One aspect of the ADA's web site is its corporate sponsorship program where it welcomes select groups (which provide it with donations) to the "health community."
The American Dietetic Association acknowledges that its corporate sponsorship program allows corporate sponsors to "Reinforce and elevate your position as a leader in health and wellness."
The Rest of the Story
Two of the ADA's corporate sponsors -- companies which the ADA is therefore promoting as being leaders in health and wellness -- are the Coca-Cola Company (manufacturer of Coke) and Pepsico (maker of Pepsi) .
So much for the ADA's ability to deliver "trustworthy" and "science-based" food and nutrition information. You simply can't do that when you're receiving funding from companies that are marketing some of the most unhealthy snacks and beverages imaginable. Even if acting only subconsciously, these sponsorships are going to temper the information that the ADA provides about the unhealthiness of drinking Coke and Pepsi. Moreover, the sponsorship gives these corporations the opportunity to make it look like they are committed to the nation's health, thus obscuring attention from the contributions their products are making to the obesity epidemic.
The ADA honored the Coca-Cola corporation with this press release announcing their partnership. In the release, the ADA readily acknowledges that one of the purposes of the sponsorship is to give Coca-Cola "prominent access to key influencers, thought leaders and decision makers in the food and nutrition marketplace."
In this press release, the American Dietetic Association allows Coca-Cola to tell the public that its sugar-laden soft drinks are designed to "meet their hydration needs." The ADA also describes Coca-Cola as being committed to: "product innovation and nutrition education, helping to meet changing consumer wellness needs through beverages and serving as a resource for health professionals and others interested in the science of beverages and their role in healthful living."
Thus, on its own web site, the ADA is promoting Coke - a sugar-laden soft drink - as being valuable for meeting people's "hydration needs."
Coca-Cola and Pepsico are certainly getting their monies worth from their sponsorship of the ADA.
For example, the ADA has published a lengthy document about improving nutritional standards in schools, but nowhere in the document does it recommend banning soda vending machines. The document goes into unproven, marginal strategies such as garden-based education, but it ignores evidence-based strategies such as soda taxation or removal of soda from schools.
Moreover, nowhere on the ADA's web site does it recommend the taxation of soda and junk food, restrictions on soda marketing in schools, or removal of soda and junk food vending machines as strategies to improve school and childhood nutrition. Taxation of soft drinks is an evidence-based strategy to address obesity that is widely supported by public health groups.
To add insult to injury, the ADA's healthy eating tip sheet does not recommend that people moderate their soda intake.
According to a post over at the Healthy Eating Politics blog: "In her book, Food Politics, Marion Nestle, a Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, wrote:"
On the ADA's own web site, the Coca-Cola Company boasts about its sponsorship of the American Dietetic Association and how Coca-Cola is committed to promoting the public's health by helping people to meet their "hydration" needs: "We are proud to partner with the American Dietetic Association, one of the country's leading authorities in health and nutrition education. Our partnership with the American Dietetic Association is central to our efforts to continually provide consumers with innovative options that meet their hydration needs and ever-changing tastes and information that allows them to make informed decisions about their personal wellbeing. Like ADA, Coca-Cola understands that a healthy lifestyle involves balancing many different elements — staying physically active, consuming a balanced diet, getting enough rest — and even keeping a positive attitude."
"The ADA's stance on dietary advice is firmly pro-industry; one of its basic tenets is that there is no such thing as a good or a bad food. The Association is apparently willing to enter into partnerships with any food company or trade organization, regardless of the nutritional quality of its products."
Thanks to the ADA, the Coca-Cola Company is getting a huge public relations benefit and a rare and unique opportunity to improve its public image and obscure attention away from the contribution of its products to poor nutrition and obesity.
In its annual sustainability report for 2009-2010, the Coca-Cola Company uses its sponsorship of the American Dietetic Association to enhance its own public image as a socially responsible company that is committed to improving the public's health. Coca-Cola writes: "We continue to build public-private partnerships to promote the importance of energy balance that includes physical activity and sensible, balanced diets. In the United States, we currently reach millions of consumers annually through our work with the American Dietetic Association... ."
Pepsico, too, uses its sponsorship of the American Dietetic Association to enhance its image as a socially responsible company that is working to improve the public's health. In its 2008 annual sustainability report, it writes: "In the U.S., we’re working with the American Dietetic Association, the nation’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, to develop educational programs and engage in frequent dialogues that will make a positive difference in public health through improved product choices and adoption of active lifestyles."
For Coca-Cola and Pepsico, corporate sponsorship is actually part of their marketing mix. Sponsorship is an aspect of public relations, which is one of the four elements of corporate marketing: advertising, sales promotion, public relations, and direct marketing.
As Rosenberg and I wrote in an article in the journal Tobacco Control in 2001: "Corporate sponsorship of events and organisations is a well recognised marketing tool. In the marketing literature, sponsorship is noted to enhance a corporation’s image, to associate the name of a sponsoring company with causes that are important to a particular target group, to offer effective product exposure, to target specific populations including groups that are difficult to reach through more traditional forms of advertising, and to provide publicity for a company through highly visible activities. Corporate sponsorship of, and donations to, social causes has been termed “cause related marketing” and its purposes, according to Kotler, are to “enhance corporate image, thwart negative publicity, pacify consumer groups, launch a new product or brand, broaden their customer base, and generate incremental sales” (page 29)."
As we noted, the purpose of corporate sponsorships is "to promote brand and company awareness, to develop brand and company associations with attractive images, to create co-marketing opportunities by allowing them to combine advertising with sponsorship in promotion of a product image, and to enhance their public image by achieving recognition as good corporate citizens. Each of these functions is well recognised in the marketing literature as a major objective of corporate sponsorship."
Thus, by accepting corporate sponsorships from companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsico, the American Dietetic Association is not only compromising its own scientific and public health integrity, it is also serving as a pawn in the marketing plans of these companies, allowing them to further promote the very products which are in part responsible for the obesity epidemic.
The American Dietetic Association, therefore, is actually helping to market soda and other unhealthy products, undermining its entire public health goal.
The rest of the story is that the American Dietetic Association has prostituted itself, its scientific integrity, and its commitment to the public's health by accepting corporate sponsorships from the Coca-Cola Company and Pepsico and allowing itself to be used to help market products which are contributing substantially to the very problem that the ADA purports to be confronting.
To make matters even worse, the ADA has accepted corporate sponsorships from a host of other corporations which are also marketing unhealthy foods - such as candy and junk food - which are contributing to the nation's obesity epidemic. These companies include Con-Agra, which markets Wesson vegetable oil for use in frying foods, Slim Jim Beef & Cheese "snacks," and Kid Cuisine All American Fried Chicken.
Just how much of a contribution is Con-Agra making to the health of our nation's children by marketing Kid Cuisine All American Fried Chicken, and how much of a contribution is the ADA making by helping Con-Agra to market this product?
Well, let's look at the nutritional information for a single serving of Kid Cuisine: it contains 540 calories, a whopping 24 grams of fat, 210 fat calories, 1 gram of trans-fat, and 750 mg of sodium. Is this really the kind of product behind which the ADA wants to ally itself? Is this really the type of product that the ADA wants to help market to the nation's children?
A single serving of Slim Jim Beef & Cheese "snack" delivers a whopping 630 mg of sodium, along with 100 fat calories and a half gram of trans-fat. Is this really a product that the ADA wants to help market as nutritious snack food?
Whether it intends to or not, through its Pepsico sponsorship, the ADA is actually helping the company market its Captain Crunch cereal to America's children, which in just a 3/4 cup serving delivers 11.8 grams of sugar. Is this the ADA's idea of a healthy breakfast for a child?
Also through its Pepsico sponsorship, the ADA is helping Pepsico to market its 2-ounce Flamin' Hot Cheetos snack, which delivers 340 calories and 22 grams of fat to a child in a single serving.
And this is just the beginning. The ADA is running a virtual brothel of corporate sponsorships, in which it is completely prostituting its scientific and public health integrity by enabling the marketing efforts of many of the companies making the very products which are least nutritious.
Take its Mars Company sponsorship. Does the ADA really want to help market the Snickers bar as a nutritious snack, when a single bar delivers to a child 280 calories, 14 grams of fat, and a whopping 5 grams of saturated fat?
And what about its sponsorship by Cargill? Just how nutritious is Cargill's Sterling Silver chuck beef burger, which delivers 230 calories, 16 grams of fat, and a full gram of trans-fat in a single patty?
The American Dietetic Association has lost its ability to provide unbiased and trustworthy nutrition information and recommendations to the public. It has also lost its credibility in making recommendations for public health policy. Worst of all, it is actually contributing to, rather than confronting, the nation's obesity epidemic by serving as a marketing tool for the very corporations whose products are most responsible for poor nutrition and obesity, especially among our nation's children.
NOTE (April 12, 2010 - 1:00 pm): The ADA's sponsorship by Con-Agra is acknowledged here. The funding is for the 2011 Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo in San Diego in September. The conference would more aptly be named: "The 2011 ADA Slim Jim Beef & Cheese Conference."