Snack recipe or advertising? Some dietitians now say who’s paying them

A federal crackdown on social media ads has prompted nutrition influencers to declare their sponsors.

December 13, 2023
The Examination
The Examination
This report is a joint investigation by The Examination and The Washington Post.

A month after a new federal crackdown on social media advertising, nutrition influencers have deleted previous sponsored posts and some are now explicitly disclosing the companies that are paying them.

That pasta recipe? Dietitian Cara Harbstreet of Kansas City says in her video that it’s made in partnership with Barilla. Steph Grasso of Oakton, Va., a registered dietitian with more than 2 million social media followers, now superimposes #Ad on her videos for Orgain protein powders.

The changes were made after the Federal Trade Commission in November sent warning letters threatening hefty financial penalties to a dozen social media influencers who collectively reach more than 6 million followers — as well as to two trade groups that paid the dietitians — saying the posts did not clearly convey to consumers who sponsored the content.  

The FTC’s action followed a months-long investigation by The Examination and The Washington Post that found that numerous posts from dietitian influencers failed to clearly disclose that they were paid for by American Beverage or the Canadian Sugar Institute.

Companies across all industries working with social media influencers are adapting their practices in light of the federal enforcement, said Damon Wright, a lawyer at GRSM50 in Alexandria, Va., who heads the firm’s advertising and e-commerce practice. Wright said some brands have started to update their contracts with influencers to detail proper disclosure standards.

“Trade associations, industry groups, and other organizations are going to need to be much more careful in how they use other people to spread their message on their behalf,” he said.

As of Dec. 5, all of the influencers warned by the FTC, who in addition to the dietitians include a physician and a fitness coach, had deleted the TikTok and Instagram posts flagged by the agency for inadequate disclosure. The posts delivered various industry-friendly messages such as advice to let children eat unlimited sweets and reassurances that aspartame, a common sugar substitute in diet sodas, is not unhealthy. 

At least six of the nutrition influencers have included more explicit disclosures to paid posts made since the FTC’s enforcement action, in some cases audibly naming sponsors and including #ad within videos. 

The warning letters sent by the FTC signal a stricter standard for disclosing paid marketing campaigns on social media. The agency called for creators to include disclosures within social media videos as well as in the descriptions alongside them. The FTC also instructed creators to clearly state the company or trade group funding their messages and not to rely solely on tagging companies or hashtags such as #ad in captions. 

“Consumers should be able to notice the disclosure easily, and not have to look for it,” the FTC wrote in its warning letters. Disclosures "should be presented without having to click.” 

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The FTC gave the influencers and trade groups 15 days to respond. The agency noted that future failures to comply with disclosure rules could result in fines of more than $50,000 for each violation.

William Dermody, a spokesperson for American Beverage, said that after receiving the FTC warning letter the group asked influencers to edit their posts, but that “it became more efficient to remove posts due to the time required to edit video content across different platforms.”

The Canadian Sugar Institute did not respond to requests for comment. A joint investigation from the Toronto Star and the University of Toronto Investigative Journalism Bureau recently found that the trade group paid two dozen Canadian registered dietitians to post pro-sugar content on Instagram. A spokesperson for the sugar group told the Star that it will ensure that “all disclosures are very transparent” for dietitians it pays.

One influencer, registered dietitian Leslie Bonci, deleted her sponsored aspartame post that was flagged by the FTC after being contacted by The Examination and The Post, a week after the agency’s deadline.

In a statement, Bonci said that she had followed disclosure laws to the best of her ability. 

She said as a registered dietitian she values disclosure and transparency. “I will ensure that moving forward I will comply with updated FTC guidelines,” Bonci wrote in an email. 

Several other influencers who received letters have since posted promotions that include more explicit disclosures than they had used previously.

For example, Grasso, the popular Oakton dietitian, recently posted ads on TikTok or Instagram for Orgain protein powder and Pete & Gerry’s organic eggs. In these messages, Grasso superimposed the word “#Ad” in her videos. Before the FTC action, Grasso typically made those disclosures only in text alongside the videos.

@stephgrassodietitian #Ad As holiday traveling is about to begin, and we want to stay nice and healthy for friends and family gatherings, I'm going to show you what I eat in a day to support my immune system. Side note-I'm not recommending following exactly everything I eat, as everyone has different nutrient needs and lifestyles. However, I do recommend adding protein to your diet, as amino acids play an important role in supporting immune health. Additionally, consider incorporating foods rich in other immune-supporting nutrients such as zinc, and vitamins A, B12, C and E @DrinkOrgain #orgain #drinkorgain #orgainpartner ♬ original sound - Steph Grasso, MS, RD

The additional disclosures were noticed by viewers and some left harsh comments.

“Unfollowing you because you’re a sellout. Sad,” said one.

“Can’t trust anyone anymore. Ugh,” wrote another.

Grasso didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mary Ellen Phipps, a dietitian who specializes in diabetes treatment and posts on Instagram using the handle @milknhoneynutrition, also included multiple disclosures in recent posts on behalf of Pfizer and Good Measure Foods, a snack company owned by General Mills. 

“I’m partnering with Good Measure to show you how you can use some of my favorite blood sugar friendly snacks to help you enjoy all your favorite traditional holiday dishes,” Phipps said in an Instagram ad posted two days before Thanksgiving.

The video also included “#GoodMeasurePartner” embedded throughout.

Phipps didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In an ad on TikTok for Barilla pasta, Harbstreet, whose handle is @streetsmart.rd, not only included the word “#sponsored” in the video’s background but named her sponsor verbally. “Gather around for this crowd-pleasing pasta recipe made in partnership with Barilla,” Harbstreet said at the beginning of her video.  

@streetsmart.rd #sponsored I’m partnering with @BarillaUS to share this delicious Browned Butter Mushroom Pasta! ​ As one of my family’s most requested recipes, this pasta dish has it all: it’s cozy, savory, and seasonal, plus simple to make with no exact measurements needed.. So when everyone comes over and we’re chatting away, I can easily whip up a delicious dish that everyone loves! ​ ​ @BarillaUS Pasta is so reliable and uses high-quality ingredients, and always pairs well with our favorite proteins, veggies, and seasonings. They’re experts in pasta and the Barilla classic line brings you pasta that provides fiber, iron, and B vitamins with no added sugar or sodium. Here’s what you’ll need for this Browned Butter Mushroom Pasta:​ - 1 box of @barillaus Linguine pasta (or similar shape)​ - 8 oz mixed mushrooms. All mushrooms give some umami flavor, but I used baby bellas this time​ - Diced onion, about 1 ½ cups or one medium onion​ - Garlic, which you should measure with your heart​ - One stick of unsalted butter​ - Fresh sage​ - A few large handfuls of spinach ​ - Chopped pecans - Any of your favorite seasonings like red pepper flakes, and a little drizzle of olive oil if you need it for your pan​ ​ It takes 10-12 minutes to fully brown the butter on low heat but I promise, this time is well worth it for the extra savory flavor! And since @barillaus pasta cooks to al dente perfection in just 10-11 minutes, this whole recipe can still be finished in about half an hour.​ ​ Get your water boiling and sauté pan heated so the veggies can cook down while the pasta is boiling. In order, I add the onions, mushrooms, garlic, browned butter, sage, and spinach. Stir often and season along the way. Once the pasta is done, drain it and add to the browned-butter mushroom mixture, stir, and serve! This version is vegetarian, so get creative with a protein pairing to round out your meal. A few favorites for us include pork tenderloin medallions, baked shrimp, or cuts from a rotisserie chicken. ​ ​ I seriously can’t wait for you to try this one! Save this post for easy reference to the recipe and create a pasta meal worth sharing with your family or friends. Enjoy! #BarillaUS #BarillaTogetherness #pastagirldinner ♬ original sound - Cara Harbstreet, Dietitian

I am committed to ensuring my continued compliance” with the FTC guidelines, Harbstreet wrote in an emailed statement.

Other influencers who received warnings from the FTC, however, continued to post content with limited disclosures.

Idrees Mughal, a physician with 2 million followers across TikTok and Instagram — known online as Dr. Idz — began hearing from his followers in the days after he received the FTC’s warning letter.

One person commented: “Is it true you were paid by the american beverage association to make those posts about the safety of aspartame? Always enjoyed your content but honestly I’m pretty shocked that you would not disclose that to your audience.”

“Everything is disclosed,” Mughal wrote in a response on Instagram. “Using your eyes wouldn’t hurt.”

But Mughal was referring to text alongside the video. The post didn’t include a visual or verbal disclosure within the video itself, which the FTC called for in its warning letters.

Mughal subsequently deleted the video.

Days later, he posted a video for a new soda industry-sponsored campaign defending artificial sweeteners. The message was sponsored by the British Soft Drinks Association. “There have been many fear mongering headlines recently designed to instill fear and concern,” he said of news reports about health effects from the sugar substitutes.

Mughal named the trade group in the description of his post on Instagram, and included its social media handle, @BSDA, at the beginning of the caption of his TikTok video.

Neither post, however, included a visual or audible disclosure within the video itself. Mughal didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Weeks after receiving a letter from the FTC, another influencer, Adam Pecoraro, posted TikTok videos on November 21 and 28 under his handle @thefitadam promoting magnesium and a greens powder from the sports supplement company Legion. Pecoraro tagged the company and included a personal discount code in his posts, but otherwise did not include the types of sponsorship disclosure called for by the FTC.

Pecoraro did not respond to requests for comment.

Influencer marketing professionals said that companies remain uncertain about their obligations under the FTC’s new approach.

Wright, the Alexandria advertising lawyer, said he believes the FTC’s crackdown went too far and “could be used to chill First Amendment protected speech.” The FTC said the speech at issue is “very clearly commercial speech,” according to a spokesman.

Ali Fazal, the vice president of marketing for GRIN, an online platform that helps companies manage influencer advertising campaigns, said the agency’s request for multiple types of disclosures left some brands confused.

“It is something that people are trying to figure out how to navigate,” Fazal said.

This report is part of a joint investigation by The Examination and The Washington Post.

The Examination

Sasha Chavkin

Sasha Chavkin is a senior reporter for The Examination.

The Examination

Caitlin Gilbert

Caitlin Gilbert is a Well+Being data reporter at The Washington Post.

The Examination

Anjali Tsui

Anjali Tsui is an engagement editor and senior reporter for The Examination.