Est. 1995

The food industry pays ‘influencer’ dietitians to shape your eating habits

Registered dietitians are being paid to post videos that promote diet soda, sugar, and supplements on Instagram and TikTok

As the World Health Organization raised questions this summer about the risks of a popular artificial sweetener, a new hashtag began spreading on the social media accounts of health professionals: #safetyofaspartame.

Steph Grasso, a registered dietitian from Oakton, Va., used the hashtag and told her 2.2 million followers on TikTok that the WHO warnings about artificial sweeteners were “clickbait” based on “low-quality science.”

Another dietitian, Cara Harbstreet of Kansas City, reassured her Instagram followers not to worry about “fear mongering headlines” about aspartame because “the evidence doesn’t suggest there’s a reason for concern.”

In a third video, Mary Ellen Phipps, a Houston-area dietitian who specializes in diabetes care, sipped from a glass of soda and told her Instagram viewers that artificial sweeteners “satisfy the desire for sweetness” without affecting blood sugar or insulin levels.

Grasso declined to comment. Harbstreet and Phipps didn’t respond to phone calls, emails and a letter. After inquiries from The Post and The Examination, Harbstreet’s Instagram posts were changed to include “Paid Partnership with AmeriBev.”

The strategy of enlisting dietitians on social media has allowed the industry to extend its vast reach and promote often-questionable nutrition advice to new generations of teenage and Gen Z eaters and millennial parents accustomed to finding news and health advice on social media. By paying registered dietitians — health professionals who specialize in nutrition — the food industry is moving beyond the world of ordinary online influencers to harness the prestige of credentialed experts to deliver commercial messages.

They’re pushing foods like candy and ice cream, while downplaying the risks of highly processed foods, sugar, and the artificial sweetener aspartame.

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.

Most of the 78,000 dietitians and nutritionists in the United States aren’t social media influencers. Many work in hospitals, departments of health, and private practices, and their median annual salary is $66,450, according to 2022 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While the dietitian influencers contacted for this article wouldn’t say how much they are paid for sponsored posts, several said that companies generally pay a few thousand dollars per video and that offers could be as high as tens of thousands of dollars for creators with the biggest social media audiences.

The analysis by The Post and The Examination also found that dietitians have been paid to tout the benefits of dietary supplements that lack scientific consensus, including products like collagen supplements promoted for skin, nail and joint health; detox teas that claim to help the body expel toxins; and capsules marketed for “mitochondrial health.”

In all, at least 35 posts from a dozen health professionals were part of the coordinated campaign by American Beverage. 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.”


The food industry pays ‘influencer’ dietitians to shape your eating habits

© 2024 CounterPoint