May 11 2009

Open letter to nutrition colleagues

Over the weekend, I received a letter from the American Society of Nutrition (ASN) nominating me to join the Board of Directors of the Smart Choices program.  Smart Choices, you may recall from my previous posts on this program as well as on other such systems, is a food industry-initiated plan to put a check mark – a stamp of approval – on processed food products that meet certain nutritional criteria.  Apparently, the ASN Board agreed to administer (and, implicitly, endorse) this program without discussing the matter with the membership.  I think involvement of independent nutrition researchers with Smart Choices represents a conflict of interest and the ASN should not be involved in this effort.  Here is what I told Katrina Dunn, the ASN Program Coordinator:

Dear Katrina—

Thank you for inviting me to join the Board of Directors of the Smart Choices program.  I regret that I cannot accept.  Participating in Smart Choices represents a serious conflict of interest for nutrition educators who wish to maintain independence from the influence of the food industry on nutrition advice.

But participation also represents a serious conflict of interest for the American Society of Nutrition (ASN).  I am dismayed that the ASN—an organization devoted to the highest standards of nutrition research–is involved in this project.  I think the ASN should reconsider this involvement and withdraw immediately.

The ostensible purpose of Smart Choices is to guide the public to select more healthful foods.  I am unaware of a research basis indicating that the program is likely to succeed in this goal.

Evidence does, however, support two additional goals of the program.  The first is to provide a basis for marketing highly processed food products.  I think we would all agree that highly processed foods are, in general, demonstrably nutritionally inferior to whole or minimally processed foods.

The second is to stave off federal regulations requiring a traffic-light food rating system such as that in use in the United Kingdom.   Preliminary research indicates that consumers prefer this system to numerical scores and understand the colors to mean that they should choose green-lighted foods and avoid red-lighted foods.

The cut points selected for the Smart Choices program may meet criteria of the Dietary Guidelines, but their health benefits are debatable (the sodium cut point is particularly generous).  Surely, a great deal more research is needed before ASN directly or indirectly endorses specific processed foods simply because they meet arbitrary nutrient cut points.

These concerns all address questions of intellectual conflict of interest.  But I am also concerned about financial conflicts of interest.  If ASN receives payment for its endorsement and administration of this program, the organization—and its members—risk losing intellectual independence.

I appreciate the invitation but I believe the entire program is ill advised and I urge ASN to extricate as quickly as possible.

Sincerely yours,

Marion Nestle
Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health
New York University

  • Diana

    Have you had a response from ASN yet, Ms. Nestle? I would be interested in hearing their comments.

  • CA_resident

    Bravo!

  • http://www.nylondiner.blogspot.com nylondiner

    Even though I am not involved in nutrition professionally, I agree wholeheartedly with the points you have made and I admire your integrity. I do hope that the ASN addresses these issues and I would be interested in hearing their response.

  • Hugh

    Here here!!!

    Mass marketed and mass produced foods are, almost by definition, nutritionally inferior. I understand some processed foods are worse than others, but putting seals of approval on the least offending foods would be akin to the American Cancer Society putting a seal of approval on filtered cigarettes as being a good choice compared to unfiltered.

    Speaking of conflict of interest, this reminds me of the American Heart Associations dietary recommendations and food endorsements. They receive millions in funding from drug companies who profit from diet-related disease, so the last thing we need is another organization working against our best interests for the almighty dollar.

  • C Sanger

    Kudos!

  • sid

    free money isn’t free and the ASN should rethink this Faustian adventure into free money land.

  • tracy tingle

    Thank you for your integrity, and thank you for asking the same of ASN. We all deserve that from them.

  • Auralee

    Yay you, Marion! What would we do without you to expose the bs?

  • Sara

    Thanks for standing up for us little people!

  • http://www.gogogreengarden.com amy pennington

    WOW – You are a bad ass! Well said.

  • http://www.pattyjames.com Patty James

    One only has to look at the ’roundtable’ of companies who were advisers to get an idea of the kind of foods that they support. Well done Marion.

  • Cindy

    You go Marion! Since when is 12g of added sugars in cereal a “better choice”

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  • Anthro

    Just want to add my congratulations for your integrity in this matter. So many “experts” disappoint in the end, but you made my day with this stance.

  • Cathy Richards

    As always, you rock Marion. Check mark systems invariably benefit packaged foods with manufacturer’s big pockets behind them. Whole unprocessed foods with farmers/distributors tiny pockets are left as wallflowers — better on the inside but ignored by too many.

  • Carmit

    Dear Prof’ Nestle,

    As RD and as a person I also believe in integrity. But, there is a point here that need to be raised; indeed, industry wants to make money and indeed the”healthy” logos are a way of marketing but something good is happening here – there are limits for ‘bad’ nutrients, and the industry trying to make foods better. Although it is not as good as raw products, it is better than nothing. Smart Choices program was built with cooperation of industry and other agencies like Keystone, it is better than the industry along to make the decisions; at least there were conversations and negotiations regarding the benchmarks for nutrients.
    So the sodium is high, and the sugar in cereals is high, but you can see the good things here too, and especially the process.

    Involving of yourself in such a committee can be good for making the process better and faster. maybe you can make more limits and encourage the industry for gradual reduction in sodium levels?

  • Anthro

    Carmit:

    Your view is exactly why these people continue to get away with marketing this crap and calling it food. I much prefer activism to deal with these culprits, thank you. They do NOT act in the public interest and they give up far less than your side I would reckon. They could all go out of business tomorrow and it would not affect me one iota. They could all go back to school and become dieticians so that they could actually do some good teaching people what is truly “Good to Eat”.

  • http://realfoodlover.wordpress.com Elisabeth

    It is inspiring seeing someone stand up for their principles.

    Seems so many can get sucked in by the allure of status, or the illusion that the end justifies the means. Thank you for resisting.

    Your letter is a model to anyone compromised by a conflict of interests.

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