This is why we can’t have nice things, like unbiased, sensible nutrition recommendations.

Public health attorney Michele Simon today released an exposé on the conflicts of interest in the American Society for Nutrition. The ASN is the most prominent organization of nutrition scientists, publishes three scientific journals, including the respected American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and lays the scientific foundation for much of the dietary and nutrition policies and advice in this country.

The report details a flood of food industry influence within the organization, including membership on the ASN’s “Sustaining Partner Roundtable” ($10,000 per year). The list of 31 sustaining partners features names like McDonald’s, The Coca-Cola Company, and the Sugar Association. Also highlighted are conference sessions sponsored by the likes of PepsiCo, Kellogg, and the National Dairy Council. The report describes organizations like the Grocery Manufacturers Association or the Corn Refiners Association paying the ASN as much as $50,000 to host or sponsor sessions at its meetings.

Of particular concern, writes Simon, are the conflicts among the leadership of the organization. Her primary example is David Allison, who serves on the editorial board of the ASN’s prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  Allison is in a position to determine which studies get published and which do not, and the list of his food industry ties is long, including gifts, grants, and contracts from the World Sugar Research Organization, the National Restaurant Association, Coca-Cola, and more.

In a world of dwindling public research dollars, is it wrong for organizations like the ASN to accept corporate money?  In answer, the report, which is subtitled “Has the American Society of Nutrition Lost All Credibility?” does not mince words. And neither did Simon, when I spoke with her on the phone.

“These are the respected experts in their field,” she told me. “Dietitians and policy makers base their nutrition recommendations on this science, and if that science is being influenced by PepsiCo and other companies, that is a serious conflict of interest.“

This conflict is evident in the Society’s public comment responding to the FDA’s proposed rule to include added sugars on food labels. The ASN claimed there was a “lack of consensus in the scientific evidence on the health effects of added sugars alone versus sugars as a whole.” 

Let’s put this into perspective. A 12-ounce can of Fanta orange soda contains 52.5 grams of added sugar.  To reach that same amount of naturally occurring sugar, you would have to eat about six oranges. The nutrition scientists at ASN seem to think that there is not an important distinction between these two sources of sugar. Much of the rest of the group’s comment bears striking similarities to industry talking points.

In fact, on its website, ASN offers what is supposedly a nutrition toolkit aimed at consumers, but the document actually links to, a food industry front disguised as a nutrition education website. The latest post on the site’s homepage is an attack on the proposed added sugars label, an attack that uses the same reasoning offered by ASN—that an added sugars label will be confusing for consumers.

While the ASN’s opposition to labeling added sugars is similar to those of food industry groups, it runs contrary to most public health, public interest, and government organizations that also commented on the proposed rule. The American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Diabetes Association all supported the inclusion of added sugars on nutrition labels.

I spoke with Andy Bellati, dietitian and founder of the group Dietitians for Professional Integrity, who also helped research Simon’s report. In addition to being put-off by ASN’s comment on added sugar labeling, he also took issue with the Society’s position stand on processed foods, which basically reads like a PR document from the Grocery Manufacturers Association. 

“It’s becoming a consensus among health professionals that processed foods tend to be higher in fat, salt and sugar, and lower in nutritive quality than whole foods,” Bellatti said. “For these nutrition experts to come out and say that ‘if you wash an apple and slice it, then it’s a processed food’ is completely disingenuous and does a huge disservice to the American people.”

An exemplary quote from the ASN’s statement reads: “Processing foods is similar whether at home or in the factory.” This is grossly misleading, though I suppose that depends on one's definition of the word 'similar.'

Just last month, in an ironic Washington Post interview, David Allison (the AJCN editor with the laundry-list of big-food supporters) discussed “why what we think about eating is so often wrong.”  He mentioned the inherent limitations of nutritional science, as well as failures of both scientists and journalists to properly communicate nutritional research to the public. However, he didn’t say a single word about the influence the food industry has had in confusing the public about food and health.

When the top nutrition research organization comes out against common-sense, easy-to-follow health advice like “try to limit added sugars,” and “eat more whole foods than processed,” then of course consumers are going to be confused.  Perhaps the ASN isn’t technically against the advice to eat whole foods, but its position stand undermines it by basically arguing semantics (frozen fruit = processed. Really?). These are standard industry tactics, not what you would expect from a group whose purpose is to “advance our knowledge and application of nutrition.”

As Michele Simon told me: “Americans need guidance, not obfuscation, and they look to these organizations for recommendations on how to eat healthfully.  They need clear advice, not more confusing messages. They get enough of that from the food industry.”

Simon emphasized that she doesn’t think just because a study was funded by the industry that its findings should be immediately discounted, nor does she in any way think that most of the members of the ASN are corrupt. But she did say that we should really be paying attention to, and questioning these conflicts of interest. 

I agree.

Let’s be clear: Science is a tool to get us closer to truth. When food companies are paying for science, they are notpaying for truth. They are paying to use science as a tool to protect or enhance their profits. Sometimes that paid-for science happens to align with the public’s interest (as we understand it so far). But if any of its findings start to threaten food industry bottom lines, it’s a safe bet that the science is going to be a lot harder to get funded. And leaders at the American Society for Nutrition know that.