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:
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.
Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health
New York University