After lunch, I attended “Sweeteners in Schools: Keeping Science First in a Controversial Discussion.” Sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association, whose members produce and sell high-fructose corn syrup, it included a panel composed of three of the trade group’s representatives. The panelists bemoaned some schools’ decision to remove chocolate milk from their cafeteria menus. Later, one panelist said that she’d been dismayed to learn that some schools had banned sugary treats from classroom Valentine’s Day parties, which “could be a teachable moment for kids about moderation.” The moderator nodded in agreement, and added, “The bottom line is that all sugars contain the same calories, so you can’t say that there is one ingredient causing the obesity crisis.” The claim was presented as fact, despite mounting scientific evidence that high-fructose corn syrup prompts more weight gain than other sugars.
Later, I asked conference spokeswoman Pat Smith whether she thought it was fair to present such a one-sided discussion. She claimed that the sponsors did not influence any of the content in the program. “We like to think that our dietitians have a thought process and that we are presenting them with what is out there,” she said. “They need to make their own decisions on what they have listened to and apply that to their client base.”
“But it’s hard to make a decision if you’re only hearing one side of the story,” I countered.
She told me that she hadn’t known beforehand that the Corn Refiners panel would be composed entirely of its own representatives. And yet, when I asked her how the panel was chosen, she explained that it was approved by a committee. She also confirmed that the Corn Refiners had paid for the panel, but she declined to say how much. (She had previously declined me press credentials for the conference, explaining that the CDA would have its own journalists covering the event.)
With 75,000 members, the CDA’s parent organization, the national Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), is the world’s largest professional association for nutritionists and dietitians. It accredits undergraduate and graduate programs in nutrition science and awards credentials to dietitian degree candidates who pass its exam. In Washington, its lobbying arm is active on issues including childhood obesity, Medicare, and the farm bill.
It also has strong ties to the food industry. In 2013, Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and food politics blogger, launched an investigation (PDF) into the academy’s sponsorship policies. Simon found that its corporate support has increased dramatically over the past decade: In 2001, the academy listed just 10 sponsors. By 2011, there were 38, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Mars, and many others. Corporate contributions are its largest source of income, generating nearly 40 percent of its total revenue.