The Slowing of an Obscene Gravy Train

October 6, 2015 in Foodland Chronicles, General, Health, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

Last week, most major news services, including The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and the Associated Press published a story about Coca-Cola ending financial (Premier Sponsor) sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

The subtitle of the WSJ article: Health group criticized for accepting money from large food and drink companies opens some opportunities for a second look. If you didn’t read the WSJ article, I want you not to miss this sentence from Esterl’s article: “The move also comes after the health group—which represents tens of thousands of U.S. nutritionists—came under fire in recent years for accepting millions of dollars from large food and drink companies.”

Who were doing the criticizing? I don’t love controversy, but honesty, I must admit, how embarrassed I was to belong to an organization that accepted huge sums of money from a company (and other companies) like Coke. Holy mackerel! This has been a long time in coming. Let’s not gloss over the fact that a large part of that criticism was from it’s own members. The WSJ interviewed Andy Bellatti, the strategic director at Dietitians for Professional Integrity (a group of dietitians designed to pressure the academy to stop accepting money from big sponsors who sell unhealthy foods and drinks). He said, “There’s a long history of [academy] members being unhappy and concerned about these types of ties.”

Some of us, wanted to melt into the cement floors of the annual conference halls. Just when we’d think it couldn’t get worse, someone would approach us and maybe see our badge with post-nominal letters indicating that we had received a Masters Degree in Public Health and a doctorate degree. Maybe they thought we should be able to explain why some of the junkiest of junk foods had such huge booths. More than once, I was embarrassed by these questions of the organization that I belonged to. The short explanation is simply: MONEY. Receiving money from these organizations in spite of the side effect of the discrediting that came with it; was a pervasive modus operandi. It was a great gravy train while it lasted.

We’re not talking small amounts of money. Just in the past eight years, only from Coke the academy received $2.6 million. Just in the past five years, Coke has given $118.6 million to dozens of social and health associations.

We can only hope that the Academy continues to find other sources of financial support. In my opinion, it will ultimately improve the credibility of the organization. The Academy sent out a questionnaire that included an item that asked if we (the members) were willing to pay higher dues if sponsorship from some organizations was ended. I said, “yes,” but could understand how difficult this could be for a young and potentially money strapped dietitian. Note: Entry-level dietitians are not historically among the best paid of health professionals.

It’s really a sad situation – the obesity epidemic, that is. Coke knows it’s part of that problem, no matter how hard they try to convince themselves it just ain’t so. They support “studies” that try to divert the entire obesity problem to lack of exercise. And they’re still spending millions sponsoring a huge list of organizations so they can claim they are striving to improve public health. But sugar is cheap, and makes coke’s drinks profitable. So this gravy train, though it might slow down, will probably continue in some form for as long a Coca-Cola exists.

Like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) publicly says, for example, that sugary drinks contribute to the obesity epidemic; yet they were among their sponsorship recipients. And like the AND, they praise Coke for being a “distinguished” company for its commitment to “better the health of children worldwide.” It doesn’t really make me feel any better to know that other organizations have the same problem as the AND had. The chief executive of the AAP said that it has ended the association with Coke, effective the end of this year. The interesting bit of information is that, the pediatricians were upset and their academy listened.

I, not so secretly, wish that the AND could have been the one to end the association with Coke. I finally discovered a quote in The New York Times from Ryan O’Malley (a strategic communications and public relations representative for the AND) that said neither the academy or Coke “pursued an opportunity for sponsorship renewal.” Maybe it was not just a magnanimous act by Coke that ended their sponsorship, maybe the members of AND did help the organization realize that we needed to get off that gravy train. From the minute I read the announcement of the end of Coke’s sponsorship, I had the desire to be a fly of the wall at the talks between Coke and the AND, to know what really happened and when.

Dr. Arnold H. Matlin, a retired pediatrician from New York who drafted the Coke resolution said; “The purpose of the academy (AAP), of which I am a proud member, is to protect the health and lives of children. Coca-Cola is bad for children, and the A.A.P. should never accept sponsorship from Coke or any other company that makes sugar-sweetened beverages. It’s obscene.” Coke also announced that it would not renew current contracts with the American Academy of Family Physicians. The American College of Cardiology has also ended their acceptance of Coke as a sponsor. So it appears that this obscene gravy train is at least slowing down.

It’s been over five years since the surgeon general listed “reducing consumption of sodas and juices with added sugars” as the first item on a list of “healthy choices” needed to improve the health of the nation. We need to realize that Coke (and other sodas and juices with added sugars), like ice cream and chocolate cake, should be enjoyed as an infrequent and special treat; not a frequent staple.