We Shouldn’t Be Surprised That Influencer Dietitians Are Being Paid to Promote Processed FoodPhoto by Kenny Eliason/Unsplash Food Features influencer dietitian
A few days ago, the Washington Post published an article about how the food industry is paying influencer dietitians to peddle products with questionable ingredients, like excess sugar and aspartame, the latter of which the World Health Organization recently stated was “possibly carcinogenic,” or cancer-causing, to humans. The article has caused an uproar on some corners of the internet as some of these dietitians’ followers have begun to rightfully question the validity of their claims in light of their sponsorships by organizations like AmeriBev, a U.S. lobbying group that supports the beverage industry.
But anyone with their finger on the pulse of food politics shouldn’t be surprised by this reporting; corporations have largely steered the ship of food policy for decades now. Between the revolving door of food corporations and the FDA and USDA and the truly disgusting extent to which food lobbyists play a role in informing national nutritional guidelines, it’s not a shock that this type of marketing is taking place—social media is just a new, unfortunately unregulated arena in which it’s allowed to proliferate.
In 2002, Marion Nestle first published Food Politics, which remains to this day perhaps the most comprehensive text outlining the role rampant capitalism has played in creating the U.S. food system as we know it today. In her book, she writes that a main strategy of food companies is “co-opting experts” by hiring them to peddle their messaging. A guide for food companies attempting this kind of marketing strategy that Nestle cites reads: “This activity requires a modicum of finesse; it must not be too blatant, for the experts themselves must not recognize that they have lost their objectivity and freedom of action.”
This tactic by food companies is simply taking a new form on apps like TikTok, where some dietitians have found ways to supplement their incomes by making these sponsored posts. And the influencers have good reason to snatch up these offers: As the Washington Post reports, the median salary for a dietitian in the United States is just $66,450. A fat brand deal with AmeriBev amounting to thousands of dollars is undoubtedly attractive for dietitians whose average student loan debt comes in at over $71,000, according to the Student Doctor Network.
I do have sympathy for the dietitians who choose to supplement their likely lacking income with brand deals; we’re all trying to make it the best we can in an increasingly challenging economic climate. But what I do find deeply problematic is the fact that some of these influencer dietitians seem to be invoking hot button social issues in defense of their sponsors. One registered dietitian who was paid by the Canadian Sugar Institute reportedly said that denying sugar will only make your cravings worse. To me, this sounds like it’s targeted to people who may struggle with binge eating or other types of disordered eating.
Another influencer dietitian said she is “de-stigmatizing processed foods” as she partners with food companies because she “works in marginalized and food-insecure neighborhoods.” This one particularly made my blood boil. While, yes, I do believe that we should eliminate the stigma around processed foods—and the people and communities who have access to few other food options—making any kind of assertion that processed foods can be healthy in any meaningful way feels, frankly, deeply dishonest. To recognize and even celebrate the enjoyment and convenience that some of us (validly!) derive from eating processed foods on a cultural level should be completely separate from making positive health claims about those foods when many of them have been linked to higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer, according to UCLA Health.
While it’s easy—and perhaps even warranted—to blame these influencer dietitians for selling out to the food industry, this phenomenon should be expected. Money talks, especially in a rapidly declining economic climate that has even full-time employees with advanced degrees scrambling to make ends meet. The lack of regulation that has for decades plagued not just the food industry but the U.S. economy as a whole is responsible for a landscape in which most of us are eating food that’s objectively terrible for us on a regular basis, even if the professionals we should be able to trust tell us it’s not that bad. And since our politicians are also beholden to the handful of CEOs who run our system in so many ways, the possibility of putting reasonable regulations in place is starting to feel more and more delusional with each passing year.
I wish I could go full Michael Pollan and give you a nice little lecture on growing your own tomatoes and making an organic vegetable soup for lunch, but this kind of “solution” has been showed over and over again to benefit only those who have the time, money and will to cook most of their meals from scratch using usually expensive ingredients (or have the resources or power to pay someone else, through paid or unpaid domestic labor, to do it for them). Go enjoy your Diet Coke if that helps you make it through the day without dwelling on the bleak state of our economic system. But maybe be a bit more critical the next time a TikToker dancing to a Jason Derulo song tries to tell you snorting lines of aspartame is actually good for your health.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.