Here’s food for thought. What do you think about partnerships between food industries and dietitians or other health professionals (who may also be social media influencers)? It can be fun to promote new products and, more enticingly, earn decent dough. Partnerships can also significantly boost one’s social media presence. But does it feel a bit sketchy when health professionals are involved? Marion Nestle, PhD, from New York University devotes a blog Food Politics to this topic as well as at least six books, including her latest exposé Unsavory Truth on how the food industry manipulates nutrition science, partly by paying or partnering with high-level nutrition scientists, dietitians, and other related professions. A respected, trusted health professional can spread a positive message about a particular food product, and health sells.
Consumer surveys show that the health and nutritional value of a food are rated among the top 3 concerns when someone decides to purchase a food. If you regularly seek health advice from a trusted source who happens to promote a new whole-grain pasta or protein bar, it’s likely you will buy it. In my clinic, people always ask which specific products they should eat for their condition, which they quickly add to their shopping lists.
The food industry understands the power of this connection, so they regularly woo health influencers with free products, promises to boost social media exposure, and stipends or gift cards. They may also target food and nutrition scientists who publish research, because this adds a higher level of credibility to their product. Many of these studies are conducted by highly respected scientists and published in the most reputable medical journals.
As a writer for Nutrition Source, we created a policy to not cite industry-funded research in most cases because the results can be unfairly biased towards the product produced by that industry. I see this the most with studies featuring a specific food like, say, avocados or walnuts. With my last piece on avocados, out of more than two dozen studies, I was only able to use less than a half-dozen because the topic was flooded by research that was 100% funded by a well-known avocado supplier. Pretty much all of their funded studies found an overwhelming benefit of eating avocados for heart health, diabetes, weight loss, and even cognitive health (e.g., dementia). Maybe avocados do help when eaten as part of a healthful diet, but the final message clearly highlighted avocados as a sort of super-panacea.
Dietitians seem to be the greatest target group because of several reasons:
- Dietitians are underpaid. The salaries of most RDs are notoriously low, particularly when considering the length of education and training needed (minimum bachelor’s degree with a master’s degree now required in many positions, a year-long internship or didactic program in the field, a qualifying national exam, lifelong expensive continuing education credits to remain certified). I’ll go out on a limb and add that dietetics is an almost all-female field and women get paid less—period. Some fields of dietetics connected to industry or management positions pay higher. But in general, the lower-paying RDs may be searching for all avenues to make an extra buck and gain greater publicity for themselves.
- Dietitians love social media. Since food is part of the job, it’s easy to start an Instagram, YouTube or TikTok account and post mouthwatering healthy recipes or do a product review. Social media has become a cheap effective source of “word-of-mouth” promotion, and the marketing teams of food industries reach out to dietitians to show colorful photos and give shoutouts about their food products.
- It’s a fine line. Dietitians eat too, you know, and there may be several healthful foods that they would promote to clients even if they weren’t connected to a food company. When my past blog was connected with food companies, I wrote in my bio that I only promoted products that I would eat myself and recommend to patients. So it becomes easy to justify the partnership. However, when you get really comfortable with all the attention, there may be slower seasons when the attention lags, and you might accept partnerships with products you don’t love so much.
Why Am I Frustrated?
Because the connections are growing and sometimes seem questionable, such as dietitians promoting diet coke or super-processed “Natural Cheetos.” When a greater amount of money is involved such as with scientific research, you have to wonder if the study results are credible. If you open a journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), 95% of the advertisements are food companies. The same goes for their magazine Food & Nutrition and the heavily industry-influenced Today’s Dietitian magazine. If you attend an AND conference, the booths are largely food companies doling out free food and coupons. Sweetened beverages, snacks, cereals, frozen meals, ice creams, etc. all of a sudden seem healthier because of slick health marketing strategies. My nutrition manager sends invites to educational webinars that offer free CEUs but are always hosted by food companies or dietitians that have partnerships with food companies. Sure the info they provide has some validity, but is it truly a fair balanced view or mainly an opportunity to promote the special health benefits of their yogurts, milk, cereals, or nutrition shakes? My concern is that the credibility of dietitians to relay accurate information and science is questioned if they are perceived simply as a salesperson.
So after all that, here’s where I disclose that I’m not immune to receiving free food products or coupons from food companies. I’d likely accept a free food product, particularly if plant-based, if offered to taste and blog about. I love discovering new ingredients to expand variety in my menu; if it also happens to have a great nutritional profile, I’ll definitely recommend it. This is where the tough questions come in and checking your gut instinct about the right move:
- What am I getting from the partnership? Free food, gift cards, cash, invites to exclusive blogger events, shoutouts on social media channels?
- Is it an interesting new product that I would have purchased on my own anyway?
- What does the food company expect from me in return for receiving the product or agreeing to a paid partnership?
- Would the partnership conflict in any way with my current profession?
With my last blog I accepted a lot of free food products to write about. Most I truly enjoyed, but eventually I realized that the majority of viewers on my site were food manufacturers and not the target audience I was trying to reach. I always disclosed the connections; the Federal Trade Commission created Endorsement Guides to address the basic truth-in-advertising principle that endorsements must be honest and not misleading. Under the FTC Act Part 255, if bloggers are paid or receive a free product in exchange for promoting the product, they must write a simple disclosure statement such as, “Company X gave me this product to try . . . ”. Even when following these rules, I didn’t like how my blog had become a big commercial. A few partnerships were especially troubling because I was told exactly what to say and write. It eventually bothered me enough to shut down the blog.
I know there are successful dietitian bloggers/influencers who do a fantastic job promoting healthful foods and recipes, with and without partnerships, who don’t see a problem. But I wanted to address the topic because it’s overwhelmingly present, and to encourage young dietitians to think through potential partnerships carefully to make sure it’s a good move. It could be a simple one-time product promotion or a year-long paid campaign. There’s a lot of gray area within this spectrum. If you’re a dietitian blogger, have you had this experience? If you’re not a health professional, how do you feel about a dietitian who blogs about food products that are paid for?