A Dietitians’ Take on #ads and Food Industry Bias

About a month ago I reposted a blog post that Diana, my university pal, and fellow Dietitianwrote about food industry participation in a nutrition conference for Registered Dietitians (FNCE), it really resonated with me and I was passionate about the topic too.

Days later, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff wrote an article about conflicts of interest (COI) in nutrition, you can view it here.

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-3-32-03-pmLast week, I saw Dietitians posting online about this article, it basically discredits Dietitians for getting paid by a food company while saying that they were ‘independent experts’. I’m curious if you can be classified as an independent expert if you’re being told what to say about a product, on the payroll, and not disclosing financial ties. There are THOUSANDS of dietitians who do NOT work like this, don’t change your mind about us just yet.

So… Do I think there is potential for misleading people in food advertising and sponsorship? Yes. 

Do I hate the article? No.

I think that this information needs to get out there when these things happen so we, as dietitians, can clean up our act and ensure that we aren’t providing biased information to the general public (and our clients).  

Can you imagine the disrespect our profession would get if we were sweeping these things under the rug and then someone found out?

I am friends with many Dietitians who partake in sponsorship and work as brand ambassadors and I unreservedly respect their work, them as professionals, and as individuals. We have great conversations and I think that they know I value and respect them and their opinions. Having said that, I do question how sponsorship (and relative work) fits into our roles as Dietitians. There is an unquestionable risk of potential bias, misrepresentation, and market influence.

Is putting #ad at the end of an instagram post enough information for the public to discern that you’re being paid to write about the product in order to influence your readers?

When a profitable company is seeking Dietetic professionals to create advertisements for a product they are asking you to influence the market. But to be clear most of these companies prefer the term educate. Why? Because we’re the biggest influencers of the food market, why wouldn’t they want Registered Dietitians educating the public about their products?

Think critically, would you trust a professional that gets paid by specific companies to give you unbiased, professionally and ethically sound advice about a competitive product? We long ago began to put a stop to our Docs from being aggressively influenced by ‘big pharma’ but we’re still OK with our Dietitians being influenced by ‘big food’. Another example, some companies paid over $50,000 to have booths set up for a few days at the FNC Expo recently. These companies have a lot of political power, a lot of money, and will pay incomprehensible amounts of money for influential dietitian patronage.

The straw man-esque arguments that usually come next (yes- I’ve had this discussion before) usually go like this:
“It’s a food expo so why not?”
“Don’t go to the booths then”
“Food isn’t the same as medications prescribed by Doctors”
“We need to eat and the companies offer healthy food”
“Food industry should be at expos so Dietitians can see the latest foods”
“It pays the bills” (this one is very compelling and I get it- but if you have to make a decisive choice based on COI and ethics on the topic  this argument doesn’t fare well. 
The fact remains that we (Dietitians) are influencers. Should we be ok with (or be paid by) corporations who are attempting to influence us?

As a side note, you can click on Professional Practice at the top of this page and read about the code of ethics that the College of Dietitians of Alberta holds Registered Dietitians in Alberta accountable to. There are some parts mentioned in this article that go against various sections of the Alberta code of ethics (re: financial disclosure, endorsements, options of using other products etc.)

The instances in this article may not be as pertinent in Canada (for reasons relating to provincial codes of ethics and dietitians hopefully abiding by them) but … I maintain that it is an important issue that should be discussed and monitored regularly by our governing bodies, Colleges, Dietitians of Canada, and our American and international counterparts.

I’d love to see your comments, either for or against! As I mentioned above, I respect ALL RDs, my goal is not to discredit anyone but to open a dialogue about a very important topic that many are passionate about. I am always open to other opinions, even if I may not agree with them. Non-dietitian readers, I’d like to know what you think too, do you think dietitians should be allowed to be paid by food companies to endorse products? Where do we draw the line of acceptable vs. unacceptable? Is it a slippery slope?

*Calling out specific people and disrespectful comments will NOT be added or tolerated, I welcome respectful feedback and discussion supporting either side of the debate.
PS- this is not an #ad.

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