It’s Not About the Cheese

cheese sliceNo doubt, you’ve heard about the flap over Kraft Singles.  And as a dietitian and a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, this cheese debate doesn’t have me smiling.

The news coverage of the implied endorsement of Kraft Singles by the Academy has been extensive, including today’s Wall Street Journal.  Besides the mocking by Jon Stewart on a recent episode, probably nothing has been more painful:

The incident highlights the risk public health and nutrition groups take when they partner with food companies, often in relationships that involve donations and sponsorships, said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and an author of several books on the food industry. The academy “has become a laughingstock,” Ms. Nestle said. “Its viewpoints are so tainted, they’re so deeply influenced by their sponsors that it’s hard to take them seriously.”

A laughingstock.  Wow, that’s tough.

Credibility is everything.  That’s why some wonderful RD friends and colleagues started a petition to #RepealtheSeal.  I signed that petition, along with 11,000 others (as of today).

It’s not that I’m horrified by the product.  To me, that’s irrelevant.  It could be a banana and I’d still be opposed to my professional association putting any type of seal on it.   That was my response to the Ellyn Satter Institute who recently told us dietitians to lighten up.

Latest food flap: Kraft Singles’ carrying Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics “Kids Eat Right” label. Many dietitians are upset because they feel singles are not real food and should not be endorsed. The Academy says the “Kids Eat Right” label is the food company’s endorsement of the Academy, not the other way around.

What I say: This is exactly the kind of mess created by trying to  micromanage people’s food choices by labeling some foods good, others bad. It’s all food, folks, and it is all good. Kraft singles have a plenty respectable nutrition profile, and LOTS of people depend on them. People do very well nutritionally when they follow the tenants of eating competence and 1) Feed themselves faithfully and 2) Give themselves permission to eat: what and as much as they want.

The bottom line: LIGHTEN UP!

I adore Ellyn Satter, but I had to speak up.  Here’s my response on Facebook:

While I appreciate you weighing in on this issue, I’m not sure you’ve fully captured the situation.  As a dietitian, I agree with your point about not demonizing foods. Even though some RDs have focused on the “product,” to me (and many others), that’s irrelevant.  I wouldn’t want my professional association appearing to “endorse” any food product — even a banana.  I agree that I want to give people the permission to eat what and as much as they want.  But we want to protect the integrity of our profession.  We don’t want it compromised.  That’s at the heart of this debate.

Yes, this debate is about the integrity of our profession. It’s about our credibility. To me, it’s really not about the cheese (or pasteurized prepared cheese product).   When you make it about the merits of a specific food, we’re losing focus of the bigger issue. And you can lose your audience, which is what I thought happened to Andy Bellatti during his recent Fox TV appearance. He was challenged by the anchor Stuart Varney who asked if he was a bad parent and grandparent for serving these American cheese slices to his kids and grandkids. He questioned Andy about what he would do as a parent if that was the only type of cheese his 4-year-old would eat, but then laughed when he learned that Andy didn’t have kids. That’s when the conversation took a dramatic turn. Varney said it matters, “parents really want their child to eat.”

The Academy stands firm that this is not an endorsement or “seal of approval.” I get that. But the public doesn’t. That’s why I believe we need new policies in place so there’s never any confusion. But let’s stand up for our profession, without demonizing “Big Food” or any single food product.

Because at the end of the day, it’s not about the cheese.

Image: 1952 food ad by Classic Film on flickr

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