A new report charges that America’s leading group of nutrition scientists regularly accepts money from major food companies such as McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and lobbying groups including the Sugar Association -- despite the fact that many of the companies' products have little to no nutritional value. The report suggests conflicts of interest have caused scientists to soften public policy recommendations on processed foods and added sugars beyond a point that can be justified by science.

Michele Simon, a prominent public health lawyer, released a report on Monday criticizing the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) for rules that allow companies to become partners and sponsor sessions at the organization's annual meeting. In the report, Simon points out that major food companies may sponsor conference sessions at the society's annual meeting for $25,000 and networking opportunities for $35,000. Companies and lobbying groups can also pay to become “Sustaining Partners” of the organization. A recruitment page for sustaining partnerships encourages companies to “view ASN as the key for access to the nutrition marketplace.” McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods Group, The Coca-Cola Company and Kellogg Company are all listed as partners on the group's website, and their interests are represented through the Sustaining Partner Roundtable, which serves as an advisory group to the board of directors. 

Simon runs a private consulting service called Eat Drink Politics that regularly works with advocacy groups on campaigns calling for stricter oversight and regulation of major food and agricultural groups in the interest of public health. She says the ASN's lackluster recommendations on processed foods and added sugars over the past year are evidence of the creeping influence that food companies have over the organization's policies.

Last year, the society issued a scientific statement during a revision of the federal dietary guidelines that defended the role of processed foods in food security and stated, “Both fresh and processed foods make up vital parts of the food supply." But a 2014 review by Yale researchers concluded that a diet of minimally processed foods helps people maintain better health and prevent disease. The U.K. National Health Service also warns that while processed foods aren’t necessarily unhealthy, these products may contain extra sugar, salt and fat. 

The society has also opposed the Food and Drug Administration’s proposal for a new nutrition label that lists “added sugars” as a separate category so consumers can see more clearly how much sugar has been mixed into a product. The society has cited “a lack of consensus in the scientific evidence of added sugars alone versus sugars as a whole” as the reason for this opposition, but a federal advisory group recently urged Americans to cut back on added sugars due to health concerns in draft revisions to the new dietary guidelines.

"ASN is the preeminent nutrition research society whose dedicated members work every day to improve global health through nutrition science," John Courtney, ASN's executive officer, said in a statement. "They understand the nutrition challenges facing the world, which are multi-faceted and require research-based solutions. We are transparent about the fact that sponsors contribute funding to help our organization support these solutions. ASN is committed to openness, objective science and disclosure of potential conflicts."

Simon's report also points out that several staff members and prominent volunteers with the society have conflicts of interest -- such as a previous work history or paid consulting and speaking arrangements -- with major food companies. She says David Allison, an obesity researcher and member of the editorial board for the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which is one of the society’s leading nutrition journals, “wins the prize for the most conflicts,” since he has worked as a paid consultant for many lobbying groups and companies including Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Kellogg's, Mars, PepsiCo and Red Bull.

Allison, who directs the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at University of Alabama Birmingham, says the government has repeatedly emphasized the benefits of strong industry-university collaborations and points out that he also receives more federal funding than the vast majority of scientists.

"The statement that I am also one of the most actively funded investigators in terms of industry funding is an indicator of the overall activity of our research group and the confidence funders have of the value and quality of our research.  I am proud of these facts," he says. "The research funding we receive at my University from both industry and non-industry groups allows us to tackle important questions, conduct research more rigorously, address vital health problems in the United States (like obesity), and provide educational and training opportunities to young scholars who otherwise might not have such a chance." 

The ASN's Courtney added, "Personal attacks on our members are both unwarranted and unhelpful as we need to work together to solve today's complex nutrition challenges."