Education providers, which must pay a $250 application fee and a $300 annual maintenance fee thereafter, have to abide by certain standards. Classes must be based on relevant subjects, for example, and conducted by qualified personnel. But materials for individual classes are not pre-screened.
A variety of organizations provide continuing education, including universities and professional groups. But the classes can be costly. Meanwhile, the classes offered by food companies are usually online and free.
Deborah Myers, chair of the nutrition and dietetics program at Bluffton University, a small school in Ohio, estimated she spends between $700 and $1,000 a year on continuing education when factoring in travel.
She is reimbursed for professional development costs by her employer. That's not a luxury all dietitians have.
AN OLD PRACTICE UNDER SCRUTINY
Teaching dietitians isn't a new practice in the food industry. General Mills, which makes Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Yoplait yogurt, Pillsbury dough and Progresso soup, has been an education provider through its Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition for at least 15 years, for example.
But the practice came under scrutiny after a report by public health lawyer and vocal food industry critic Michele Simon last year that detailed the industry's deep ties to the field. Shortly afterward, a small group formed Dietitians for Professional Integrity to call for changes.
A petition by the group on the subject got more than 25,000 supporters on Change.org; the academy provided an audit to the AP that said only 600 of those signatures were by its members.
Others also question the practice.
Bill Dietz, a former director of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, noted that an online class by Coke entitled "Understanding Dietary Sugars and Health" was taught by instructors who both had industry ties. One disclosed ties to the Sugar Association and companies including candy bar maker Mars. The other disclosed ties to the Corn Growers Association on the subject of high fructose corn syrup.
At one point during the online class, one instructor said he doesn't think there should be dietary guidelines regarding sugar intake; Dietz noted that viewpoint is in contrast to the positions held by many reputable groups, including the American Heart Association, which recommends women consume no more than 6 teaspoons daily and men consume no more than 9 teaspoons daily.
When classes are approved for continuing education, there's an assumption that the content is essentially endorsed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietz said. As such, he said the academy should be responsible for ensuring they provide balanced perspectives.
Still, he said that doesn't mean companies should outright be banned from playing a role in the education of dietitians.
"It's hard to be black and white about this," he said, noting there are experts on nutrition who work in the industry.
LESSONS THAT CAN FUEL BUSINESS
Companies say their classes provide nutrition information to dietitians.
Coca-Cola, which makes drinks including Dasani water and Minute Maid juice, offers about a dozen seminars each year through its Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness. On average, Coke said the live, hour-long classes get more than 5,000 participants. It plans to increase the number of webinars it offers each year.