Family Physicians Group Announces a New Partner: Coke?

The AAFP says the company's contributions will fund educational content on beverages and sweeteners.

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Nutrition and diet associations have come under fire for their relationships with food companies; most recently, the American Society for Nutrition was criticized for its role in administering the controversial Smart Choices food labeling program. Today the American Academy of Family Physicians announced its own corporate partnership program, called the Consumer Alliance, and said that the Coca-Cola Co. will be its first partner.

Under the terms of the arrangement, Coke will provide a grant—which AAFP President-elect Lori Heim says is "in the strong six figures"—annually to the group, which will develop consumer education content on beverages and sweeteners for its consumer-oriented website, FamilyDoctor.org. The AAFP, emphasized Heim, "has total control over editorial materials," which for now is the extent of the arrangement. Coke won't be using an AAFP symbol in marketing its products, for example, though the company's financial assistance will be credited on the site.

Heim says it's a new direction for AAFP. While the organization has worked with corporate sponsors, including Coke, for various projects, it hasn't had a formal alliance like this one before now. It offers a "steady revenue stream that is not related to the pharmaceutical industry, which has been a push from our members." While this program was approved by the AAFP's board, it wasn't run past the general membership ahead of time.

It will be interesting to see what the AAFP's members, family doctors, think of the program. Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, has written that some members of the American Dietetic Association were less than pleased that the organization distributes food fact sheets that are directly sponsored by industry groups, among other relationships. (Other members said the ties didn't bother them, since it was a way to fund educational programs and get the group's message out.) ADA's argument: The corporate relationships don't conflict with its healthful eating policies and recommendations.

Heim says the AAFP doesn't have specific policies on food—say, advice on how much soda to consume. "We encourage active lifestyles," she says. "And we talk about moderation." There's a lot of talk about active lifestyles and moderation from food companies, too; they often say that physical activity is key to maintaining a healthy weight and that treats can fit into any diet. Both true. But as anyone who's launched a running program and realized she still can't eat whatever she wants can tell you, cutting back on calories from nutrient-poor but calorie-dense foods is pretty essential for people watching their weight. That includes things like desserts, chips, fast food, and, yes, non-diet soda and energy drinks like the ones Coke makes. As my colleague Nancy Shute wrote in May, today's kids are eating about 350 more calories per day than in the 1970s, and grown-ups are eating an extra 500 calories. It's tough to work that off through exercise alone.

The alliance shouldn't be perceived as a conflict of interest, Heim says. "The reality is that consumers are drinking sweetened and unsweetened beverages" and want to know how to incorporate them into their diet. But rightly or wrongly, sugary drinks raise particular ire among diet and obesity experts, especially when it comes to kids; experts say they're the largest source of added sugar in the diet of young Americans. Some have called for those drinks to be reformulated or taxed. I'll be looking forward to seeing what the AAFP says about beverages and sweeteners when the content launches in early 2010.

Any family physicians out there who'd like to weigh in on the AAFP's news? Are alliances with food companies a good way to raise revenue for educational projects? Or do they present a conflict of interest—or at least the appearance of one?

[Check out 10 things the food industry doesn't want you to know.]