Leaked emails reveal largest group of dietitians wants to hide ties to Big Soda

Leaked emails reveal largest group of dietitians wants to hide ties to Big Soda

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest group of dietitians in the U.S., might be attempting to downplay the role of some suspicious corporate ties in its organization. 

This February, the academy's 100,000 members will elect a new president. Neva Cochran and Mary Russell are the only candidates in the running for the position. Mic obtained emails revealing the academy has gone to, at least in one instance, unsettling measures to silence talk about one candidate's corporate ties. 

In a tweet, Anna Macnak, a member of the academy and a dietitian from Texas, revealed Cochran's clients included the American Beverage Association, the soda industry's lobbying group, and the Calorie Control Council, a group representing the low-calorie food and drink industry that functions as a trade group for artificial sweeteners. 

"I brought this to the attention of the nominating committee in December but was notified in January that no action would be taken to address this concern in the current election cycle," Macnak told Mic in an email. Cochran's work history on the voting ballot did not disclose her corporate partnerships, Macnak said.  

"Unable to make a change on the ballot, I turned to social media to alert my friends and colleagues of this omission so that they could make an informed choice during the election," Macnak said. "As with being a member of any professional organization, members have a responsibility to hold leadership accountable to high ethical standards and to speak up when something isn't right." 

Days after her tweet posted, the academy emailed Macnak and asked her to remove the tweet. In the email chain obtained by Mic, the academy told Macnak that her tweet provided a negative bias against Cochran, one of the two candidates. Using social media to spread negative messaging about candidates is in violation of the academy's code of ethics, the academy said. 

A member of the academy since 2008, Macnak noted that she sought transparency and wasn't attempting a personal attack on Cochran. She was committed to "full disclosure of any real or perceived conflict of interest," she said. 

The academy's response to Macnak's concerns? They'll put off discussing them until the spring, ostensibly after a new president would be elected. 

When Kyle Pfister of Ninjas for Health, a startup that consults for public health organizations, included part of Macnak's emails with the academy in a Medium piece about the presidential election. Representatives from Medium told him they received a complaint that he included "private communications...without the consent of all parties involved." Medium asked him to edit the post or they would take it down. 

A spokesperson for Medium later told Pfister he would not have to revise his post after all because Medium allows users to post email exchanges with "people speaking on behalf of business or organizations," Pfister said in an email. Medium later confirmed to Mic that the post "was flagged as being in violation of Medium's rules. On review it was found not to be in breach."

"Censorship is yet another industry tactic to silence critics," Pfister said. "It also seems to be an admission that these corporate connections are a problem, if so much effort is going into hiding them."

When Big Food whispers into the ear of the nutrition industry

When health professionals and health groups have ties to multinational food companies, it becomes unclear whether they can provide an unbiased perspective.

Cochran, the candidate who has had a professional relationship with the American Beverage Association, has a pro-soda stance, Pfister noted in his Medium post. 

Cochran positions soda as part of a balanced diet, Pfister noted, explaining she even goes as far as promoting soda as a necessary source of calories for active kids and teens in a tweet that reads "Calorie needs R personal. Active teens: soda, lemonade, sweet tea & choc milk can replace calories & fluid. #Advisor." 

It seems fitting she underlined her antiquated message with an ad from the 1960s. (Cochran's tweets are now protected but the image she used is below.)

(Friendly reminder: Soda increases weight gain and risk for a slew of diseases. The World Health Organization recommended all countries reduce sugar intake in 2015 and recommended taxing junk food in 2016.)  

"Context is important," Andy Bellatti, strategic director for Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group that has been outspoken about removing corporate influence, said in an email. "These ties become conflicts of interest when [dietitians] deal with companies and groups that actively battle public health and solely protect corporate interests."

Bellatti noted that the American Beverage Association has spent tens of millions of dollars "battling public health policies" and "none of that aligns with the goals of a nutrition organization." 

In a more recent tweet, Cochran disputes the claim that sugar is as addictive as drugs, but she does not add any hashtag like #ad or #advisor disclosing that she retains the American Beverage Association as a client, which supports sugary drink makers like Coke and Pepsi. (Cochran's tweets are now protected.) 

The academy is no stranger to corporate sponsorship — it has accepted millions of dollars from food and drink companies over the years, the Wall Street Journal reported.    

"Many academy members work for junk food and beverage companies and many others think it's just fine to do so," Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies & Public Health at New York University, said in an email. "Those that don't are exceptions, but growing in number."

A history of confusing corporate ties

Before several American cities voted on a soda tax, the American Beverage Association compensated a group of nutritionists and dietitians who tweeted against soda taxes, Mic previously reported. Cochran was one such dietician. 

"Soda taxes fall flat - @USATODAY editorial. Better-informed consumers, not taxes, can help prevent obesity. https://t.co/BMdPIus97Z #Advisor" Cochran's tweet read. 

Food industry groups will sometimes work to distort and bury scientific research that reveals their products as harmful, Dietitians for Professional Integrity wrote on its site.  

One example: Coca-Cola funded scientists who conducted research that shift blame for obesity away from soda, the New York Times reported in 2015. A nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network was supposed to promote the idea that weight management was all about exercise and less about Americans eating too much. 

On its site, the academy asserts that it "is transparent about our sponsorship program and does not tailor messages or programs in any way due to corporate sponsors." It says that two-thirds of nonprofits have corporate sponsorships or are seeking them. 

But if the academy is as committed to transparency as it says it is, why would it attempt to silence Macnak?

"Groups like [the academy] should be advocating for more transparency and ethics in our food system," Bellatti said. Instead, it appears that these dietitians are attempting to shield the public from learning about their own corporate ties. 

The academy nor Cochran immediately responded to Mic's request for comment. 

February 23, 2017 11:45 a.m.: This article has been updated.