Not mentioned is that Fernstrom is a scientific consultant for Ajinomoto, a Japanese food and chemical company that makes aspartame. Nor did the Council’s press release mention that he and his wife, Madelyn Fernstrom, a professor of psychiatry, epidemiology and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, have ties to industry groups.
John Fernstrom is the scientific advisor to the Committee on Low-Calorie Sweeteners, whose members include Ajinomoto, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. His wife, who is the diet and nutrition editor for the NBC Today show, is on the board of trustees for the International Food Information Council Foundation, which has been labeled an industry front group by public health advocates.
In May, Madelyn Fernstrom appeared on a Today show segment to talk about sugars and artificial sweeteners. During the segment, she noted that low-calorie sweeteners were recognized as safe by the FDA, and she cited a just-released study that found that drinking diet beverages containing artificial sweeteners might help people lose more weight than drinking water.
The Today show’s nutrition editor did not mention to viewers that the study was funded entirely by the American Beverage Association and that two of the study’s authors received consulting fees from Coca-Cola. She also did not mention her husband’s ties to the manufacturer of aspartame.
John Fernstrom told the Center for Public Integrity that his industry ties have “no impact on my work.” He says the most reliable scientific studies show that sugar substitutes are safe, and he notes that “some of the best research is done” by industry.
Fernstrom says companies have a strong incentive to thoroughly test their products to make sure they are safe. Otherwise, if they turn out to be harmful to consumers, “you’re out of business,” he says. “Industry is not the enemy.”
A University of Pittsburgh Medical Center spokeswoman for Madelyn Fernstrom did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Megan Kopf, a spokeswoman for NBC, issued a statement: “We take disclosure issues seriously and are currently looking into this. Madelyn has been a long-time contributor to NBC News and has always reported with integrity.”
Not only did the Council attack Swithers’ paper from the perspective of a scientist, but it also criticized it from the perspective of the everyday mom. Blogging at ILoveDietSoda.com, Council writer “Jenni PS” — a “busy woman” who gets through the day thanks to “the little things, like a can of diet soda” —lamented “another ridiculous opinion piece about the ‘downsides’ of low-calorie sweeteners.”
Council consultant Robyn Flipse, a dietitian who also represents food companies like Splenda, Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods, took to the comments section of an NPR story to critique Swithers’ paper. “Low calorie sweeteners are not making us fat or sick,” Flipse wrote in a lengthy comment. “Inactivity, excess calories and unbalanced food choices are.”
In an interview, Flipse told the Center that her ties to industry, including the Council, have no influence on her work. “I’m never told what to say,” she says, adding that she tries to help correct misinformation spread online and in the media about artificial sweeteners. Talking points “are not fed to me,” and she says the Council never tells her where or when to comment.
Perhaps the most brazen of all the Council’s attacks was its formal letter to Purdue University.
“The Council has serious concerns with the University’s actions in promoting Dr. Swithers’ opinion,” Council President Haley Curtis Stevens wrote to Purdue’s assistant vice president of marketing, noting that the paper “ignored decades of research affirming the safety of low-calorie sweeteners.”
“Promoting biased science, we feel, is not acting in the best interest of public health,” she wrote.
Amy Patterson Neubert, a Purdue spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the Center that the university has always supported Swithers' work. "Even a year after the publication of her peer-reviewed opinion piece," she wrote, "she still receives requests for interviews, which we help facilitate."
The Council's letter to Purdue was followed by more criticism from yet another industry ally.
In response to the Purdue professor’s conclusions, two scientists from Baylor College of Medicine — Craig A. Johnston and John Foreyt — submitted a letter to Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, the journal that published Swithers’ paper.
In their letter published online, the authors called Swithers’ paper “highly selective, misleading, and biased” and noted that artificial sweeteners “are safe and provide individuals seeking to lose or maintain weight a healthy alternative to help to decrease caloric consumption.”
But the authors did not submit a conflict of interest statement with their letter. Only after the journal posted the letter online did editors learn that Foreyt had ties to industry. A spokeswoman for the journal confirmed that editors contacted the authors asking them to submit a disclosure statement to be published in the journal’s print edition.
“Dr. John P. Foreyt received grants, honoraria, donations, and consulting fees from numerous food, beverage, and pharmaceutical companies, as well as other commercial and nonprofit entities with interests in obesity,” the conflict of interest statement read. “He has served and is currently serving as a board member for multiple food, beverage, and pharmaceutical companies.”
Foreyt is listed on a Council website as an advisor to the trade group, but Dipali Pathak, a spokeswoman for Baylor College of Medicine, wrote in an email to the Center that “he has not worked with them for years.”
As for the authors’ omitted disclosure statement, she wrote, Foreyt and Johnston “were not asked to disclose any information on ties to the industry. Once the editor asked them to disclose this, they sent the information and the letter was republished with this information.”
Trade association or front group?
The Calorie Control Council, established in 1966, isn’t your typical trade association. For one thing, it’s run by Kellen Company, a global management and public relations firm. Stevens, the Council’s president, is an account executive at the PR firm.
Unlike other trade associations, including the International Sweeteners Association and the American Beverage Association, the Council does not publicly list its members. Nor does its website reveal its board of directors, which can be found on the trade group’s annual tax documents.