The Cheesy Endorsement

The Cheesy Endorsement

Last week, it came to my attention, via Twitter, that I had indirectlyendorsed Kraft Singles as a healthy food choice for children. Yes, you know, the sliced rubbery “pasteurized prepared cheese product” individually wrapped for your convenience and used to make a shiny food blanket after a few seconds in the microwave.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), formerly the American Dietetic Association, had licensed its Kids Eat Right seal to the Kraft Singles cheese product:

Getting permission to use the academy’s new Kids Eat Right label, derived from the logo for the Kids Eat Right nutrition education program run by the academy’s foundation arm, is a major coup for the Kraft Foods Group, the company behind Claussen pickles, Capri Sun juices, Breakstone’s dairy products and other staples of the American grocery store. The label is approved to appear on the packaging for the regular and 2 percent milk versions of Kraft Singles, which account for roughly 95 percent of the Singles brand.

The label is the first piece of what is to be a three-year collaboration between the academy and Kraft. Kari Ryan, director of nutrition, science and regulatory affairs at Kraft, noted that 80 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys ages 4 to 18 do not get enough calcium, while almost half of all children’s diets lack adequate vitamin D.


I can assure you as a member of AND, I was appalled by the choice.


The rationale as to why this organization, representing 75,000 nutrition professionals, would agree to such a partnership could only be one of two reasons: The academy is trying to further confuse parents about the types of healthy foods recommended for children or they were paid to do so. As it turns out, it is the latter and this is highly disturbing.

According to a statement released by AND, the seal is not an endorsement:

As part of this nutrition education initiative, the Kids Eat Right logo will appear on KRAFT Singles packaging, identifying the brand as a ‘proud supporter’ of Kids Eat Right and encouraging parents to visitwww.KidsEatRight.org/cheesyfacts for tips to help kids get more vitamin D and calcium.

Contrary to recent published reports, this collaboration does not constitute any endorsement or nutritional seal of approval by the Academy, its Foundation or Kids Eat Right. The Academy Foundation does not endorse any products, brands or services. The Kids Eat Right logo on KRAFT Singles packaging identifies the brand as a proud supporter of Kids Eat Right. It also serves to drive broader visibility to http://www.KidsEatRight.org, a trusted educational resource for consumers.

 

ABC News explains the issue a little bit more in depth:

It’s more like an ad for Kids Eat Right, according to the academy, though, in a reversal of how most ads work, Kraft paid the advertiser — the academy — an undisclosed amount to place the logo.

‘Kraft is putting the Kids Eat Right logo [on its packaging and] saying Kraft is a proud supporter of Kids Eat Right, not vice versa,’ Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesman Ryan O’Malley said. ‘The academy has never once endorsed any product, brand or service, and we never will.’ He said he hopes the logo will help direct people who buy Kraft Singles to the Kids Eat Right website.

 

The article then cites Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at NYU Langone Medical Center, suggesting that he was “99.9 percent” sure consumers would read the logo as an endorsement from nutritionists and dietitians.


Photo Credit: New York Times

I tend to agree with Caplan. Brandishing the logo of an organization representing the majority of U.S. dietetic professionals does imply something “nutritious” is happening in that product, right?

The partnership, represented by placing a seal on Kraft Slices, appears ambiguous at best and misleading at worst. Parents do not need ambiguity from nutrition professionals.

Why A Sliced Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product?

While I would agree that children need to increase their consumption of calcium and Vitamin D-rich foods, I am not convinced that Kraft Singles is the best candidate for the job. It leaves me waiting with baited breath for the release of slots two and three. Tater tots and bubble gum, anyone?

Going a step further, if the organization really has a burning desire to showcase a Kids Eat Right seal on something, why not select something less processed such as oatmeal milk, plain yogurt, soybeans, tofu, salmon or broccoli? All of these are rich sources of calcium and vitamin D as well. Even good old-fashioned cheddar cheese would be an example, as you can see from the two labels below:

Ingredients in Kraft Singles:

Cheddar Cheese (milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), whey, milk protein concentrate, milkfat, whey protein concentrate, sodium citrate, contains less than 2% of calcium phosphate, salt, lactic acid, annatto and paprika extract (color), natamycin (a natural mold inhibitor), enzymes, cheese culture, vitamin D3.

Ingredients in Cabot Artisan Reserve Cheddar Cheese from Vermont:

Pasteurized milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes, annatto (if colored).


Photo courtesy of my brother’s lovely wife, Lindsey, who, incidentally, knows the Vermont farmer pictured on the label.

Academy Member

Looking at the bigger picture, Kraft Foods is the world’s second largest food company with annual revenues of nearly $50 billion, according toEarthwatch Institute. Therefore, paying for the logo is a smart move on their behalf.

Yet for me, a registered dietitian and academy member, I feel that it represents a conflict of interest. How could our professional organization proclaim that a highly processed, imitation cheese product be the first food selected to sport Kids Eat Right logo? How is the mission of conveying nutritional information to the public aligned with ambiguous food labeling?

Surprising as the move might have been, our professional organization has been under fire in recent years for having cozy ties with the Big Food industry. In 2013, Michele Simon published a report entitled “And Now a Word from Our Sponsors: Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?” She cites a few of the academy’s largest sponsors including Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, Mars, The Corn Refiners Association, Nestlé, PepsiCo, ConAgra, Kellogg’s, and the most loyal sponsor 12 years running – the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.

So, you might be asking, why participate in AND as a registered dietitian? Some dietitians have left the academy as a result of the corporate sponsorship conflicts. Yet, there are difficulties with that approach since one has to be a member of AND in order to be a part of the niche groups called Dietetic Practice Groups (DPDs). Additionally, the networking opportunities available for connecting with other like-minded professionals are advantageous. So, for now, I prefer to work on the issues from within by advocating for transparency, disclosure of finances, soliciting feedback from members regarding potential endorsements, and discouraging corporate-sponsored nutrition education programs.

The issue has fired up many registered dietitians (such as myself) who have since signed onto a campaign to #RepealtheSeal. The full petition can be found here: #RepealTheSeal Campaign Petition

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, what are families to do when evaluating this information?

  • Know the issues – now you do!
  • Remember that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is a professional organization representing dietetics professionals as a whole. The voices and perspectives of individual dietitians are not always represented in AND policy, education and practices.
  • Inquire about full disclosure or conflict of interest statements provided by professionals. Conflicts of interest arise when experts have interests, not fully apparent, which may influence their perspective on a certain issue.

Finally, I think Jon Stewart sums it up best. Gosh, I’m going to miss him!

For more information on how dietitians are promoting change and standing up to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics sponsorship practices, please see these outstanding resources:

And Now a Word From Our Sponsors by Michele Simon, JD, MPH

Dietitians for Professional Integrity

Food Politics by Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH