NEW YORK — On its website, Kellogg touted a “Breakfast Council” of “independent experts” who helped guide the company’s nutritional efforts.
Nowhere did it say this: The maker of Froot Loops paid the council members and fed them talking points, according to a copy of a contract and emails obtained by the Associated Press.
The company paid the experts an average of $13,000 a year, prohibited them from offering media services for products “competitive or negative to cereal” and required them to engage in “nutrition influencer outreach” on social media or with colleagues.
“I’m still feeling great from my bowl of cereal & milk this morning! Mini-Wheats are my fave,” a dietitian on the council posted during a Twitter chat with Kellogg. Another council member and dietitian chimed in to say they were her favorite, too, and included a photo of the cereal.
For Kellogg, the council — in existence between 2011 and this year — deftly blurred the lines between cereal promotion and impartial nutrition guidance. The company used the council to teach a continuing education class for dietitians, publish an academic paper on breakfast, and try to influence the government’s dietary guidelines.
Kellogg said the council’s activities were clearly sponsored.
Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa who writes about industry influence in nutrition, said he didn’t believe it was clear to the public that the council members were compensated, especially since Kellogg described them as “independent.”
“It’s not an automatic leap. I don’t think people think about these conflicts that deeply,” he said.
Dayle Hayes, a dietitian who participated in the Twitter chat in 2014, said in an email that she prides herself on her ethics and transparency and that her disclosure practices have changed as standards have evolved. Based on current standards, she said she would include the word “ad” in tweets referencing Kellogg products. She said she did not share any information without appropriate disclosures.
Kellogg Co. said the experts disclosed their affiliation with the company in public engagements. Still, the company said it could see how its use of “independent” could create confusion. It said later it decided not to continue the council, and the website page is no longer online.
‘Are those regular Fritos?’
Kellogg said on its website that the breakfast council helped guide the company. But it wasn’t always clear who was providing the guidance.
When Kellogg sent the council research it commissioned, Hayes expressed enthusiasm and requested language to share the information. Hayes and Sylvia Klinger, another dietitian on the council, tweeted the lines Kellogg provided verbatim. Hayes included the word “advisor” and Klinger included the word “client.”
Kellogg also supplied the experts with a “toolkit” of tweets for a promotional event in New York. When the council members received a critical email from someone they didn’t know criticizing their work with the company, the company suggested a response for that, too.
“I appreciate and share you(r) interest in the health of our children,” the suggestion read. “It’s for this very reason that I work with Kellogg.” The council members decided not to respond.
The work with dietitians wasn’t unusual. Coca-Cola has paid dietitians who wrote columns casually suggesting mini-sodas as a snack. Disclosures said the author is a “consultant” for food and beverage companies, “including Coca-Cola.”
Jessica Levinson, a dietitian who has appeared in TV news segments for Coke and PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay, told the AP producers were told if her healthy eating tips were sponsored. Yet the disclosures weren’t always shared with viewers.
In a segment on NBC Baltimore on “dos and don’ts” in 2009, Levinson presented bags of Fritos with dip — as an example of a “do.”
“Are those regular Fritos?” asked the reporter, indicating her surprise.
One of the breakfast council’s accomplishments was publishing an academic paper defining a “quality breakfast,” which Kellogg touted as being written by “our independent nutrition experts.”
A Kellogg employee oversaw the editing and provided feedback, including asking for the removal of a line saying a recommendation that added sugar be limited to 25 percent of calories might be “too high.
Kellogg said the paper was a supplement and that its involvement should have been clear. It noted a disclosure said a draft was written by an agency that represents Kellogg.
The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics said editorial rules for supplements are the same as for regular articles. The paper underwent peer review, and an editor suggested reducing or eliminating the detailed discussion of cereal, especially since the sponsor was a cereal company.
To amplify the paper, Kellogg planned to reference it in comments submitted for the government’s dietary guidelines, emails obtained by the AP through a public records request show. Kellogg also sent its breakfast council a plan with “Key Messages” to promote the paper.
One message: “A variety of Kellogg’s products and tools make it easier to enjoy a quality breakfast.”
— Candice Choi