation’s dietitians are part of a behind-the-scenes effort to burnish the images of their snacks and drinks.
The practice has raised ethical concerns among some who say it gives the food industry too much influence over dietitians, who take the classes to earn the education credits they need to maintain their licenses.
It’s not education. It’s PR, said Andy Bellatti, a dietitian in Las Vegas who helped found Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group of about a dozen dietitians who are calling for an end to the practice.
Critics say companies use the classes, which are usually free and more convenient than other courses dietitians can take, as a way to cast their products in a positive nutritional light.
Food and beverage companies, meanwhile, say their classes are intended to inject perspective into the public debate over nutrition.
Of course, the matter of corporate influence isn’t limited to dietitians. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidance intended to address concerns regarding the role of drugmakers in continuing medical education for doctors.
The guidance drew distinctions between ads and education, essentially stating that drug companies shouldn’t influence the latter.
Those barriers don’t exist between food companies and dietitians. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a professional group that’s based in Chicago and has more than 75,000 members, governs the path to becoming a registered dietitian and oversees the accreditation for continuing education providers.
Glenna McCollum, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said dietitians are trained to question any findings that might not seem sound.
Some of the information provided may need to be challenged, she said. That’s part of the job.
For registered dietitians, continuing education is a requirement, not an option. After earning a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, completing an internship program and taking an exam, they must earn 75 credits of continuing education every five years. An hour-long class typically translates to one credit.
A variety of organizations provide continuing education, including universities and professional groups. But the classes can be costly. Meanwhile, the classes offered by food companies are usually online and free.
Teaching dietitians isn’t a new practice in the food industry. General Mills, which makes Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Yoplait yogurt, Pillsbury dough and Progresso soup, has been an education provider through its Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition for at least 15 years.
But the practice came under scrutiny after a report by public health lawyer and vocal food industry critic Michele Simon last year detailed the industry’s deep ties to the field. Shortly afterward, a small group formed Dietitians for Professional Integrity to call for changes.
A petition by the group on the subject got more than 25,000 supporters on Change.org; the academy provided an audit to the AP that said only 600 of those signatures were by its members.
Companies say their classes provide nutrition information to dietitians.
Coca-Cola, which makes drinks such as Dasani water and Minute Maid juice, offers about a dozen seminars each year through its Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness. On average, the live, hour-long classes get more than 5,000 participants, said Coke, which plans to increase the number of webinars it offers each year.
Ben Sheidler, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, said the company’s course materials are based on independent, third-party research. He said Coca-Cola is acting responsibly by working to provide professionals with the facts surrounding its products.
Coca-Cola also said its surveys show the vast majority of participants in its classes find them helpful and free of commercial bias.
But some say companies would never present information that doesn’t serve their interests.
Elizabeth Lee, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles and one of the founders of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, noted that the classes typically have a message that supports the company’s products.
It’s getting harder and harder to really find something that isn’t total baloney, said Debra Riedesel, another registered dietitian based in Des Moines, Iowa.
Part of what makes the issue so thorny is the deluge of research on nutrition, which is rarely definitive.
For companies, the classes can be a chance to spotlight new products. At culinary demonstrations at the conference in Houston, for example, Kellogg and PepsiCo showcased recipes incorporating their products.
And the educational outreach to dietitians doesn’t end in the classroom. Frito-Lay, which is owned by PepsiCo Inc., said more than a thousand dietitians are signed up to receive SnackSense, a newsletter from its online resource for health professionals. A recent issue highlighted the moderate sodium levels of a new line of Tostitos and offered recipes using the chips.
PepsiCo recently established the Quaker Center for Excellence to research and promote the benefits of oats. Candace Mueller Medina, a spokeswoman for the company’s Quaker division, which makes a variety of products including oatmeal packets, bars and breakfast cookies, said the center’s first goal is to educate key opinion-makers and influencers.