Is the Leading Nutrition Science Group in Big Food’s Pocket?

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Figuring out whom to trust for nutritional advice can be a daunting task; new findings on everything from the dangers of sugar to the health benefits of leftover pasta seem to come out every day, and the “experts” behind them often have ulterior motives.

According to a report released today, even venerable nutritional science organizations and the journals they publish can’t be trusted. Public health lawyer Michele Simon explores how corporate interests influence the findings of one of these research organizations: the American Society for Nutrition. The nearly 90-year-old nonprofit, comprising 5,000 scientists and experts, publishes the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and claims to “bring together the world’s top researchers, clinical nutritionists and industry to advance our knowledge and application of nutrition for the sake of humans and animals.” But according Simon, the group’s coziness with corporate sponsors calls its research into question.

Here are some of Simon’s findings:

  • ASN’s financial backers include many from the food and beverage industry. Their “Sustaining Partners,” or financial donors of $10,000 or more, include the likes of Coca-Cola, Cargill, Monsanto, the National Dairy Council, and the Sugar Association.
     
  • These financial donors often sponsor ASN’s events at conferences. For example, PepsiCo, DuPont, and the National Dairy Association sponsored ASN sessions at last year’s annual Experimental Biology conference on topics like bone health and the science behind low-calorie sweeteners. Companies paid ASN as much as $50,000 for sponsorship of separate ASN satellite sessions.
     
  • ASN’s leaders have had past ties with Big Food. Simon found that the people leading ASN frequently have ties to food corporations. For example, Roger Clemens, who formerly led ASN’s public information committee, served as a “Scientific Advisor” for Nestlé USA for more than two decades. And past ASN President James O. Hill has reported personal fees from Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and the American Beverage Association.
     
  • ASN’s stances on policy often go against established science. In April of last year, for example, the ASN’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition came out with a statement defending processed foods. “There are no differences between processing of foods at home or at a factory,” it read. It went on to say that terms like “minimally processed” and “ultra processed” impart value and do not “characterize food in a helpful manner.” These assertions contradict myriad findings that increasingly show the adverse health effects of processed foods. The ASN also came out against the Federal Drug Administration’s proposal to label added sugars on Nutrition Facts labels. It commented on the FDA’s proposal that “a lack of consensus remains in the scientific evidence of the health effects of added sugars alone versus sugars as a whole.” It added that labeling added sugars will not improve consumers’ food choices and health. This, too, goes against the findings of organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association.