FNCE 2014 – Dietitians for Professional Integrity (Original Facebook Post HERE)
This year’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) took place in Atlanta, GA October 19-21, 2014. I found last year’s meeting to be dominated by food politics, ranging from corporate logos on tote bags to enforced photo bans on the expo floor. The event felt more like a food industry networking event than a nutrition conference, and educational sessions were often infused with bias or outdated paradigms. Last year, in a session on weight management the speakers discussed calories as the only variable of value, giving no mention to other factors like gut health or hormones. My previous experiences at FNCE have been very disappointing, so I arrived with low expectations.
Before offering my critique, I want to acknowledge that this year’s FNCE was an improvement. For starters, inappropriate corporate logos were minimized. Abbott and National Dairy Council were the only corporations represented on tote bags, and the exhibit booths had less of an overwhelming advertising approach. It is likely that negative reaction from last year’s FNCE and from California Dietetic Association’s (CDA) Annual Conference featuring sponsorship from McDonald’s led to new practices on the expo floor. While the photo ban remained a FNCE policy, it did not feel enforced like last year. At the very least, there were no signs at the expo prohibiting photography.
The Expo Hall – Educational Materials
Despite the apparent progress towards reducing corporate logos and the overall feel of the expo floor, information offered at the booths by corporations such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, The Sugar Association, and food industry front group the International Food Information Council (IFIC) has not changed. Most of the information appeared to be a defense of existing products rather than promotion of health.
A pamphlet from the Coca-Cola Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness, asserted that they “made it easy” for dietitians. The pamphlet outlined educational webinars and Continuing Professional Education (CPE) programs that are accredited by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). Other pamphlets focused on the importance of exercise, attempting to divert attention away from their nutrient-void beverages, while others emphasized “energy balance” by choosing diet soda for weight loss.
PepsiCo took a similar approach with its educational materials, teaching calorie balance as the most important facet of health. Much like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo referenced an Academy Position Paper which states that “consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners when consumed with an eating plan that is guided by current federal nutrition recommendations.”
The Sugar Association was also present, promoting sugar as a way to make a “healthy diet more palatable.” Their pamphlets declared that sugar is not linked to diabetes and obesity. One choice quote: “go ahead, sprinkle a little brown sugar on that bowl of nutritious oatmeal.” A handout for picky eaters suggested “youngsters may find vegetables sprinkled with a small amount of sugar before they are cooked more enjoyable to eat.” The Sugar Association also provided pamphlets about cavities, stating that: “one solution [to prevent cavities] is to brush after every time you eat. Another is not to snack often.”
The International Food Information Council (IFIC) is a front group for several Big Food corporations that have close ties with The Academy. This year they provided a handout co-authored by a dietitian that critiqued Fed Up, which in my opinion was an accurate and insightful documentary about our current food system. Fed Up calls out the food industry for obfuscating science, battling public health policy, and influencing federal dietary guidelines. It also points to the role of added sugars in our current epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. While of course added sugar is not the only factor (and simply eating a sugar-free diet is not the only solution), it is an important one that needs to be considered.
IFIC attempted to discredit the film by citing a study from 1953 which concluded that “lack of exercise must be related to weight gain. …Eat less, exercise more has been the commonsense answer to unwanted weight gain for more than a half a century.” This is the tried and true Big Soda angle: always point to exercise as a way of diverting attention away from excessive caloric intake.
“Energy balance” has become the ultimate Big Food weapon, and while it has scientific merit, it does not account for how different foods affect gut health, brain chemistry, and metabolism, all of which represent the future of nutrition science. IFIC is investing their resources in defending old nutrition paradigms, attempting to protect the use of added sugars in the food supply. Read the full report HERE
The Long-Awaited Panel Discussion
The best part about FNCE this year was the panel discussion on October 21, 2014 titled “Industry, Ethics, the Profession, and Practice” which was moderated by Academy President Sonja Connor.
Dietitian Melinda Hemmelgarn discussed guidelines and parameters for sponsorship established by the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition (HEN) Dietetic Practice Group. The guidelines are available HERE
Hemmelgarn emphasized that HEN examines companies’ sustainability and environmental impact, not just their product portfolios. She also made very strong points about sponsorship implying endorsement, and how the Academy’s external agreements impact the public’s perception of dietitians’ credibility. The audience was reminded that the food industry has its own needs (mainly to sell as much product as possible), and we need to be more aware of this before entering into partnerships. Hemmelgarn shared survey data that was collected through HEN and The Academy, which found that dietitians considered candy and soda companies to be the most problematic from a partnership standpoint.
Dietitian Kathy McClusky announced that The Academy had recently formed an official Sponsorship Task Force, of which she is Chair. The twelve members represent a cross-section of dietitians (as well as some Academy staff) with various perspectives on the issue. The main goal of the task force is to develop recommendations regarding current sponsorship guidelines, suggest criteria for establishing a new sponsorship category, and review policies and practices regarding industry-sponsored education. They plan on submitting a report to the Academy Board of Directors this coming January.
President Sonja Connor promised to keep us informed on these issues as they continue to unfold. She also stated that she planned to discuss corporate sponsorship in the Presidents Page of Journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics before her term was over, most likely in the May 2015 issue. Audience members asked some important questions which did not appear to be answered satisfactorily: What was the selection process for the Sponsorship Task Force? Will Academy members be able to weigh in? Will there more transparency about funding in The Academy?
Despite overall progress that has been made in the FNCE expo hall, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has more changes to make in order to present itself as a credible scientific organization. Sponsorship agreements with Big Soda are shameful and should be aggressively challenged. The most disturbing facet of these sponsorship agreements is the opportunity to educate and train dietitians for CPEs. The time for conflict-free CPEs is now.
The Academy should have more regulations about corporate sponsorship and should not let companies into the FNCE expo hall that do not meet specified criteria. The integrity of my credential is on the line. I am hopeful that the Sponsorship Task Force will address these issues and develop guidelines within their proposed timeline. I will continue to speak up on these issues until real change is enacted, because at present it is largely theoretical. Continued discussion with Academy leadership and members will be critical.