Ex-director accuses American Diabetes Association of ‘pay to play’ with sweetener Splenda

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) -A former director of nutrition for the American Diabetes Association (ADA) sued the non-profit organization on Wednesday, accusing it of firing her for objecting to what she called a “pay to play” scheme to promote the no-calorie sweetener Splenda.

Elizabeth Hanna said the ADA “sold the good name of the organization” to sponsors like Splenda maker Heartland Food Products Group, “in violation of its own guidelines and standards of care on nutrition,” in a lawsuit filed in state court in Bergen County, New Jersey.

Hanna specifically accused ADA Vice President Nicole Johnson of engaging in an “intentional and targeted campaign” of retaliation.

“The American Diabetes Association and Ms. Johnson deny all allegations put forth by Ms. Hanna and her lawyers, and we will respond further to Ms. Hanna’s unfounded allegations in court at the appropriate time,” a spokesperson for the ADA said in an email.

Heartland, which is not a defendant in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The ADA describes its mission as educating the public about diabetes and lists several corporate sponsors, including Splenda, on its website. In its 2022 annual report, the ADA said Splenda was one of a group of “elite” supporters that had given more than $1 million, along with Bayer Healthcare, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Helmsley Charitable Trust and others.

On its website, Splenda publishes “diabetes-friendly recipes,” endorsed by the ADA. Hanna, a registered dietitian nutritionist, said she refused to approve the endorsement of several of these recipes in July.

For example, Hanna said, one of the recipes was a cucumber salad containing 1/3 cup of Splenda sweetener. Hanna said she did not believe this met ADA nutrition guidelines.

“In short, there is no reason (other than taking Splenda’s money) for the ADA to recommend that people with diabetes add massive amounts of Splenda to cucumber salad,” she said.

Hanna said Johnson pressured her to approve the recipes despite her misgivings, prompting Hanna to complain to the ADA’s human resources department. She said that human resources removed Johnson’s ability to review Hanna, but that Johnson continued to complain about her within the organization.

Hanna’s complaint cited recent studies suggesting that artificial sweeteners may cause cancer, elevated blood sugar and even diabetes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states on its website that some studies have found possible health risks associated with the sweeteners, but that more research is needed.

In October, Hanna said, she was fired for pretextual reasons. She is accusing ADA of violating New Jersey law protecting employees from retaliation, and seeking unspecified money damages.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Bill Berkrot)