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'It's irresponsible': Dietitians under scrutiny for sponsored posts promoting consumption of sugar

Granulated sugar is poured in a photo illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Matt Rourke Granulated sugar is poured in a photo illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Matt Rourke
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A trade association and several registered dietitians in Canada have come under scrutiny for promoting the consumption of sugar-containing products using potentially deceptive marketing practices, which experts say raise serious conflict of interest concerns.

The Canadian Sugar Institute and two B.C.-based registered dietitians were among a list of parties who were publicly denounced by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last week for employing marketing practices that “may be deceptive or unfair” in violation of the FTC Act.

The FTC said it issued warning letters to the parties for allegedly failing to adequately disclose that the dietitians were paid to promote the safety of aspartame and sugar-containing products on social media. An American trade association, 10 other registered dietitians and online health influencers also received warning letters.

A recent Toronto Star and Investigative Journalism Bureau investigation, which comes on the heels of the FTC’s notice, found a total of two dozen Canadian registered dietitians who have posted content on social media sponsored by the country’s largest sugar producers.

"It’s irresponsible for any trade group to hire influencers to tout its members’ products and fail to ensure that the influencers come clean about that relationship,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a news release.

“That’s certainly true for health and safety claims about sugar and aspartame, especially when made by registered dietitians and others upon whom people rely for advice about what to eat and drink.”

CTV News reached out to the two B.C.-based dietitians named by the FTC — Jenn Messina and Lindsay Pleskot — for comment, but did not receive a response prior to publication.

The Canadian Sugar Institute told CTV News it is “carefully” reviewing the FTC’s letter, along with Ad Standards Canada’s Disclosure Guidelines revised this fall, which now includes “more comprehensive” recommendations and examples around including disclosures within videos.

“We will be updating our social media policies to reflect the changes in the Fall 2023 Ad Standards Canada guidelines, as well as to ensure we continue to uphold the high standards of education and ethics required of all registered dietitians’ activities,” the institute said in a written statement.

The College of Dietitians of British Columbia (CDBC), which regulates the profession, told CTV News while it has not received a formal complaint surrounding the practices of Messina and Pleskot, it has received questions and concerns.

“We are proactively looking into the matter and, therefore, cannot comment at this time,” Michaela Bowe, the college’s registration co-ordinator, said in an email.

The CDBC investigates members' practices acts if it they are deemed to be not in line with the college’s expectations and pose a risk to the public, Bowe added.

According to the World Health Organization, excess sugar leads to an increased risk of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. That's why experts say it's important for dietitians, who are registered health professionals, to be clear when they are sharing content that is sponsored by sugar producers. 

Quinn Grundy is a registered nurse and assistant professor at the University of Toronto who researches the relationships between health professionals and industry.

Grundy said while some registered dietitians may believe in the sponsored content they’re sharing and suggest it aligns with the advice they would normally offer, these marketing practices still raise conflict of interest concerns and undermine the credibility of the profession.

“If you are speaking to the public as a registered health professional, there is the understanding that you are putting the public's interest or your patient's interests first because you are giving expert advice,” Grundy said in an interview with CTV News.

“When you also have a sponsorship agreement, there’s another contract that exists there and a third party's interests, and you have agreed through that financial arrangement to further the interests of your sponsor. And that's where we have the conflict.”

Grundy said the key takeaway from the public warning issued by the FTC is that “there needs to be truth in advertising” among Canadian registered health professions.

“So really clear delineation when a post or advice is sponsored,” she explained.

“I think the trust and the credibility that health professionals have is really a privilege and should not be taken for granted.”

Registered dietitian Kristyn Hall shared a similar sentiment.

Hall wrote a blog post sponsored by the Canadian Sugar Institute in 2020 and said she clearly indicated at the “very top” of the post that it was sponsored.

“Disclosure is critical,” said Hall, who is based in Calgary. “Dietitians are obligated to share unbiased, evidence-based information, regardless if they’re getting paid or not.”

Dietitians must disclose their sponsorship in a transparent and honest way, she said, adding that maintaining trust in the profession and from the public is “paramount.” 

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