The week of the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo® (FNCE®) has come to an end, with many dietitians heading back to their prospective homes “hungover” from educational sessions, networking, and foundation events. Though FNCE® is primarily focused on sessions geared towards enhancing the knowledge of dietitians who practice in hospitals, outpatient care, private practice, food service, or community nutrition, the attention of the public is often skewed towards the Expo floor. In recent years, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (“the Academy”) has faced scrutiny over the organizations and companies at the Expo, citing specific vendors as not “aligned with nutrition or public health.”
“An Expo hall vendor is not necessarily an Academy sponsor – these are very separate issues – I learned this when serving on the Academy Sponsorship Task Force,” says Leah McGrath, RDN in an email exchange. And she is right. Those Expo vendors who are Academy sponsors are listed on the Academy’s FNCE® website: Canadian Lentils, Haas Avocado Board, Premier Protein, Hydralyte, Splenda, Sunsweet, the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, The National Osteoporosis Foundation, and Campbell’s. Leah continues, saying that she “…appreciate[s] seeing and learning about the efforts of large food companies to improve the nutritional quality of their products.” But the perception of sponsorship exists to many, which is likely the largest reason the Academy has moved its focus away from various Expo vendors who may perpetuate a negative stigma via presence alone.
The Expo itself is a maze of vendors promoting their products. FNCE 2016 specifically brought “pavilions” focused on areas of health and wellness. “I believe the expo experience was more focused on wellness and actually, digestion. Gut health was a big topic it seems, this time, compared with previous years,” says Christy Wilson, RDN. Academy Spokesperson Angel Planells, MS, RDN, CDN agrees. “Compared to years past, the themed pavilions around the expo hall were outstanding. As the Academy continues to develop and implement a sponsorship policy, new exhibitors are required to share information on the products they will be promoting in their booths. Exhibitor materials may include nutrition fact labels, product labels, claims including corresponding published research and the exhibitor’s website.”
Sure, you will find companies like PepsiCo and Nestle (represented by its therapeutic nutrition division Nestle Health Sciences) on the FNCE® 2016 Expo vendor roster. But what are they showing to over 10,000 nutrition professionals? This year, PepsiCo provided savory oat dishes with juices enhanced with probiotics, black coffee, and calorie-free flavored fizzy waters while Nestle showed the latest therapeutic nutrition products on the market targeting hospitals, nursing homes, and other acute care facilities. “I noticed that food vendors, specifically, were taking into consideration RDs and customers as people, taking into account our busy schedules, limited time, and the benefits of ease of preparation of high quality, nutrient rich foods that promote good health and wellness,” explains Christy Wilson.
I reached out to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for comment:
“The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo is the world’s largest annual gathering of registered dietitian nutritionists. An important part of our annual meeting is to provide Academy members with information on the products and services that are used by our customers, clients and patients. Nutrition and dietetics professionals assist clients and patients in making wise food choices – we do not dictate to consumers what they can and can’t eat. Therefore, we must be familiar with all foods and products in the marketplace. At the Expo, members meet with representatives of more than 330 companies to learn about the latest technologies, new and innovative products and services, and emerging trends. This year’s Expo includes six themed pavilions – Fresh Zone, Food Safety & Agriculture, Natural & Organic, Wellness & Prevention, Healthy Gut, and Technology for Practice. Within these pavilions are more than 140 exhibitors – or more than 40 percent of the total. Academy members know the difference between marketing and science, and we use our professional judgment to evaluate exhibitors’ products, programs or services, ask questions and share our expertise with exhibitors.”
Over the past 10 years, nutrition has become a focus for many individuals, companies, celebrities, and even daytime TV. With this has come an increased level of media attention on the world’s largest organization for dietetic professionals. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has responded with increased transparency, improved sponsorship guidelines, and most notably an awareness of the perception people have who are outside the organization altogether. As one of the many dietitians who attended FNCE®, the most enticing aspect of the Conference is the sheer number of educational sessions offered each year. The specifically designed educational tracks, comprehensive evidence-based presentations, and the ability to keep up on the latest in nutrition research draws in over 10,000 dietetic professionals annually.
The most satisfying part? Not a penny of sponsor or vendor dollars goes towards one educational session or its content. Ever.