The documents, described in a report published Monday in Public Health Nutrition, a peer-reviewed journal, include thousands of pages of the academy’s financial records, tax returns and internal emails. They showed that between 2011 and 2017, the organization received more than $4 million in donations from food companies and industry groups, including some of the world’s largest producers of soda, sugar, candy and ultra-processed foods, such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Hershey, Kellogg, Conagra.
The Academy not only accepted sponsorship money from major food companies, but also invested the money in food industry stocks. For example, documents show that in 2015 and 2016 the Academy owned more than $1 million in shares in PepsiCo, Nestlé and JM Smucker.
The documents were obtained by Right to Know USA, an investigative group that has long been at odds with major food companies, but is also saddled with its own controversy. Right to Know US revealed on its website that it is accepting funding from the Organic Consumers Association, which has been linked to the anti-vaccine movement. The organization also said it was investigating the uncertainty about the origins of covid-19.
The Academy has long been criticized for its partnership with processed food companies, but the full extent of its financial ties to the food industry has not been publicly disclosed.
In a statement, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics called the new report inaccurate and misleading, and said it had strict guidelines and principles for its sponsors and supporters, which “prohibit outside influence.”
“The Academy’s programs, leadership, decisions, policies, and positions are not affected by sponsors,” she said in her statement. “The Academy’s procedures and formal agreements with outside organizations are designed to prevent any undue institutional influence.”
The academy said less than 9 percent of its funding comes from sponsorships, less than 3 percent of it and its foundation’s investments in food companies. It said all S&P 500 segments are represented in its stock portfolios.
The academy is a powerful force in nutrition. It boasts of having 112,000 certified practitioners, including tens of thousands of registered dietitians and other nutritionists. Academy members lobby Congress on health issues and routinely serve on the advisory committee that makes up the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
While the academy has faced criticism over its ties to major food companies for years, it is a private organization and its confidential financial records are protected from public scrutiny. The new set of documents only surfaced because Donna Martin, a former academy president who works for a Georgia public school district, used her school email for Academy-related matters, and put those communications into the public domain.
Right to Know USA says it spent five years obtaining more than 50,000 pages of documents, largely through Freedom of Information Act requests.
The disclosures provide a rare glimpse into how the food industry maintains close relationships with the organizations and individuals who are supposed to advise consumers about healthy eating. This is what the report found:
- Many of the Academy’s largest contributions between 2011 and 2017 came from some of the world’s largest producers of soda, sugar, candy and ultra-processed foods. Conagra, which owns brands such as Slim Jim, Duncan Hines, Reddi-wip and Chef Boyardee, has given the Academy at least $1.4 million. PepsiCo provided more than $486,000 in funding, and Coca-Cola provided the Academy at least $477,000. Hershey gave the Academy nearly $368,000, and Nestlé gave the Academy more than $200,000 during this period.
- Financial backers of the Academy have included sugar industry trade groups such as the Sugar Association and Corn Refiners Association, as well as influential lobby groups for the soda, beef, and dairy industries.
- The National Dairy Council has been among the Academy’s largest sponsors, giving it at least $1.5 million between 2011 and 2017.
- Records indicate that the Academy acknowledged that certain levels of financial support gave shareholders greater influence. The companies that paid the “sponsorship” fee were given “specific rights and benefits.” Meanwhile, donors, donors, and supporters were defined as those who made a “charitable contribution without expecting a commercial return”.
Internal emails show that in 2014, Martin, then the group’s treasurer, dismissed ethical concerns about investing in PepsiCo and suggested in a letter to another academy executive that it would be a good idea for the group to invest in Coca-Cola as well.
“I personally love PepsiCo and have no issues with us owning it, but I wonder if someone would say something about it,” wrote Martin, who was not able to reach the Washington Post for comment. “I hope they are as happy as they should be! I personally would be fine if we own Coca-Cola shares!!”
“I am stunned,” said Marion Nestle, professor emeritus of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, and author of The Unmelted Truth, a book about the food industry’s involvement in nutritional science. These are the people who are supposed to be talking about healthy diets. How can they invest in companies that make ultra-processed products and make people sick? “
The academy said its sponsorship agreements with Coca-Cola and Hershey expired in 2015, and that PepsiCo’s sponsorship ended in 2016.
Today, the Academy lists more than two dozen “supporters” on its website, ranging from the Hass Avocado Council and the Mushroom Council to Tate & Lyle, one of the world’s largest producers of high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Another one of the group’s supporters is the National Confectioners Association, a trade and advocacy group for the candy industry whose members include Hershey, Mondelez International, Mars and Jelly Belly Candy Company.
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