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Lessons on salt for dietitians … by a potato-chip maker
Ethical dilemma? » Critics say classes for dietitians give too much influence to the food industry.

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Others also question the practice.

Bill Dietz, a former director of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, notes that an online class by Coke entitled "Understanding Dietary Sugars and Health" was taught by instructors who both had industry ties. One listed ties to the Sugar Association and companies including candy bar maker Mars. The other disclosed ties to the Corn Growers Association on the subject of high fructose corn syrup.

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At one point during the online class, one instructor says he doesn’t think there should be dietary guidelines regarding sugar intake; Dietz notes that viewpoint is in contrast to the positions held by many reputable groups, including the American Heart Association, which recommends women consume no more than 6 teaspoons daily and men consume no more than 9 teaspoons daily.

When classes are approved for continuing education, there’s an assumption that the content is essentially endorsed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietz notes. As such, he says the academy should be responsible for ensuring they provide balanced perspectives.

Still, he says that doesn’t mean companies should outright be banned from playing a role in the education of dietitians.

"It’s hard to be black and white about this," he says, noting there are experts on nutrition who work in the industry.

Lessons that can fuel business » Companies say their classes present simply nutritional information to dietitians.

Coca-Cola, which makes drinks including Dasani water and Minute Maid juice, offers about a dozen seminars each year through its Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness. On average, Coke says the live, hour-long classes get more than 5,000 participants. It plans to increase the number of webinars it offers each year.

Ben Sheidler, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, says the company’s course materials are based on independent, third-party research. He says Coca-Cola is acting responsibly by working to provide professionals with the facts surrounding its products.

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Coca-Cola, for one, says its surveys show the vast majority of participants in its classes find them helpful and "free of commercial bias."

But some say companies would never present information that doesn’t serve their interests. Elizabeth Lee, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles and one of the founders of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, notes that the classes typically have a message that supports the company’s products.

"It’s getting harder and harder to really find something that isn’t total baloney," says Debra Riedesel, another registered dietitian based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Part of what makes the issue so thorny is the deluge of research on nutrition, which is rarely definitive and often conflicting.

It’s often said, for example, that snacking between meals can lead to weight gain. But a report earlier this year in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine contended that no high-quality studies supported the claim. Underscoring how tangled matters can become, many of the report’s authors had financial ties to food, beverage and weight-loss product makers.

"When it comes to research, the truth is somewhere in the middle," says Tina Miller, a registered dietitian in South Lyon, Mich.

Influence in and outside the classroom » For companies, the classes can be a chance to spotlight new products. At culinary demonstrations at the conference in Houston, for example, Kellogg and PepsiCo taught how to make a variety of recipes that incorporated their products, such as All-Bran cereal or Naked juices, respectively.

And the educational outreach to dietitians doesn’t end in the classroom. Frito-Lay, which is owned by PepsiCo Inc., says more than a thousand dietitians are signed up to receive "SnackSense," a newsletter from its online resource for health professionals. A recent issue highlighted the moderate sodium levels of a new line of Tostitos and offered recipes using the chips.

Several times a year, the company also hosts tours of its plants for dietitians it identifies as being quoted in the media on healthy eating tips, according to a Frito-Lay spokesman.

PepsiCo also recently established the Quaker Center for Excellence to research and promote the benefits of oats. Candace Mueller Medina, a spokeswoman for the company’s Quaker division, which makes a variety of products including oatmeal packets, bars and breakfast cookies, says the center’s "first goal is to educate key opinion makers and influencers."

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