By Dr. Sean Wells, DPT, PT, OCS, ATC/L, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, CNPT, Cert-DN
In recent years, the influence of the United States' food industry has extended its reach beyond traditional methods like lobbying, governmental appointments, and dietary guideline manipulation. According to a Washington Post report, the food industry has now set its sights on a new arena: social media.
In a strategy reminiscent of tactics employed by the tobacco industry, prominent players in the food sector, particularly big sugar and supplement companies, have been discreetly compensating dietitians to generate content on their social media platforms. These covert actions have raised concerns akin to the obfuscation campaigns witnessed during the heyday of big tobacco. The central figures in this evolving controversy are dietitians who wield significant influence as social media influencers.
The issue of dietitians, or RDs, succumbing to the sway of the food industry is not novel. It revolves around the apprehension that financial incentives or sponsorship deals from food corporations might compromise the impartiality of RDs, potentially skewing their professional dietary recommendations to align more with corporate interests than individual well-being. This matter has sparked considerable debate and apprehension within the healthcare and nutrition domains, as the credibility and trustworthiness of dietitians hinge on their ability to provide unbiased nutritional advice.
Who Holds the Reins?
Several regulatory measures are in place to ensure that individuals consuming social media content are aware of any financial backing from food industry entities. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) mandates that social media influencers unequivocally disclose any industry payments in their videos and written posts. However, a mere fifty percent of the influencers in question complied with this regulation, as reported in the study.
The American Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) association, the authority overseeing dietitians, similarly insists that these professionals transparently divulge any financial support connected to the content they create. Failure to adhere to this rule could result in the suspension or revocation of professional licensure. Intriguingly, none of the dietician influencers have faced disciplinary action thus far. This might be attributable to the fact that the AND permits food industry giants like Nestle and Coca-Cola to provide continuing education courses for RDs.
The Facts and Consequences:
While the concept of RDs receiving financial perks for supporting food industry products or agendas is not entirely novel, the recent tactics employed by big sugar and supplement companies to disseminate misinformation, sow confusion, and promote their products through social media and reputable professionals represent a novel approach.
As unsuspecting individuals browse platforms like TikTok and Instagram, they may unknowingly encounter dietitians suggesting that allowing children to consume excessive Halloween candy can help "deplete the stash." Such advice lacks a credible evidence base and wisdom. Similarly, when a dietitian humorously claims that the best ways to reduce sugar intake involve "a knife, your hands, or teeth," it can mislead people into thinking that regularly consuming refined sugar and related products is conducive to good health. In reality, most established guidance and research assert that such products are far from ideal for health, happiness, or dental well-being.
Promoting such misinformation and sponsored content exacts multiple costs on consumers. The most apparent consequence is that consumers may begin to embrace these products, experiment with unproven (and potentially hazardous) supplements for themselves and their children, and inadvertently alter lifelong behaviors that can ultimately compromise health. The other cost manifests as compensation: dietitians receive substantial remuneration for their videos and content. Some reports indicate that companies are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for certain videos, while others suggest more modest reimbursements in the thousands. Regardless, these costs trickle down to consumers in the form of elevated product prices. The final cost is a blow to trust and confidence in the dietetics profession. Dietitians, along with the AND, have diligently strived to gain professional distinction from nutritionists, set rigorous educational standards, and advocate for licensing and practice act regulations. However, influential RDs risk undermining these foundational efforts and tarnishing the RD title.
What Lies Ahead?
In the author's opinion, RDs who fail to transparently disclose financial support should be held accountable by both the FTC and AND. Such measures will not only level the playing field but also safeguard the esteemed dietetics profession's integrity. Social media platforms, while constantly battling misinformation and questionable practices, should impose stricter requirements on content creators in the health domain, demanding an explicit declaration that the information is sponsor-free. An alternative approach could involve designating a distinct account type for professionals posting health-related information, subjecting their posts to greater scrutiny, and restricting health claims without substantiating evidence or a clear financial support declaration. However, these proposed changes are incremental, and as highlighted by Dr. Marion Nestle in her numerous publications, the food industry is likely to persist in enticing dietitians and politicians alike. Consequently, history may continue to repeat itself.
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