How Kel­logg worked with ‘in­de­pen­dent ex­perts’ to tout ce­real

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Candice Choi AP Food In­dus­try Writer

NEW YORK >> On its web­site, Kel­logg touted a dis­tin­guished-sound­ing “Break­fast Coun­cil” of “in­de­pen­dent ex­perts” who helped guide its nu­tri­tional ef­forts.

Nowhere did it say this: The maker of Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes paid the ex­perts 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, and re­port back on their ef­forts.

“I’m still feel­ing great from my bowl of ce­real & milk this morn­ing! MiniWheats are my fave,” a coun­cil mem­ber posted dur­ing a Twit­ter chat with Kel­logg about the ben­e­fits of ce­real. Kel­logg in­tro­duced the di­eti­tian as a “Break­fast Coun­cil Mem­ber.”

With­out not­ing her re­la­tion­ship with Kel­logg, an­other coun­cil mem­ber and di­eti­tian chimed in to say Mini-Wheats were her fa­vorite, too. She in­cluded a photo of Frosted MiniWheats.

For Kel­logg, the break­fast 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.

The Kel­logg’s Break­fast Coun­cil in­cluded a pro­fes­sor of nu­tri­tion, a pe­di­a­tri­cian and di­eti­tians. 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 did not 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 with evolv­ing stan­dards. 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.

Sylvia Klinger, the di­eti­tian who shared the photo of Mini-Wheats, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Kel­logg Co. said it used the coun­cil for aca­demic in­sight and guid­ance. It said the ex­perts con­trib­uted to most the ma­te­ri­als they shared, and that they dis­closed their af­fil­i­a­tion in pub­lic en­gage­ments.

Still, the com­pany said it could see how its de­scrip­tion of the ex­perts as “in­de­pen­dent” could cre­ate con­fu­sion. It later told the AP it had been re­view­ing its nu­tri­tion work, and de­cided not to con­tinue the coun­cil. The break­fast coun­cil page is no longer online.

‘Are those reg­u­lar Fi­tos?’

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 and Klinger ex­pressed en­thu­si­asm and re­quested lan­guage to share the in­for­ma­tion.

“Would love Tweets with URLS,” Hayes wrote. Hayes and Klinger posted the lines Kel­logg pro­vided ver­ba­tim. Hayes in­cluded the word “ad­vi­sor,” while Klinger in­cluded the word “client.”

Kel­logg also sup­plied the ex­perts with a “tool­kit” of tweets for a pro­mo­tional event in New York, where a cos­tumed Tony the Tiger char­ac­ter min­gled with guests. When the coun­cil mem­bers re­ceived an email from some­one they did not know crit­i­ciz­ing their work with Kel­logg, 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 ex­perts de­cided not to re­spond.

The break­fast coun­cil was also a way to pa­trol for naysay­ers. Af­ter an ad­vo­cacy group is­sued a re­port crit­i­ciz­ing sug­ary ce­re­als, Sarah Wood­side, a Kel­logg em­ployee, sent the coun­cil an email ex­plain­ing why it was un­fair and asked them to alert her if they no­ticed any dis­cus­sions about it.

Dis­clo­sures by the coun­cil could be con­fus­ing. When two of the ex­perts taught a class for di­eti­tians on the “sci­ence be­hind break­fast,” an in­tro­duc­tion said they were mem­bers of Kel­logg’s Break­fast Coun­cil, then said they had no con­flicts of in­ter­est. It said Kel­logg funded the class, but had no in­put into its con­tent.

Crit­ics also say words such as “ad­vi­sor” can leave the im­pres­sion that a health pro­fes­sional sim­ply pro­vides ex­per­tise to the com­pany, rather than com­mu­ni­cates pub­licly as part of a fi­nan­cial ar­range­ment.

Mar­ion Nes­tle, a pro­fes­sor of nu­tri­tion at New York Univer­sity, said health ex­perts usu­ally have good in­ten­tions when work­ing with com­pa­nies, and may not re­al­ize they’re be­ing used for their cred­i­bil­ity.

It isn’t un­usual for com­pa­nies to en­list di­eti­tians.

Coca-Cola has paid health ex­perts who wrote col­umns that ca­su­ally men­tion a mini-soda as a snack idea. Dis­clo­sures at the bot­tom said the au­thor is a “con­sul­tant” for food and beverage com­pa­nies, “in­clud­ing Coca-Cola.” Last year, the At­lanta-based beverage maker said it was halt­ing such work as it re­assessed its health ef­forts.

Jes­sica Levin­son, a di­eti­tian who has ap­peared in TV news seg­ments for Coke and Pep­siCo’s Frito-Lay, told the AP that 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” for hol­i­day par­ties 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.

‘Key mes­sages’

One of the break­fast coun­cil’s most no­table achieve­ments was pub­lish­ing a pa­per defin­ing a “qual­ity break­fast” in a nu­tri­tion jour­nal. Kel­logg touted the pa­per in its news­let­ter as be­ing writ­ten by “our in­de­pen­dent nu­tri­tion ex­perts.” Di­eti­tians could earn con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion cred­its from the pub­lisher for tak­ing a quiz about the pa­per.

Kel­logg didn’t de­scribe its own role in over­see­ing edit­ing and pro­vid­ing feed­back, such as ask­ing for the re­moval of a line say­ing a rec­om­men­da­tion that added sugar be lim­ited to 25 per­cent of calo­ries might be “too high.”

The com­pany said in a state­ment that its in­volve­ment should have been clear since the pa­per was a sup­ple­ment. It noted an ac­knowl­edge­ment at the end of the pa­per that said the ini­tial draft was writ­ten by an agency that rep­re­sents Kel­logg.

A fund­ing dis­clo­sure said the pa­per was sup­ported by an “un­re­stricted ed­u­ca­tional grant” from Kel­logg.

The Jour­nal of the Acad­emy of Nu­tri­tion and Di­etet­ics said edi­to­rial stan­dards for sup­ple­ments are the same as for reg­u­lar ar­ti­cles. As with those 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 to the gov­ern­ment for its up­dated di­etary guide­lines, ac­cord­ing to emails ob­tained through a records re­quest with Louisiana State Univer­sity, where one of the break­fast coun­cil mem­bers is a pro­fes­sor.

Kel­logg also sent the coun­cil a plan with “Key Mes­sages” to pro­mote the pa­per. One of them: “A va­ri­ety of Kel­logg’s prod­ucts and tools make it eas­ier to en­joy a qual­ity break­fast.”


Kel­logg’s ce­real prod­ucts are dis­played in Or­lando, Fla. On its web­site, amid news of PopTarts and Frosted Flakes, Kel­logg touted a dis­tin­guished-sound­ing “break­fast coun­cil” of “in­de­pen­dent ex­perts” ded­i­cated to guid­ing its nu­tri­tional ef­forts. Nowhere did it say that Kel­logg paid the coun­cil mem­bers and spoon-fed them talk­ing points about the ben­e­fits of ce­real and break­fast, ac­cord­ing to a copy of a con­tract and email ex­changes ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press.


The Kel­logg booth at an an­nual di­eti­tians’ con­fer­ence, where com­pany rep­re­sen­ta­tives ex­plained the health ben­e­fits of their prod­ucts, in Bos­ton.

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