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Dr. Michael Greger: Conflicts of Interest in Nutrition Research

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) is the world’s largest association of nutrition professionals. They claim to be devoted to “improving the nation’s health.” They promote a series of Nutrition Fact Sheets. Who writes them? Industry sources pay $20,000 per fact sheet to the ADA and explicitly take part in writing the documents. The ADA then promotes them through its journal and on its website.

Some of these fact sheets are “What’s a Mom to Do: Healthy Eating Tips for Families” sponsored by Wendy’s; “Lamb: The Essence of Nutrient Rich Flavor,” sponsored by the Tri-Lamb Group; “Cocoa and Chocolate: Sweet News” sponsored by the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition; “Eggs: A Good Choice for Moms-to-Be” sponsored by the American Egg Board’s Egg Nutrition Center; “Adult Beverage Consumption: Making Responsible Drinking Choices” in connection with the Distilled Spirits Council; and “The Benefits of Chewing Gum” sponsored by the Wrigley Science Institute.

Did you know there was a Wrigley Science Institute?

In 2008, the ADA announced that the Coca-Cola Company had become an “ADA Partner” through its corporate relations sponsorship program. The ADA “provides partners a national platform via ADA events and programs with prominent access to key influencers, thought leaders and decision makers in the nutrition marketplace.” The ADA’s press release also pointed out that “the Coca-Cola Company will share their research findings with ADA members in forums such as professional meetings and scientific publications.” For example, did you know there are “No Harmful Effects of Different Coca-Cola Beverages on Rat Testicles?” Was that even a concern? Thou doth protest too much methinks…

When the American Academy of Pediatrics was called out on their proud new corporate relationship with Coke to support patient education on healthy eating, an executive vice-president of the Academy tried to quell protest by explaining that this alliance was not without precedent. The American Academy of Pediatrics has had relationships with Pepsi and McDonald’s for some time. This is reminiscent of similar types of relationships in the past, like doctors promoting cigarette smoking.

The fact that the Academy of Pediatrics was also collaborating with Pepsi and McDonald’s didn’t seem to placate the critics. So, the executive continued, noting that the American Dietetic Association has made a policy statement that “There are no good or bad foods.” Indeed, that’s the ADA’s official position, “classification of specific foods as good or bad is overly simplistic.”

One commentator asks, “Is this what [family doctors] have been reduced to…? To justify an unholy financial alliance we hide behind what others say and do and deny that there are actually unhealthy, ‘bad’ foods. I wonder how much money the ADA receives from the Coca-Cola Company and other food and beverage companies to have come up with this counter-intuitive ‘no good or bad foods’ philosophy?”

In 2012, the American Dietetic Association changed their name to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Did their policies change at all? A landmark report from one of my favorite industry watchdogs, Michele Simon, found that they continue to take millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship money every year from meat, processed junk, dairy, soda, and candy bar companies, and in return offer official educational seminars to teach dietitians what to say to their clients. So, when you hear the title “registered dietitian,” this is the group they’re forced to be registered through. Thankfully, there are also Dietitians for Professional Integrity.

After giving millions of dollars to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Coca Cola has apparently withdrawn sponsorship. It’s not enough to disclose conflicts of interest; we should strive to eliminate them in medical and nutrition research.

Copyright 2015 Michael Greger. First published in NutritionFacts.

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