How Food Companies Court Nutrition Educators With Junk Food : The Salt Corporate sponsorship of professional events for nutritionists has been on the rise. But should the gatekeepers of nutrition information be taking free meals and snacks from McDonald's and Hershey's?

How Food Companies Court Nutrition Educators With Junk Food

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. When hundreds of nutritionists and dietitians gathered for their annual conference in California last month their Friday lunch was provided by McDonalds. A bacon ranch salad, chocolate chip cookies, and a pink yogurt parfait.

The dietitians could also attend a panel on sweeteners in schools. It was sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association, whose members produce high fructose corn syrup. And the attendees were offered free samples of fake butter crystals, and cartons of strawberry milk.

These details are in a story in Mother Jones website. It's written by Kiera Butler, who went to the conference of the California Dietetic Association, and joins me now. Kiera, welcome to the program.

KIERA BUTLER: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And I was looking at the CDA website and right there it says the gold sponsor of their conference is, in fact, McDonald's. And their slogan, I'm loving it; the menu you love plus so much more! So what did you find about what other food industry sponsors were there?

BUTLER: Well, in the exhibition hall there were many food industry sponsors represented. As you mentioned, Hershey's was handing out chocolate and strawberry milk. Butter Buds was there. The California Beef Council guy handed me this pamphlet on how I could lose weight by eating steak. And the night before there had been a dinner that I didn't get to attend that had been catered by Sizzler, California Pizza Kitchen, Boston Market, and some other chain restaurants.

BLOCK: And it's not just the booths and the dinners that we're talking about but also, as we say, panel discussions that you found out were sponsored and staffed in some cases by the industries themselves like the Corn Refiners Association that I mentioned. Why was that troubling to you and was it troubling to any of the dieticians who were there?

BUTLER: Well, these nutritionists and dieticians were here getting continuing education credits. So this is something - going to this conference and attending these sessions is something that they need to do to keep up their accreditation. These people work in all kinds of places. They work in our school cafeterias.

They work in hospital cafeterias. They work in, you know, corporate settings. And these are really the gatekeepers of our nutritional information. And if they are getting their information from a very one-sided panel that is sponsored by the manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup which we know contributes to the obesity epidemic, that in my mind is a problem.

BLOCK: Did the dieticians think it was a problem? I mean did you hear any challenging questions from them in these panels?

BUTLER: Not in the panels, per se, but in my conversations with them some of them were really troubled. There were a lot of eye rolls at the McDonald's lunch. I talked to one person who - she was kind of a veteran nutritionist and she said to me - I can't believe we're sleeping with the enemy was how she put it. Other people just kind of shrugged their shoulders and said well, I guess McDonald's has the big bucks.

BLOCK: And you in your article talk about a sort of splinter group, Dieticians for Professional Integrity that want to change the sponsorship policies. Has that group had any impact? Is there any change?

BUTLER: As far as I know, these sponsorships are still going strong. Michele Simon who is a public interest lawyer and she blogs about food politics, she actually did a study of these corporate sponsorships at nutritionist conferences. And she found that in 2001 the academy had listed about 10 sponsors and by 2011, there were 38.

And those sponsors included Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Mars, and a bunch of others.

BLOCK: Kiera Butler is senior editor with Mother Jones. Her article is titled "I Went to the Nutritionists' Annual Confab. It was Catered by McDonalds." Kiera, thanks.

BUTLER: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.