According to a new report, companies are paying registered dietitians to promote not-so-healthy items like artificial sweeteners on social media.
A number of registered dietitians have recently posted TikTok videos in defense of aspartame, an artificial sweetener that has recently been in the headlines after the World Health Organization called it “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
In one post, registered dietitian Steph Grasso claimed to her 2.2 million followers that the WHO’s warnings about the substance were “clickbait” and based on “low-quality science.”
Now, Grasso and other nutrition influencers are being called out after it was revealed that they were paid to make these videos by American Beverage, a trade and lobbying group representing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and other companies.
At least 33 dieticians were part of a coordinated campaign by American Beverage, according to The Washington Post. Seventeen of those nutrition influencers failed to disclose their sponsorship in at least one of their posts.
Bonnie Patten, executive director of the nonprofit Truth in Advertising, expressed her concern to the Post.
“Would you expect that a dietitian would be partnering with the soda industry?” she asked. “Those are the most important kinds of disclosures that we need.”
Why is sponsored nutrition content concerning?
This is all part of a larger trend, according to an analysis by The Washington Post and The Examination, a nonprofit newsroom that specializes in global health reporting.
According to these publications’ research, the food, beverage, and dietary supplement industries are shelling out money to dozens of registered dietitians who collectively have millions of social media followers.
Many posts downplay the risks of highly processed foods and run messages that contradict decades of scientific evidence about healthy eating, The Washington Post stated.
The analysis also found that dietitians are being paid to push dietary supplements — even if the benefits of these products lack scientific backing.
This trend even goes beyond food, beverage, and supplements.
Earlier this year, The New York Times revealed that a propane trade group was paying HGTV influencers to disparage electric home appliances while touting the benefits of propane-powered appliances.
According to Mother Jones, a similar campaign, backed by the American Gas Association and American Public Gas Association, involved influencers promoting gas stoves.
What is being done about sponsored nutrition content?
The Federal Trade Commission has attempted to make sponsorship information more transparent by instructing influencers who have been paid to create sponsored messages to make it clear in the text of their post and in the video, if applicable.
However, the commission doesn’t have the resources to comprehensively enforce its guidelines.
“When you don’t have sufficient enforcement, companies think they can get away with it,” David Vladeck, former head of the commission’s bureau of consumer protection and now a Georgetown University law professor, told the Post.
The FTC does make periodic sweeps, however. In 2020, the organization sent 10 warning letters to influencers who had not properly disclosed paid ads for a tea marketer.
Meanwhile, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a code of ethics that says dietitians should disclose conflicts of interest and should not accept gifts or services that would influence or give the appearance of influencing professional judgment, the Post reports.
The academy’s board of ethics reportedly reviews allegations against dietitians who have potentially violated this ethical code. However, according to the academy’s president, Lauri Wright, the board has not received any complaints about social media activities.
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