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.