Dietitians and the food industry: an important seat at the table

Featured article in the Spring 2015 Issue of Nutrition Close-Up; written by Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RD, CDE

More than 20 years ago I became a dietitian because I wanted to help people make informed food decisions and avoid being taken advantage of by the media, marketers and fearmongers. That underlying motivation for me is stronger today than ever. As a self-proclaimed “dietitian enthusiast,” my vision is to hear more dietitian voices “out there” so that credible, meaningful nutrition information and advice dominates the conversation–not oversimplified, sensationalized, fear-provoking misinformation from celebrities and other “experts.”

Registered Dietitians are uniquely qualified to have a powerful voice in all types of nutrition communications: traditional media, social media, public speaking, writing, blogging, podcasting, and more. By working with the food industry–aligning with brands, commodities, manufacturers, and retailers–dietitians can have an important seat at the table, where we are in position to favorably contribute, and play an integral role in the food industry’s health and wellness efforts.

 

Having been a supermarket dietitian, National Dairy Council dietitian, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and now a proprietor of my own food and nutrition communications business, I’ve had the opportunity to work in various capacities with the food industry. I’ve seen first-hand that dietitians can and do have a positive influence on how food is produced and marketed; how research is conducted and communicated; and how the public receives and utilizes information to make health decisions.

 

Taking a seat

Dietitians possess the skills and expertise to help guide the food industry in science-based nutrition insight, content, and communications. This partnership is intended to be as valuable to the public as it is to the food industry. People want to know what foods they should be eating, how much, and why. By working with the food industry, dietitians can lend their expertise, creativity, and leadership in a variety of ways, including strategic counsel, product innovation, recipe development, nutrient analysis, and communications.

 

In addition to nutrition expertise, dietitians have a Code of Ethics to uphold which precludes engaging in false or misleading practices or communications.

 

Assuming leadership

Working closely with the food industry allows dietitians an incredible opportunity to learn more about food research, production, and consumer behavior patterns. It’s exciting to take a deeper dive and put some of those crucial puzzle pieces together. By taking the lead and speaking up, dietitians can guide the industry in meaningful ways.

 

As a supermarket dietitian, my job entailed writing articles and product advertisements, conducting media interviews, leading grocery store tours, and holding classes for the community on a variety of food and nutrition topics. I developed the content and messages myself. Occasionally, manufacturers would provide recipes, research briefs and sometimes even product messaging, but I had the final say on content. There was one occasion when I was asked to highlight a product that had a reputation for being unhealthy and I objected. My decision and reasons were respected and the product was removed from the program.

 

Difficult conversations

Some have criticized that working with the food industry influences dietitians and creates bias. The truth is that each and every person has his/her own biases which have been formed and shaped by his/her own experiences. “Confirmation bias” is the tendency to seek and accept information that confirms one’s beliefs. This tendency is human nature but becomes problematic when people don’t realize they themselves are susceptible to this. This failure to acknowledge our own biases and point fingers at others is hypocritical at best and does nothing to advance the conversation in a positive direction.

 

When I served as a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, I attended educational sessions with Academy sponsors such as the National Dairy Council and Unilever. Contrary to what some critics would have you believe, never once was I told by a sponsor what to say about their products in my communications efforts.  In fact, instead, I was asked “what would you say about our product and how would you say it?”

 

For eight years I worked on behalf of America’s dairy farmers. I conducted media interviews, community events and health professional outreach. Sometimes when I promoted dairy products people would question me by saying “well of course you would say XZY, you work for the dairy industry.” However, I actually conducted my master’s research on dairy (and published an article in the Journal of Nutrition Education) a decade before I worked for the dairy industry. My education and training provided me with an informed bias toward the benefits of dairy products. So, in essence, it wasn’t that I was believing and trusting in dairy because I worked for the industry, but the contrary. I worked for the dairy industry because I believe in it and its products.

 

Joining hands

If you are a dietitian who works with or wants to work with the food industry, pull up a chair!  Your expertise, enthusiasm and ethics are an asset! Here are some suggestions:

  • Align yourself with brands and companies you like, trust and respect. Make sure the product is consistent with your brand and philosophy. Are these foods that you and your family enjoy and you recommend to your clients? Also, keep in mind that all dietitians may not agree on which foods or companies are “worthy” of promoting. We often see things differently. Our greater task is helping companies create better foods and showing them how to communicate health benefits to consumers in an effective and responsible way.
  • Be transparent by disclosing your food industry relationship in all forms of communications: traditional media, social media, public speaking, etc. This is nonnegotiable… it’s the law.  True transparency builds trust, preserves integrity, and produces more meaningful communications.
  • Don’t let negativity from others be a barrier. Stay positive and vigilant. Your expert, reliable and useful input, perspective and advice is what the public needs to hear–not the negative fearmongering that unqualified “experts” thrive on.

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Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RD, CDE, is based in Chicago, IL. She is known as The Guilt-Free RD “because food shouldn’t make you feel bad!”TM  Melissa is a frequent guest speaker, media spokesperson, blogger, podcaster and media coach who promotes sound science, smart nutrition and good food.  Follow Melissa on Twitter @MelissaJoyRD and visit her at www.SoundBitesRD.com