Don't Trust TikTok's Nutrition Advice

Diet and wellness influencers could be pushing an agenda that has little to do with your health.

It's an understatement to say that TikTok influencers affect the way people approach food. Users come up with viral fast food hacks that overwhelm employees, lick ice cream at the grocery store in a shameless bid for more views, and even promote snacks that give everyone diarrhea. Nevertheless, they shape what's trendy and, most importantly to big business, dictate how countless people spend their money. That's why we're sadly unsurprised to see a new report from The Washington Post revealing that nutrition influencers online, despite being ostensibly trustworthy registered dietitians, are being paid to promote all sorts of goods like diet soda, supplements, and sugar to their audiences. It's a solid reminder never to put one's health in the hands of an internet stranger.

TikTok and the murky ethics of diet influencing

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it would be adding the artificial sweetener aspartame, to a list of possible carcinogens. It was right around then when the hashtag #safetyofaspartame started popping up on social media posts.

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The Washington Post found that three popular TikTok influencers, each of whom are registered dietitians with huge followings (one has 2.2 million followers), had been paid by American Beverage, a lobbying group representing PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and other large corporations, to post videos about aspartame's safety. In total, the Post found that at least 12 health professionals posted these sorts of videos on at least 35 occasions. But the three dietitians mentioned above were not transparent about the fact that they'd accepted money to spread this message online.

The issue goes well beyond a small handful of dietitian influencers. An analysis conducted by The Washington Post in partnership with The Examination, a nonprofit newsroom that specializes in global public health journalism, found that this rabbit hole went much deeper.

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In fact, industry groups paid dietitians to promote all kinds of behaviors, like eating ice cream and sweets, and those influencers deliberately downplayed scientific evidence that refutes the claims made in their videos. About half of the 68 dietitians investigated by the Post with a significant social media following (10,000 or more) were found to have been paid to promote certain supplements, food, or beverages to their followers over the previous year.

It is important to note that registered dietitians do have a code of ethics they're expected to follow, as outlined by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This code discourages "accepting gifts or services which potentially influence or which may give the appearance of influencing professional judgment."

The investigation goes into everything in a lot more depth, so I do highly recommend you read The Washington Post feature here. It's a damning report on the financial mechanisms powering influencer culture.

There are rules governing influencer marketing

Last year The Takeout spoke with Chicago-based Instagram influencer Alex Jewell, who revealed how he makes money through his social media feed. He was unusually frank about how the sausage gets made, which is unusual among internet personalities.

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"The one thing to know about pricing is that it's still somewhat of the Wild West, depending on which platforms you're posting to, and who the client is," he told me. "Sometimes they'll even come to you with what they're gonna pay and you have to decide whether that fits into your budget. Occasionally it's way more than what you would have told them."

It's reasonable to assume that the lobbying groups contacting TikTok dietitians on behalf of such major brands as PepsiCo have large sums to offer in exchange for favorable coverage. But no matter who the influencer is or what they're promoting, the Federal Trade Commission has guides on how to legally disclose the deal that's been made with a brand partner.

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This is all yet another reason to take everything you see on social media with a grain of salt. As long as these platforms allow people to monetize their content, there will always be a contingent of actors (both neutral and bad) trying to shape the conversation. There are far better TikTok accounts to follow.

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