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Dietitians, Food and Truth: Winds of Change?

03/19/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015
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In what became a notorious move before ever the ink had time to dry on the hermetic plastic wrappers, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics -- until recently, the American Dietetic Association -- conferred its "Kids Eat Right" seal of approval on Kraft American Cheese Singles. Blessed, indeed, are the cheese makers! But even they aren't entirely sure this stuff qualifies entirely as cheese, its somewhat dubious pedigree having been parsed for public consideration before now.

I can leave the specific merits and demerits of cheese and cheesy derivatives of it, and for that matter the particular uses and abuses of the "Kids Eat Right" seal to others, as the ink involved here has migrated from the Kraft wrappers to many columns and blogs. I am thus unburdened of that to focus on dietitians, food, and truth.

In principle, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics represents the interests of its roughly 75,000 dietitian members. But like all institutions, this one has developed a preferential interest in itself, which leads inevitably to an interest in money. Money tends to flow most readily to an organization advising the public on food choice from the entities most interested in the public choosing their foods. This makes for somewhat unsavory liaisons, and the history of the Academy has been sullied by just such trysts.

While the Academy will need to officiate, or prevaricate, its own way out of this mess of its own devising, the dietitian members are not so constrained. Members though they may be, they speak for themselves -- and all the good ones, on behalf of truly good nutrition and public health. So they have done what needed to be done: they have mutinied.

The mutiny here takes the form of a petition, labeled "RepealTheSeal," and which had 7,336 signatures when I arrived, and 7,337 when I left. That's less than 10 percent of the Academy membership thus far, but the petition was just launched -- and it is nearly 10 percent of the entire membership. I suspect it has the Academy's attention, and Kraft's, along with every other would-be suitor for that seal.

So, first and foremost, I applaud my many dietitian friends and colleagues who have made the public's right to true food, and the unadulterated truth about food, their rallying cry. I encourage the many thousands more on the sidelines to get in this game, stand up, and be counted.

But then we need to look past this incident to the greater problem underlying it. We do not allow Toyota, or Ford, to determine who wins "car of the year." Such designations are courtesy of those famously independent third parties, such as Motor Trend in this case. We do not permit appliance makers to manufacture their own metric for energy efficiency; they are all scored on the same, government-sanctioned scale. And while vacuum makers may all choose to accentuate the particular way their product sucks, the savvy shopper is generally more interested in the judgment of Consumer Reports, which doesn't sell a vacuum.

In nutrition, though, we have long allowed foxes to guard the hen house. The easy access of Kraft to an apparent endorsement by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is only the latest example, and by no means the worst. Remember "Smart Choices"? Confronted by various efforts, including one I directed, to provide reliable, at-a-glance guidance to better nutrition, Big Food developed its own -- and for a while, it seemed as if everyone would be okay with that.

The program, which declared Froot Loops a "smart choice" didn't last long, because it garnered the well-deserved ire of some state attorneys general, notably ours here in Connecticut; and some members of Congress, notably our own, much-loved Rosa DeLauro. But until all that, there was no reflexive, public outrage that the makers and marketers of multicolored marshmallows as part of a complete breakfast would be the ones to tell us what constituted a "smart" choice.

Why not? Would anyone take it seriously if the toothpaste-of-the-year award were conferred upon Crest, by Crest?

This has to stop. Food is right at the top of a short list of factors that most potently determine nothing less than our medical destinies, factors that account for roughly 80 percent of all chronic disease and premature deaths. Factors that could be leveraged to add years to life, and life to years. If we were inclined to sublet any given hen house to the oversight of foxes, we could scarcely have made a worse choice.

These, then, are the critical considerations that must reverberate for for us all when the #RepealTheSeal campaign has run its course, as it will:

1. We are not clueless about the basic (care and) feeding of Homo sapiens! We know the truth about good nutrition. Hyperbolic headlines, and competing fad diets create cover for the manipulations of Big Food, because they suggest there are no actual "experts," and that if there are -- no two agree. This is false.

True experts may disagree about details, but overwhelmingly agree about the fundamentals. The former makes for titillating and ever-changing media commentary, and marketing opportunity; the latter is vastly more important and substantially ignored. The True Health Coalition is a new initiative of mine, dedicated to fixing this very problem; please visit here, and join us.

2. Nutrition deserves respect. If we would all roll our eyes at Charmin as judge and jury for the toilet-paper-of-the-year award, it's hard to fathom our tolerance for just such conflicted nutrition guidance. Junk and food never belonged together as descriptors of the same substances, and junk guidance has no place in the mix, either.

3. In unity there is strength. The dietitians are demonstrating the importance of unity with their petition, but it can't be a flash-in-the-pan. There is a tendency to prioritize personal concerns in a way that sacrifices shared, evidence-based truths. We can all choose preoccupations born of private conviction, but we must also stand together in defense of those shared, evidence-based truths. To do otherwise makes us all cooks of a rather unsavory stew.

4. There is a better alternative to nannies, than ninnies. There is a strong anti-nanny-state contingent in our culture. To some extent, this reflects real conviction about personal liberties. To some extent, it is confabulated nonsense, such as when an organization called "New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes" rallied against a proposed penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. That provocatively named organization was founded entirely and exclusively by the beverage industry, and represented no interest other than their own. Be that as it may, we can all agree that we don't want government regulations determining what we can or can't have for breakfast; but also don't want marketing by the makers of stuff like Fluffernutter masquerading as nutrition guidance. There is something in between the nanny state, and the land of exploited ninnies. I would hope we might all find common ground, and common cause, there.

5. It's bigger than dietitians. I mean no offense, here; it's bigger than physicians, too, and all health care professionals put together. In those places around the world where people eat the best, it's not because their clinicians get it right and provide terrific guidance; it's because their culture gets it right, and no guidance is necessary. The Blue Zone populations live, and thrive, in places where all available food is true food, and there is no predatory, profit-driven nonsense to compete with the truth about food. We ought to have what they're having.

Truth and food go together and belong on the same menu; junk and food do not, and never did. The truth about food should issue from those devoted to public health, not be manufactured by those apt to profit at its expense.

The dietitians have mutinied, but that simply means they have -- rightly -- taken over the ship in this instance. There is more to be done. The wind that fills those sails is bigger than any one group; it derives from our culture. Culture is a medium of our collective devising, subject to our priorities, and control. We decide which way this wind blows. Maybe the time has come for smart choices, after all.

-fin

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity