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An industry lobbying group paid health professionals to promote aspartame on social media to counter the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent assessment that the artificial sweetener is “possibly carcinogenic” and ineffective for weight loss.
The payments, made as part of the American Beverage Association’s “Safety of Aspartame” campaign, represent a new tactic by the multibillion-dollar food and beverage industry to influence consumers: paying health professionals to create Instagram and TikTok posts that promote aspartame, sugar and other processed foods as part of healthy eating, according to an investigation by The Washington Post.
Post researchers analyzed thousands of social media posts and found corporations and industry groups paid dozens of dieticians for content that encouraged viewers to eat aspartame, candy, ice cream and supplements.
Many of the posts downplayed the health risks of highly processed foods.
Among 68 dieticians analyzed with 10,000 or more followers on social media, half of them had made such recommendations.
American Beverage, which represents hundreds of non-alcoholic beverage producers, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, sponsored at least 35 posts by 10 registered dieticians, a fitness influencer and a physician to promote aspartame as safe.
Some dietitians reportedly noted when their posts were part of paid partnerships. But many did not, in violation of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines that advise social media influencers to disclose financial relationships with any brand.
The Post wrote:
“The strategy of enlisting dietitians on social media has allowed the industry to extend its vast reach and promote often-questionable nutrition advice to new generations of teenage and Gen Z eaters and millennial parents accustomed to finding news and health advice on social media.
“By paying registered dietitians — health professionals who specialize in nutrition — the food industry is moving beyond the world of ordinary online influencers to harness the prestige of credentialed experts to deliver commercial messages.”
Dr. Michelle Perro, pediatrician and executive director of GMO Science, told The Defender the posts are evidence of how “undisclosed relationships cause harm in the name of profit and also promote misinformation.”
“While the American Beverage trade group may not be enlisting illegal activities, many of the dietitians have crossed all ethical lines in their promotion of aspartame, especially considering the vulnerability of naive viewers,” Perro said.
American Beverage spokesperson William Dermody defended its tactics as ethical and said the organization explicitly asked the influencers to comply with applicable laws, including FTC guidelines.
He told The Defender the registered dieticians and nutritionists that participated in its campaign “shared their own informed opinions when communicating the facts to their audiences, and were up front about being paid.”
Dermody also argued that aspartame is a safe replacement for sugar, pointing to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) position on aspartame and other scientific findings posted on American Beverage’s Safety of Aspartame website that explicitly contradict the WHO’s cited concerns about the sweetener.
“The FDA and food regulators from more than 90 countries all determined aspartame to be safe, as did the WHO committee that did a comprehensive review of the sweetener,” he said. “The dietitians provided well-established facts about aspartame safety based on decades of scientific research.”
In May, the WHO released new guidelines recommending against the use of non-sugar sweeteners like aspartame for weight loss. Then, in its July 14 hazard and risk assessment of aspartame, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic.”
But the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the WHO’s Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) — the expert committee cited by Dermody — in July also reaffirmed the acceptable daily intake of aspartame is 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
A U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) investigation into the discrepancy between the two recommendations revealed that JECFA members include a longtime Coca-Cola front group, the International Life Sciences Institute. That, said USRTK, is an “obvious conflict of interest.”
“Because of this conflict of interest, JECFA’s conclusions about aspartame are not credible, and the public should not rely on them,” USRTK said.
USRTK and public health researchers also charted a larger trend across the nutrition industry where spokespeople and organizations including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — an organization representing 112,000 credentialed practitioners — accepted millions of dollars from Big Food and Big Pharma companies and invested in ultra-processed food company stocks.
USRTK’s research, published last year in Public Health Nutrition, found the Academy accepted millions from corporations, including Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc., Hershey, Conagra and many others, and that in return, the organization acts as a “pro-industry voice.”
USRTK also mapped Coca-Cola’s influence over the American Association of Pediatrics, The Obesity Society and the American Academy of Family Physicians, through a similar strategy of directly funding conferences and individual conference speakers, often without disclosing those ties.
Most dietitian influencers contacted by the Post would not divulge how much they are paid for sponsored posts. But payment reportedly ranges from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars per post for influencers with large numbers of followers.
The Post collected example social media posts. One by Cara Harbstreet promoted the JECFA findings, assuring followers that “forty years of high quality science has said that aspartame is safe” and directing them to the Safety of Aspartame website for more information.
Harbstreet’s post reportedly did not indicate that it was sponsored by American Beverage until the Post report came out and that information was added.
In another example, dietician Mary Ellen Phipps also explicitly reassured her followers that they shouldn’t worry about the WHO’s findings and that aspartame is a healthy choice for people with diabetes.
Phipps did disclose her sponsorship by American Beverage, by including #ad, #safetyofaspartame and “paid partnership” in her posts. Several of her followers expressed their frustration and disappointment about the conflict of interest in the comments, the Post wrote.
Examples of other industry sponsorships included videos by dietitian Lindsay Pleskot, who created posts sponsored by the Canadian Sugar Institute trade group informing followers they shouldn’t deny themselves sugary food because it would make their sugar cravings worse.
Several posts by wellness coach and dietician Jenn Messina encouraged parents to give their children more sugar, including putting lollipops on dinner plates or allowing children to eat as much Halloween candy as they want in order to “prevent sweets obsession.”
“Yes, they may barf. That’s a great life lesson,” she said.
Her posts promoting sugar, also paid for by the Canadian Sugar Institute, can be seen in the Post’s story, but the links now appear to be inaccessible.
‘This is just disgusting and unethical’: Impacts on children’s health
Andrea Nazarenko, Ph.D., a community psychologist and author of the bestselling “When Food Hurts: 4 Steps to a Gut-Happy Lifestyle,” likened the beverage industry’s strategy to the tobacco industry’s “Joe Camel” campaign that specifically targeted children. In 1997, the FTC stepped in to stop the campaign.
Marketing strategies like those uncovered by the Post, she said, show that “Sadly, we’ve come a far way from then — and not in the right direction.”
Nazarenko, who runs a family wellness center in South Carolina and specializes in healthy physical and emotional development in children, said the influencer posts promoting unhealthy foods such as aspartame and sugar are particularly risky for children and teens.
On social media, she said, marketers can reach young people who are seeing the posts without adult supervision.
“Social media has the appearance of authenticity,” she added. “When a child sees an influencer eating sugar or binging on candy, they believe this is how they really act.”
By using a social influence strategy called modeling, Nazarenko said, the industry can tap into social networks and build an association between unhealthy eating behaviors and a sense of “belonging.”
Sugar is addictive, she added, and sugar companies that target youth are creating “lifetime customers” who will be addicted to their product, with major implications for their physical and mental health.
“No facts, doctor lecture, or information can overpower addiction,” she said.
Nazarenko also said:
“In terms of what the influencers are doing — this is just disgusting and unethical. If our government really cared about the health of our population, then this type of behavior would be labeled misinformation. Indeed, they are flat out lies, not based on any science.
“It is insufficient to merely label the video as an ‘ad’ or tag the industry under some trendy username. These do not translate to change for youth.
“In my opinion, this is no better than a pediatrician being paid to push vaccines. In both cases, there is a quiet and secretive industry pushing a product that harms the health of the youth by tapping into the youth’s natural environment and paying off the people the youth trust.”
Perro, who is also the author of “What’s Making Our Children Sick?: How Industrial Food Is Causing an Epidemic of Chronic Illness, and What Parents (and Doctors) Can Do About It,” said aspartame carries health risks in general, but it is particularly dangerous for children and has been shown to be toxic to children’s brains.
A recent study in Nutrients also found that early-life exposures to aspartame were associated with autism in males, she added.
“It should be avoided at all costs,” she said. “This type of promotion is reckless, unethical, and in some cases, illegal. Yet another reason to consult with holistic nutritionists and avoid dietitians that are hired social media guns for industry.”