According to a new report by attorney and food advocate Michele Simon, many scientific studies about nutrition, as well as the trusted experts who disseminate this information to the public, are being funded by the very entities that should be scrutinized. The report “Nutrition Scientists on the Take from Big Food” details the ways that the world's largest food corporations—aka Big Food—exert their influence on nutrition research and the people who conduct it. Simon has previously studied the influence of Big Food on the nation's largest organization of Registered Dietitians (RD). Together, these reports paint a disturbing picture of how food corporations collude to manipulate how information on nutrition is researched and disseminated. The coyote isn't just guarding the chicken coop here; it built the thing and is holding on to the key.
The new report focuses on the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), which Simon characterized as a trade organization for nutrition scientists when we spoke by phone. But the ASN's true mission may not be obvious to the casual reader who reads the ASN's mission statement.
"The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing together the world's top researchers, clinical nutritionists and industry to advance our knowledge and application of nutrition for the sake of humans and animals."
The researchers, nutritionists and industries in question are brought together twice a year for the ASN's conventions, where industry sponsors like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Hershey's, Monsanto, Cargill and many other food giants pay big money for access to nutrition researchers, and even host their own sessions at the conference. While most of the sponsored sessions disclose the corporate funder, Simon's report notes the industry ties are not always obvious. A recent session, for example, called "Sweeteners and Health: Current Understandings, Recent Research Findings and Directions for Future" was sponsored by the Rippe Lifestyle Institute. The Institute's founder James Rippe, according to the report, has been paid a $41,000-a-month retainer by the Corn Refiners Association, which represents the makers of high fructose corn syrup.
One of the session's “learning objectives" was to "understand whether or not there is a linkage between sugar consumption and obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as other metabolic diseases." “[The sugar lobby] has more than a passing interest" in this matter, Simon notes.
Meanwhile, the ASN publishes one of the most respected scientific journals dedicated to nutrition, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN). Several ASN executives with close ties to industry sit on the AJCN's editorial board, where they help decide what gets published and what doesn't.
"It's hard for good nutrition researchers to get funding and published,” Simon told me. "That's why people turn to industry sources. But the ones with too much integrity to take money from industry are facing difficulty and hostility in getting published, because the gatekeepers are on the take from industry. So a lot of good science isn't getting published. That puts a chill on the research climate in general.
"People need to understand when they see the latest nutrition science story being reported, it's always good to question where the funding comes from."
The AJCN has repeatedly propagated the notion that processed foods are being unfairly vilified, and that nearly all foods are processed foods. Any time a piece of food is cut, frozen or cooked, it's by definition processed, according to a recent AJCN paper.
Of course, many processed foods contain added sugars, which the FDA recently recommended be noted on the nutrition label as distinct from naturally occurring sugars. Not surprisingly, the American Sugar Alliance, an ASN sponsor, has come out strongly against the FDA's recommendation. The ASN has too, couching its true motives behind wording that inaccurately suggests the organization's true concern is for consumers' health:
"This topic is controversial, and a lack of consensus remains in the scientific evidence on the health effects of added sugars alone versus sugars as a whole. There is also lack of evidence on the usefulness of a declaration of added sugars on the label to improve food choices and the health of consumers."
But the topic is only "controversial," Simon's report notes, "because the food industry is worried that consumers are becoming more aware of the health effects of too much added sugar, and differentiating naturally occurring sugars from added ones may negatively impact sales of some of their products."
"The food industry is all about confusing American consumers, making sure they don't really understand how to eat right," Simon told WBEZ in Chicago. "Nutrition science is not that complicated. We've known for decades that we should be eating more whole foods, staying away from junk food and processed food, and making plant-based foods the center of your plate."
In order to ensure that RDs retain control of Big Food's messaging, the organization has helped put laws on the books of 47 states that make it illegal for unlicensed individuals to give dietary advice for medical conditions.
By managing which nutritional research is funded and published, and how nutritional advice is disseminated and by whom, Big Food corporations are trying their best to keep consumers eating their products. But this propaganda machine can't completely stop informed consumers from gathering information from truly independent journals and media outlets, and sharing this information among themselves. Or from calling BS on the notion a sliced apple is a processed food comparable to an apple Pop-Tart.