WASHINGTON — There’s a panel of 20 nutrition experts that has outsized influence on the American diet — and the food industry has worked hard to get friendly researchers into the group, new documents obtained by STAT show.
The National Potato Council, for example, nominated one of the researchers behind an industry-funded study showing eating french fries each day doesn’t result in more weight gain than eating a comparable amount of almonds. The National Coffee Association put forth an academic who said coffee consumption is tied to lower risk of certain cancers. The soy industry nominated a prominent vegan. The International Bottled Water Association? They like three researchers who study the benefits of — you guessed it — water.
The normally secret nominations, which were obtained by STAT via a Freedom of Information Act request, demonstrate the food industry’s persistent efforts to influence the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other bodies that regulate nutrition and health in the United States. The panel in question, chosen by the USDA and HHS, deliberates the latest nutrition science for the better part of two years and then submits a report to regulators, who then decide on any ultimate tweaks to the national dietary guidelines.
“Food companies are not social service agencies, and they’re not public health agencies, they’re businesses,” said Marion Nestle, an emeritus professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “You do not want dietary guidelines to say anything negative about your products, and [food companies] will go to whatever lengths are necessary to make sure that no federal agency says anything negative about their products.”
The nominations are not completely outlandish: Nearly all of the researchers hold positions at prestigious universities. The researcher with potato ties is a dean of public health, for example. Nor are they always successful: Only the vegan and the coffee enthusiast made it onto the USDA panel this time. Both had endorsements from other professional groups.
The National Coffee Association, International Bottled Water Association, and National Potato Council all argued in statements that their nominations would help ensure the health impacts of their products are highlighted in the dietary guidelines. The soy association did not respond to request for comment.
“America’s potato growers are due an equal seat in a process that we trust will ensure all scientifically sound information is considered as recommendations are made,” the potato council wrote in a statement.
Food companies will have another shot at impacting the guidelines on Tuesday when food makers and other members of the public will present before the committee. The National Potato Council and the National Coffee Association will both be presenting at the meeting.
It’s not the first time that food companies have attempted to get their preferred experts on the panel. In 2019, Unilever, Barilla, the American Beverage Association, and the United Egg Producers all successfully got their preferred nominations onto the committee, according to Politico.
It wasn’t just food companies nominating striking people to serve this time around. Emily Oster, the economist and parenting expert, was nominated by her PR firm, which is run by a group of Obama administration alums. John Ioannidis, the Stanford researcher who was criticized for his views of Covid lockdowns, was also nominated by a co-author.
Several organizations advocating for vegetable-centric diets also nominated experts that espouse their views. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Physicians Association for Nutrition USA, both of which advocate for plant-based diets, nominated four and five experts, respectively. The International Fresh Produce Association, whose board is chaired by a Walmart executive, also nominated three experts, each of whom has written about the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Physicians Committee described its nominations as a way to fight the “decades-long grip of the meat and dairy industry on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.”
Most of the panelists chosen this time around were nominated by professional societies. Seven members ultimately chosen to serve, including both of the groups’ co-chairs, had the endorsement of the American Society for Nutrition. Four were nominated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
But many of the panel members still have ties to industry. The USDA releases a list of “conflicts of interest” with the panel, and noted that people on the committee have ties to the egg, beef, and dairy industries. Both the American Society for Nutrition and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have also been criticized for their ties to the food industry.
Lawmakers and advocacy groups in recent months have urged the USDA to do a more thorough job in vetting potential conflicts of interest on the committee.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has called for the entire dietary guidelines process to be halted until the committee’s “conflicts of interest are resolved.”
Most of his concerns appear to stem from the appointment of Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity researcher with financial ties to makers of the popular weight loss drugs, known as GLP-1 agonists. Cody Stanford was nominated to the committee by the National Council on Aging, according to the records obtained by STAT.
The National Council on Aging supports legislation to expand Medicare coverage for the weight loss drugs made by Novo Nordisk and has received funding from the company. An NCOA spokesperson told STAT, however, that “Novo Nordisk had no role in nominating Dr. Cody Stanford.”