Do you trust Coca-Cola to help you lose weight?

The class: "Coaching Your Clients Toward Lasting Weight Loss". Gold sponsor: The Coca-Cola Company. No, you're not reading The Onion; you're seeing The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' conflicts of interests.

Formerly known as the American Dietetic Association, AND is the nation’s largest professional nutrition organization. It represents more than 75,000 Registered Dietitians (RD) and Dietetic Technicians Registered (DTR). It certifies RDs and DTRs. AND publishes a research journal, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and members are frequently quoted in the media.

It's an organization with the potential to set the tone of the discussion of public health policy--and that hasn't gone unnoticed by several companies not associated with health food. According to Wikipedia, donors include "companies like McDonald's, PepsiCo, The Coca Cola Company, Sara Lee, Abbott Nutrition, General Mills, Kellogg's, Mars, McNeil Nutritionals, SOYJOY, Truvia, Unilever, and The Sugar Association." In addition, Wikipedia reports, "the AND also partners with ConAgra Foods, which produces Orville Redenbacker, Slim Jims, Hunt’s Ketchup, SnackPacks, and Hebrew National hot dogs, to maintain the American Dietetic Association/ConAgra Foods Home Food Safety...It's in Your Hands program." AND also sells booth space during conventions, and soft drink and candy companies frequently have access.

According to Wikipedia, a 2011 survey showed that 80 percent of Academy members are critical of this practice. One of them is Andy Bellatti, a registered dietitian who co-founded Dietitians for Professional Integrity.

"For years, the Academy has formed shocking partnerships with the very companies that have contributed to the many health problems faced by millions of Americans," Bellatti wrote in a petition on Cause.org. "Do you think multi-billion dollar junk food companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, PepsiCo or Hershey’s are reliable sources of information on healthy eating? Probably not, yet they sponsor professional events for – and educate -- the people you turn to for credible advice, as the recent report from Eat Drink Politics, And Now a Word from Our Sponsors: Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?, amply demonstrated."

According to Bellatti, "at this year’s California Dietetic Association meeting, McDonald’s was the gold sponsor. At this year’s Utah Dietetic Association meeting, McDonald’s Director of Nutrition addressed dietitians about the chain’s 'healthful' offerings (some of which are cooked in trans fats, the very fats strongly condemned by the American Heart Association due to their definitive links to heart disease). ... These partnerships pose troubling conflicts of interest, threaten the credibility of the Registered Dietitian credential, and limit the Academy’s ability to create or support policies that protect public health."

For example, AND is against the mandatory labeling of foods containing trans fats, according to Wikipedia. In addition, ANDs stated position is that labeling "bad" foods confuses the public. The have mantra "there are no good or bad foods, only good and bad diets."

Bellatti finds the fact that companies such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola are teaching continuing education classes to RDs and DTRs distrubing.

"It essentially casts off concerns about sugar intake, artificial sweeteners, and dyes in children's diets as examples of 'urban myths'," he wrote in an e-mail message. "There is no reason why a 7 year old should be consuming aspartame, and there are valid scientific reasons why artificial dyes are not looked at favorably by health professionals in this and other countries. The Corn Refiners Association also offers continuing education, basically on how high fructose corn syrup is not only safe, but a superior product since it provides uniform color to processed foods. Of course, they conveniently leave out the many environmental issues that come with the GMO corn that is planted in order to make HFCS, or the fact that the average American consumes an absurdly high amount of added sweeteners as it is."

According to EatDrinkPolitics,com, approved continuing education providers include "General Mills Bell Institute for Health and Wellness, Calorie Control Council (which promotes artificial sweeteners such as aspartame), ConAgra Foods Science Institute, Coca-Cola Company Beverage Institute
for Health and Wellness, Institute of Food Technologists, International Food Information Council Foundation (an organization that lobbies for
GMOs and high-fructose corn syrup), Kraft Foods Global, National Pasteurized Eggs, Nestlé HealthCare Nutrition and PepsiCo Nutrition." Bellatti wrote that other companies include Hershey's, Mars, Kellogg's, and The Dairy Council.

"General Mills and Kellogg's pass off sugary and minimally nutritious cereals as 'healthful starts' to the day, and the Dairy Council continually pushes chocolate milk as a 'healthful beverage'," Bellatti wrote. "The Dairy Council also conveniently ignores the fact that vitamin K, a crucial nutrient for bone health, is absent in dairy (but rich in leafy greens, which also contain calcium -- don't count on the Dairy Council to say that during its presentations, though)."

Bellatti's petition calls for AND to sever its ties to junk food companies, which currently account for 7 percent of The Academy's budget.

"When junk food giants are allowed to sponsor our conferences and provide continuing "education" to Registered Dietitians, our credential -- which we worked hard for and value -- loses credibility in the eyes of the public," the petition reads.

The petition, which currently has more than 13,000 signatures, will be presented at the 2013 Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in October. Current sponsors, according to AND's web site, include Campbell's, ConAgra Foods, Del Monte, Jamba Juice, Nature Made and Safeway.

AND defends its policy.

"It’s important for ADA to be at the same table with food companies because of the positive influence that we can have on them," AND stated in a 2010 article. "For ADA, relationships with outside organizations are not about promoting companies’ products; they are about creating nutrition messages that people can understand and act upon to improve their health and that of their families."

Image Source: An anonymous supporter of Dietitians for Professional Integrity