On top of diet soda being hit with claims that its artificial sweetener base might be linked to cancer, heart disease, and autism, a new report says that registered dieticians are getting some big fat checks to post selfie videos on those platforms that promote “sweetened” food products.
This report – a joint examination on food industry influence done by The Examination and The Washington Post – claims that not long after the World Health Organization’s (WHO) question about artificial sweeteners and their possible cancer connection, health professionals started bouncing around a hashtag on social media named #safetyofaspartame.
In their videos, the dieticians told their followers that the WHO’s concerns were nothing more than “clickbait” and “fear-mongering headlines” with rationale such as “low-quality science.”
In one video, the report said one dietitian and diabetes specialist told her Instagram viewers that artificial sweeteners “satisfy the desire for sweetness” without affecting blood sugar or insulin levels.
“What these dietitians didn’t make clear was that they were paid to post the videos by American Beverage, a trade and lobbying group representing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other companies,” the report’s authors noted.
Were you one of the 11 million 'influenced?'
As it turns out, these dieticians weren’t just a party of four or five, but among 68 dietitians with 10,000 or more social media followers on Instagram or TikTok. Close to half had promoted food, beverages or supplements to a combined audience of 11 million followers.
“In all, at least 35 posts from a dozen health professionals were part of the coordinated campaign by American Beverage," the report said. "The trade group paid an undisclosed amount to 10 registered dietitians, as well as a physician and a fitness influencer, to use their social media accounts to help blunt the WHO’s claims that aspartame, a mainstay of Diet Coke and other sodas, is ineffective for weight loss and ‘possibly carcinogenic.’”
American Beverage claims that its campaign was warranted because while the WHO has its opinion, the FDA has its own, too, and the FDA’s opinion is that aspartame is safe.
“The registered dietitians and nutritionists we relied on shared their own informed opinions when communicating the facts to their audiences, and were upfront about being paid,” an American Beverage spokesman said in a response to the authors’ questions.
Federal regulators ask consumers to chime in about influencers
Already, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned influencers that there’s a definite line to be walked.
“Make sure people will see and understand the disclosure. Place it so it’s hard to miss,” the agency instructs influencers. It emphasizes that disclosure should be placed within the endorsement message itself and not tucked away in an “About Me” section or at the end of video or post or anywhere that a viewer has to click “More” before they see the admission.
But, with the government often moving at a snail’s pace, it could take more than this one report to get the FTC to force sweeping changes. In the meantime, it’s up to the consumer’s good sense.
Truth in advertising is important in all media, even social media. If an influencer is touting a health-related issue/product and does not clearly state upfront that they’re being paid and that concerns you, then, DM’ing or posting a question is a fair request.
If you suspect that an influencer is going in a direction that the FTC thinks may be too far, the agency would like to hear from you. Send your comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.