Influencer Dietitians Were Paid Off By Corrupt Companies To Promote Unhealthy Foods

A recent campaign called #safetyofaspartame generated a lot of negative attention, resulting in the exposure of the food industry paying off dietitians on social media to flat-out lie about certain foods and their effect on the body.

By Gina Florio4 min read
Pexels/Mizuno K

Dietitians on TikTok are a dime a dozen, especially the kinds of dietitians that promote things like Poptarts as a pre-workout snack. They hide behind their degree or certification and claim that these ultra-processed foods are not harmful at all, and in fact, they can be great fuel for anyone who is either trying to lose weight or get healthy. But consumers and social media users are getting smarter, and they can smell dishonesty a mile away. An article in the Washington Post reveals that there are many dietitians online who are paid off by Big Food to lie to you about which foods are healthy.

Influencer Dietitians Are Paid Off by Corrupt Companies To Promote Unhealthy Foods

The issue of paid influencers in healthcare came into the spotlight following a social media campaign around the hashtag #safetyofaspartame. This campaign was in response to the World Health Organization's warnings about the risks of the artificial sweetener aspartame, commonly found in diet sodas. Several dietitians took to TikTok and Instagram to claim that these warnings were based on "low-quality science" or were "fear-mongering headlines." Unbeknownst to their followers, these health professionals were paid by American Beverage, a lobbying group that represents companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

Dietitian Steph Grasso posted a video on TikTok telling her followers not to "fall for clickbait headlines," arguing that aspartame is perfectly safe. A woman on TikTok named Nicole calls herself a cancer dietitian, and she also posted a similar video three days later, claiming that aspartame is safe and doesn't increase your risk for cancer at all.

An investigation by The Washington Post and The Examination revealed that this was part of a broader strategy employed by the multibillion-dollar food, beverage, and dietary supplement industries. These industries are paying dietitians, who have millions of followers collectively, to promote products and industry-friendly messages that often contradict scientific evidence about healthy eating. This marks a shift in influencer marketing, from traditional online influencers to credentialed health experts, to reach younger demographics who often turn to social media for health advice.

The analysis found that out of 68 dietitians with more than 10,000 followers, about half had promoted food, beverages, or supplements to their combined 11 million followers within the last year. The paid content ranged from promoting candy and highly processed foods to unproven supplements. While some of the dietitians disclosed that they were part of paid partnerships, the specifics of these partnerships were often unclear to the audience. This lack of clarity has raised concerns about ethical implications and conflicts of interest, considering that the Federal Trade Commission advises influencers to be transparent about sponsorships.

The reach of these paid promotions extends beyond just aspartame. For instance, videos paid for by the Canadian Sugar Institute featured dietitians such as Lindsay Pleskot, eating ice cream and donuts while downplaying the health risks of added sugar. This is concerning given the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's warnings that too much added sugar can contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Moreover, dietitians have also been paid to promote dietary supplements that lack a scientific consensus on their effectiveness. One dietitian with over 300,000 followers promoted "brain-boosting" omega-3 fatty acid supplements for children as young as 6 months, despite warnings from the American Academy of Pediatrics that such supplements are not FDA-approved and may be misleading.

Several dietitians contacted for the investigation wouldn’t disclose how much they are paid but mentioned that offers could range from a few thousand dollars per video to tens of thousands for those with larger followings. Some insisted that despite the financial incentives, they retained control over their messages and believed in what they were promoting. However, critics argue that leveraging the credibility of health professionals to promote products or viewpoints that may not be supported by the broader scientific community raises significant ethical and public health concerns.

Influencer Ads and Conflicts of Interest

The rise of the online influencer industry, particularly involving health and nutrition influencers, has created a complicated landscape for regulation. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires influencers to disclose paid relationships with brands they promote, but oversight remains limited. Dietitians, who are becoming increasingly popular on social media, are a case in point. Of 33 dietitians who posted sponsored content, 17 failed to clearly disclose their sponsorships in at least one post. The FTC focuses on whether such sponsorships would surprise the audience and affect the content's credibility, but has limited resources to police this growing market.

Several dietitians contacted for the investigation wouldn’t disclose how much they are paid.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the overseeing trade group, states that dietitians should disclose conflicts of interest. Despite having a code of ethics and a board for reviewing violations, it has not received any complaints regarding social media activities. However, the Academy itself has close ties with the food and beverage industry, having accepted millions in donations from companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé. This relationship has been criticized by some dietitians, but advocacy groups like Dietitians for Professional Integrity, which challenged these financial ties, disbanded due to lack of traction.

Many dietitians with large social media followings reveal that they're frequently approached by brands for partnerships. For example, a dietitian named Grasso, with a following of 2.4 million, has endorsement deals with numerous food and dietary supplement companies. Another dietitian, Shana Minei Spence, who works for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, has been paid by companies like Ajinomoto and PepsiCo to create content and webinars that align with her views. However, disclosure practices vary widely; while Grasso clearly marks her sponsored posts, Spence's are less transparent, sometimes using terms like "#AjiPartner" which may not sufficiently inform the audience about the sponsorship.

The issues extend beyond disclosure to the ethics of the relationships themselves. Dietitians are considered credible sources of health advice, so their endorsement of products from industries often criticized for contributing to health issues like obesity raises questions. For instance, Bonnie Patten, executive director of Truth in Advertising, emphasizes the need for clear disclosure, especially when dietitians partner with the soda industry, an unlikely alliance that the public might find surprising and misleading. Limited regulatory oversight and enforcement compound these ethical quandaries. David Vladeck, a former head of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, points out that the FTC's lack of resources leads companies to think they can evade proper disclosure without repercussions. This lack of accountability is detrimental to consumer trust and well-being.

Since this report was released, people have expressed how furious they are with these corrupt dietitians and how they have managed to trick so many people into believing that unhealthy foods are actually good for you. It's yet another reminder to be wary of what "experts" tell you online because anybody can be bought out—and it's starting to become clear that most of the experts with fancy degrees and certifications are bought out because they're part of the system that is deeply connected to Big Pharma and Big Food. No wonder so many people like Max Lugavere, author and podcast host, are gaining popularity for sharing a wealth of knowledge about nutrition, without any degree or traditional expertise.

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