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Wed May 14, 2014

How Food Companies Court Nutrition Educators With Junk Food

Originally published on Fri May 16, 2014 1:41 pm

When hundreds of California nutritionists and dietitians gathered for their annual conference in April, their Friday lunch was a bacon ranch salad, chocolate chip cookies and a pink yogurt parfait, all courtesy of McDonald's.

According to a story on Mother Jones' website by Kiera Butler, an editor at the magazine who went to the conference of the California Dietetic Association, besides the McDonald's lunch, one dinner was catered by Sizzler, Boston Market and California Pizza Kitchen.

Butler tells Melissa Block on All Things Considered that the food industry also played a big role in the conference sessions.

One panel on sweeteners in schools was sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association, whose members produce high fructose corn syrup.

Inside the exhibition hall, Hershey's was handing out chocolate and strawberry milk, and Butter Buds gave out fake butter crystals.

"These nutritionists and dietitians were here getting continuing education credits," says Butler. "So going to this conference and attending these sessions is something that they need to do to keep up their accreditation. These people work in all kinds of places. They work in school cafeterias, hospital cafeterias; they work in corporate settings — these are really the gatekeepers of our nutritional information."

The problem with such a heavy industry presence, according to Butler, is that "they are getting their information from a very one-sided panel that is sponsored by manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup, which we know contributes to the obesity epidemic."

Butler says some of the attendees were troubled by the heavy industry presence at the meeting. "There were a lot of eye rolls at the McDonalds lunch," she says.

One veteran nutritionist told her: "I can't believe we're sleeping with the enemy."

One group of dietitians within the professional organization, Dietitians for Professional Integrity, wants to change the sponsorship policy but has been unable to get much traction. And Butler says sponsorships are still going strong.

She notes a study by Michelle Simon, a public interest lawyer and blogger, of corporate sponsorships of nutritionists' conferences. Simon found that in 2001, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics listed 10 sponsors, and by 2011 there were 38, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle and Mars.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. When hundreds of nutritionists and dietitians gathered for their annual conference in California last month their Friday lunch was provided by McDonalds. A bacon ranch salad, chocolate chip cookies, and a pink yogurt parfait.

The dietitians could also attend a panel on sweeteners in schools. It was sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association, whose members produce high fructose corn syrup. And the attendees were offered free samples of fake butter crystals, and cartons of strawberry milk.

These details are in a story in Mother Jones website. It's written by Kiera Butler, who went to the conference of the California Dietetic Association, and joins me now. Kiera, welcome to the program.

KIERA BUTLER: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And I was looking at the CDA website and right there it says the gold sponsor of their conference is, in fact, McDonald's. And their slogan, I'm loving it; the menu you love plus so much more! So what did you find about what other food industry sponsors were there?

BUTLER: Well, in the exhibition hall there were many food industry sponsors represented. As you mentioned, Hershey's was handing out chocolate and strawberry milk. Butter Buds was there. The California Beef Council guy handed me this pamphlet on how I could lose weight by eating steak. And the night before there had been a dinner that I didn't get to attend that had been catered by Sizzler, California Pizza Kitchen, Boston Market, and some other chain restaurants.

BLOCK: And it's not just the booths and the dinners that we're talking about but also, as we say, panel discussions that you found out were sponsored and staffed in some cases by the industries themselves like the Corn Refiners Association that I mentioned. Why was that troubling to you and was it troubling to any of the dieticians who were there?

BUTLER: Well, these nutritionists and dieticians were here getting continuing education credits. So this is something - going to this conference and attending these sessions is something that they need to do to keep up their accreditation. These people work in all kinds of places. They work in our school cafeterias.

They work in hospital cafeterias. They work in, you know, corporate settings. And these are really the gatekeepers of our nutritional information. And if they are getting their information from a very one-sided panel that is sponsored by the manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup which we know contributes to the obesity epidemic, that in my mind is a problem.

BLOCK: Did the dieticians think it was a problem? I mean did you hear any challenging questions from them in these panels?

BUTLER: Not in the panels, per se, but in my conversations with them some of them were really troubled. There were a lot of eye rolls at the McDonald's lunch. I talked to one person who - she was kind of a veteran nutritionist and she said to me - I can't believe we're sleeping with the enemy was how she put it. Other people just kind of shrugged their shoulders and said well, I guess McDonald's has the big bucks.

BLOCK: And you in your article talk about a sort of splinter group, Dieticians for Professional Integrity that want to change the sponsorship policies. Has that group had any impact? Is there any change?

BUTLER: As far as I know, these sponsorships are still going strong. Michele Simon who is a public interest lawyer and she blogs about food politics, she actually did a study of these corporate sponsorships at nutritionist conferences. And she found that in 2001 the academy had listed about 10 sponsors and by 2011, there were 38.

And those sponsors included Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Mars, and a bunch of others.

BLOCK: Kiera Butler is senior editor with Mother Jones. Her article is titled "I Went to the Nutritionists' Annual Confab. It was Catered by McDonalds." Kiera, thanks.

BUTLER: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.