“Change is inevitable. Whether you’re talking about the suffrage movement, civil rights, or marriage equality, history has shown that sustained advocacy brings change. It takes time, effort, and patience. And there are moments of temporary defeat along the way, especially when those who wish to maintain the status quo begin to see the writing on the wall and double down on resisting change. But, ultimately, change happens.” – Andy Bellatti
Andy Bellatti, M.S., R.D., is a Las Vegas-based nutritionist with a plant-centric and whole-food focus who takes an interest in food politics, deceptive food marketing, sustainability and social justice. His work has been published in Grist, The Huffington Post, Today’s Dietitian, Food Safety News, and Civil Eats, among others. He is also the creator and co-founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group that advocates for ethical and socially responsible partnerships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You can read more of his work on his Small Bites blog and can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
UC Food Observer caught up with Andy recently to chat about his work and some of the critical conversations shaping the dietetics profession, nutrition, and public policy.
Q: You have worked very hard to inspire change in your profession, by creating a group called Dietitians for Professional Integrity. Can you tell our readers a little about the nutrition politics and the situation that encouraged you to do this?
A: For years, I had been very vocal with my concerns about the corporate ties between the food industry and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Funding from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg’s, McDonald’s, and Mars never sat well with me, and I never bought into the party line that these partnerships are necessary to improve public health and have more outreach. On multiple occasions, I have asked AND leadership for tangible examples of how AND taking money from Coca-Cola has in any way benefited the American public. I’m still waiting for the answer.
In January of 2013, public health lawyer Michele Simon released a terrific investigative report, titled “AND Now A Word From Our Sponsors” that delved further into the ties between Big Food and AND. The report received national media attention and put the issue on the national level.
That was the first domino that fell and I thought there was a real opportunity to keep that momentum going, especially since AND is very adept at sweeping difficult and controversial conversations under the rug. Denial and subversive silencing had been the order of business for far too long.
I reached out to other dietitian colleagues who had the same concerns about sponsorship and we co-founded Dietitians For Professional Integrity. We have been around for slightly over two years now.
Q: The average person knows relatively little about how special interests work to inform and shape public policy. Are there insights you’d care to offer?
A: Industries have deep pockets and political clout, two factors that make them powerful entities. Deep pockets can afford top-notch lobbyists, and access to politicians and decision-makers goes a long way.
Consider, for example, how current guidelines to consume three servings of dairy a day are more about lobbying than they are about science. Or how the soda industry keeps funneling money into defeating soda taxes. Or the sugar industry’s long history of distorting science. And that’s all just the tip of the iceberg.
The great thing is this is not about conspiracy theories you find on obscure websites. This has all been documented and reported by reputable media sources.
Q: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently received a great deal of negative attention when its new “Kids Eat Right” logo landed on Kraft Singles. They’ve had to walk back this decision, in part, due to pressure from their constituent group and folks like you. Any comments or insight you can provide on this situation? Is the logo a damaged brand now?
A: The Kraft Singles/Kids Eat Right debacle was interesting because it was the first time the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics felt real pushback from its members. It was astounding to see dietitians who hadn’t publicly expressed their distaste with AND’s corporate partnerships speak up and say “enough is enough.”
For years (more like decades, actually), AND has operated from a standpoint that has trivialized concerns about corporate sponsorships. In many ways, the Kraft Singles debacle was a wake-up call, and AND can no longer claim the issue of corporate sponsors is a “fringe” issue. In fact, AND has identified corporate sponsorship as a “mega issue” (their wording, not mine) to be discussed at the House of Delegates annual meeting in a few days.
Q: I understand that the incoming chair of the academy’s foundation is also the president of the National Dairy Council. Does this represent a conflict of interest?
A: Absolutely. Conflicts of interest should be minimized as much as possible. Chairs of the foundation should not have ties to industry – whether it’s PepsiCo, the Dairy Council, or the walnut board.
Q: MyPlate politics. We recently did a Q&A with Alissa Hamilton, who advocates for the replacement of milk as the suggested beverage with water. What’s your take on this? What kinds of issues are likely to emerge as the Dietary Guidelines move further along in the revision process? What would you like to see? What do you expect to see?
A: Ah, yes. That proverbial dairy group on the side of MyPlate; lobbying at its finest. Since the plate differentiates between fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains, to me it begs the question — why aren’t dairy products included with the “protein” group? After all, a serving of dairy has as much protein as a serving of meat, chicken, fish, beans, nuts, and seeds.
The fact that dairy has calcium is irrelevant; some green vegetables offer just as much calcium as milk — and in a more absorbable form — yet they are contained within the vegetable group. If the USDA were truly concerned with calcium intake (rather than returning the financial favor to the dairy industry), it would make a “calcium-rich food” group and include a wide variety of calcium-rich foods with equal prominence (milk, cheese, and yogurt along with kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and fortified dairy alternatives).
Besides, a better public health message would be to have a glass of water on the side of MyPlate.
The big deal in the upcoming Dietary Guidelines is the recommendation to lower intake of red and processed meats, which the meat lobby is fighting tooth and nail. I also hope the next revision takes a hard stance on added sugar. Toothless messages of “moderation” are not effective from a public health standpoint. Simply put, certain foods need to be encouraged, and other discouraged. It isn’t about passing judgment, it is about communicating nutrition science.
Q: You’re an influencer in “food politics.” A battle is shaping up in Congress over the Healthy School Meals Act, which is due to expire at the end of September. It might surprise some that the School Nutrition Association is mounting opposition to the legislation. Can you talk a little about the dynamics of that situation? Ultimately, what do you think might happen? Will the legislation be renewed?
A: This is yet another example of food industry sponsorship getting in the way of sound science. Dana Woldow of San Francisco – in the alternative paper Beyond Chron – has done a superb job covering this topic, and I encourage everyone to read the extensive list of articles she has written.
It’s yet another example of the food industry ingratiating itself with an organization to get its way. When you look at who partially bankrolls the School Nutrition Association, its opposition to the Healthy School Meals Act makes a lot of sense.
Q: Fomenting change is risky. What keeps you going when things get tough?
A: The fact that change is inevitable. Whether you’re talking about the suffrage movement, civil rights, or marriage equality, history has shown that sustained advocacy brings change. It takes time, effort, and patience. And there are moments of temporary defeat along the way, especially when those who wish to maintain the status quo begin to see the writing on the wall and double down on resisting change. But, ultimately, change happens.
The other thing that keeps me going is keeping things in perspective and maintaining a work-life balance. Burnt out advocates are not effective, so I try as best as possible to not overwhelm myself. I’ve also learned to not get attached to outcomes.
Q: You use social technologies for movement building. How have the technologies helped your work? Are there lessons that others in the food movement should be considering when using these evolving social technologies? In terms of a media for nutrition messaging, what are the best aspects of social technologies? The worst?
A: Social media is the great equalizer (at least Twitter is; Facebook is increasingly becoming a microcosm of inequality due to the fact that in order to gain visibility for posts, you need to pay to boost them).
Without a doubt, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics would not have repealed the Kids Eat Right seal on Kraft Singles if it hadn’t been for outrage that went viral and the amount of ridicule the decision garnered on social media.
In fact, that whole fiasco proved that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics still doesn’t know how to navigate in today’s world of social media. Remember, initially leadership kept putting out letters and statements that the Kids Eat Right seal on Kraft Singles was not a seal of approval. That kind of tone-deaf, head-in-the-sand approach to controversy that may have been effective decades ago no longer flies.
Social media is a double-edged sword, though. I see too many inaccurate health memes on Facebook shared by the thousands (i.e.: “start your day with lemon water to kickstart your body’s cleansing mechanisms”) as if they were scientific fact.
And, on Twitter, I’ve seen many instances of inaccurate semantics that misinform. For instance, when the FDA announced it was looking to possibly remove partially hydrogenated oils from the Generally Recognized as Safe list, many on Twitter were sharing this as “the FDA has banned trans fats,” which was not true.
My bachelor’s degree is in journalism (nutrition was a second career, for which I went to graduate school), so inaccurate and hasty reporting of news is a real pet peeve of mine.
Q: Your work has a strongly ethical aspect to it. Are there unique challenges that nutrition professionals face in a free market environment?
A: Dietitians For Professional Integrity focuses on the ethical aspects of corporate partnership with public health organizations, not who individual dietitians work for.
I think all professionals face ethical dilemmas throughout their careers. In the nutrition field, I think it is important to keep in mind that we are supposed to serve and help the public above all else.
As I like to say, I went to school to study nutrition, not become a public relations expert for food companies looking to fix their reputations.
Q: With a proliferation of labels, many consumers are confused. What advice would you give to someone beginning a practice of ethical, intentional and environmentally aware eating?
A: Ethical, intentional, and environmentally aware eating can initially be overwhelming, because there are so many issues to learn about. It goes beyond agricultural practices that are sustainable and issues of animal welfare. Most people are stunned to hear about slavery that is rampant in the cocoa industry and countries like the Ivory Coast, or the many abuses of farm workers that happen domestically.
With some of these issues, it isn’t as easy as “look for this label”. The treatment of farm workers in this country, for instance, is nothing more than a reflection of systemic racism, classism, and inequality that permeates our society.
Q: What’s your take on the current national food and nutrition policies? What policies do you feel would help promote health and sustainability?
A: As Marion Nestle, one of my mentors and role models, is known for saying, the big issue right now is that nutrition policy and agricultural policy are not on the same page.
The most important food policies we need right now are ones that would set limits on marketing to children and put an end to the artificially low prices of unhealthy foods.
Q: Everyone gets the drought question! The California drought impacts the nation and the world. What changes might it bring about in the nation in terms of thinking about where and what we produce? What might the future hold for California, and agricultural production in the state?
A: My hope was that the drought would provide an opportunity to talk about the importance of eating lower in the food chain and the importance of cutting back on meat, but instead we keep hearing the personal responsibility angle, with California politicians telling residents to take shorter showers, as if daily bubble baths got California into this mess.
I’ve also, by the way, reached “almond bashing fatigue.” I especially enjoyed this recent piece in Gizmodo on why demonizing almonds in light of the California drought is short-sighted and misses much more important points.
The California drought is as political as you can get. You think food politics are messy? Take a look at water politics.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: It’s not in my nature to worry myself to the point of insomnia. I just try, each day, to contribute as much as I can to the best of my ability. That helps me sleep at night.
And, again, I think it is important to keep perspective. Advocacy is not a one-person job. I am certainly passionate about the problems of corporate sponsorship within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, but I do not place the responsibility of ending those insidious ties squarely on my shoulders.
Advocacy shouldn’t be ego-centric.
A: I think it’s crucial to tie it into everyday life and communicate to people how current nutrition and food policy affect them, whether positively or negatively.
I don’t like the idea of “dumbing down” concepts, as that has the drawback of setting the stage for overly simplistic dialogue, but it is important to tailor some messages to the general public. That is where documentaries like Food Chains come in, for instance.
You’re not going to get a crowd of people riled up about nutrition and food policy simply talking about the farm bill.
Q: What must institutions and groups do to affect change in the food system?
A: Get political and maintain their integrity.
Q: We’re faced with challenges on a variety of fronts that have strongly ethical aspects to them, such as climate change, environmental constraints, income inequality, and food access. How do we get groups to move forward together? And is this a movement? How does the work of professional nutritionists fit into the larger food movement?
A: The food movement is certainly a legitimate one, though it is splintered. We need to engage in coalition politics and not fall into the trap of what I have coined “dietary tribalism.”
We also need to join forces with other movements. The environmental movement and the food movement have lots in common. Without healthy soil and healthy water, our food supply is threatened.
Q: What would you tell a younger Andy Bellatti?
A: Don’t live your life based on other people’s “shoulds.” Don’t get attached to outcomes. Focus on the process.
Q: I’m giving you a super power. You can change one thing about the food system with that super power. What change would you make?
A: I would make a bag of Doritos five times more expensive than a piece of fruit. That’s one thing hotels get right; $10 for a can of Pringles certainly makes cravings go away!