McDonald's is Catering Nutritionist Conferences Now

In Depth

Mother Jones’ Kiera Butler posted a feature on Monday from her trip to the CDA’s (California Dietetic Association) annual conference in Pomona, which was apparently catered by freaking McDonald’s.

Seriously. This is a thing that happened. I swear I’m not making this up. As the conference’s primary sponsor (WAT), they were the sole provider of lunch. You might be wondering why this is a story, and, in and of itself, it’s not much of one — it’s just a nutty little blurb about a thing that happened. But as crazy as McDonald’s sponsoring a nutrition conference might sound, I assure you that the reality of what Butler found gets SO much crazier.

First, a little background: the parent association of the CDA, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is the single largest organization of nutritionists and dietitians in the world, boasting 75,000 members. Headquartered in Chicago, IL, it’s the organization responsible for the accreditation of college programs around the country, and maintains extensive lobbying arms in Washington. According to its website, it’s “the public’s and news media’s best source for the most accurate, credible and timely food and nutrition information,” a fact which is going to become incredibly depressing in about three sentences. They’re regularly used as a source by, to mention just a few, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, USA Today, Forbes, and HuffPo.

So where does the ADA’s money come from? Apparently, it’s sponsored by 38 companies, ranging from Coca-Cola to Nestle to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. Starting to spot the problem here? Ohhhhh, just you wait.

Butler found that it wasn’t just McDonald’s sponsorship that showed how deep went the rot:

The sessions—the real meat and potatoes of the conference—had food industry sponsors as well. The Wheat Council hosted a presentation about how gluten intolerance was just a fad, not a real medical problem. The International Food Information Council—whose supporters include Coca-Cola, Hershey, Yum Brands, Kraft, and McDonald’s—presented a discussion in which the panelists assured audience members that genetically modified foods were safe and environmentally sustainable. In “Bringing Affordable Healthier Food to Communities,” Walmart spokespeople sang the praises of (what else?) Walmart.

Yeah, ’cause Celiac Disease is TOTALLY MADE UP. Not like wheat gluten might actually kill someone with Celiac if they eat it or anything. Also, no one but Walmart would ever say good things about Walmart; they’re basically the devil at this point. Donald Sterling looks at Walmart and goes “damn, you guys are messed up.” Jesus, this whole thing is like attending a panel discussion called “Scientific Reasons Why You Should Buy Me Drugs” hosted by Lindsay Lohan.

After lunch, I attended “Sweeteners in Schools: Keeping Science First in a Controversial Discussion.” Sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association, whose members produce and sell high-fructose corn syrup, it included a panel composed of three of the trade group’s representatives. The panelists bemoaned some schools’ decision to remove chocolate milk from their cafeteria menus. Later, one panelist said that she’d been dismayed to learn that some schools had banned sugary treats from classroom Valentine’s Day parties, which “could be a teachable moment for kids about moderation.” The moderator nodded in agreement, and added, “The bottom line is that all sugars contain the same calories, so you can’t say that there is one ingredient causing the obesity crisis.” The claim was presented as fact, despite mounting scientific evidence that high-fructose corn syrup prompts more weight gain than other sugars.

I’ll be completely honest: I’m not even sure how to write a joke for this. My brain has entirely shut down. To paraphrase my colleague Erin Gloria Ryan, all of my evens are on back order. Corn farmers have broken me.

Here’s the kicker: neither of those is the craziest thing Butler discovered. Are you sitting down? You might want to for this:

Later, I asked conference spokeswoman Pat Smith whether she thought it was fair to present such a one-sided discussion. She claimed that the sponsors did not influence any of the content in the program.

Look, I get that money’s going to seep in and have a corrosive influence somewhere in these sorts of issues; it can be incredibly hard to avoid that happening. But if you show up to the a go-kart race in a Maserati, you don’t get to call it an especially high-end go-kart. Everyone can see that it’s a goddamned race car. Give up the ghost.

The real kicker is that a lot of actual nutritionists and dietitians, members of the AND, have no idea that the organization which purports to represent them, the organization to which they pay dues, is deeply in bed with companies like Pepsi and Frito-Lay. When several of them DID find out by attending one of these conferences and attempted to enact change from within the organization, they were summarily ignored.

The takeaway from this, for me, is that we basically can’t trust anything nutritionists tell us at this point — which is sad, and shouldn’t be the case, because I’m sure there are plenty out there who actually have more than the most trace elements of integrity. Unless they themselves make it clear, though, it’s hard to know who to trust if the largest organization for nutritionists in existence is run by corporate shills.

Image via jongjet303/Shutterstock.

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