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Some dietitians are bad influencers

sugar on raspberry

I don’t know exactly what an influencer is, but I suspect it is about more than being a narcissistic teenager on TikTok and Instagram. Nor do I know why I would permit myself to be influenced by such individuals, but this only proves that I am not a member of Gen Z.

In any event, influencers influence. And, this being the United States in the twenty-first century, they do it for money.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is against certain types of influencer influence. It is cracking down on those who are promoting junk food without disclosing that they are being paid to do so.

The FTC has sent “warning letters to two trade associations and 12 registered dieticians and other online health influencers warning them about the lack of adequate disclosures in their Instagram and TikTok posts promoting the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame or the consumption of sugar-containing products,” according to the agency’s press release.

The trade groups addressed were the American Beverage Association and the Canadian Sugar Institute. Letters to these groups “express concerns that the organizations may have violated the FTC Act by failing to adequately disclose that the influencers were apparently hired to promote the safety of aspartame or the consumption of sugar-containing products, respectively.”

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

The thought of supposedly reputable dietitians (choose your preferred spelling) recommending what are very likely the worst food choices may sound shocking, but if you look at it in perspective, it’s probably no more appalling than the contents of at least five news items you have read today.

The following dietitians received warning letters: In the United States, Valerie Agyeman, Nichole Andrews, Leslie Bonci, Keri Gans, Stephanie Grasso, Cara Harbstreet, Andrea Miller, Idrees Mughal, Adam Pecoraro, and Mary Ellen Phipps. In Canada: Jenn Messina and Lindsay Pleskot.

The warning letters identified “what appeared to be paid posts that either did not disclose a material connection, or that contained disclosures, including inconspicuous placement, ambiguous language, or the failure to clearly identify the sponsor of the posts,” said the FTC announcement.

The produce industry is vexed by  embarrassingly low consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables among the American populace. If the industry has a single enemy to overcome in this respect, it is junk food—and palates that are increasingly used to and fond of junk food.

I think it is necessary to distinguish between junk food and fast food. Junk food is an enemy—perhaps the main enemy—of increased produce consumption and better dietary habits.

Fast food, as I have pointed out, My robot lunch from Sweetgreen – Produce Blue Book is a challenge but not an enemy, because fast food can incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s easy to imagine going through a drive-through for a portobello mushroom sandwich.

But produce can never be junk food. (A possible slogan for the industry?)

Some in the industry who are not blind to this trend in American tastes have produced options like Cotton Candy grapes.

But I would draw the line with grapes that were bred to taste like Diet Mountain Dew.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.