Should elite athletes be pushing fast food and sugary drinks?
You don’t need to look hard to find a food or beverage company sponsoring a sporting event, sports star, or player of the day at Saturday morning sport. Public health groups say it’s time we regulated sponsorship so Kiwi children aren’t misled about making healthy food choices.
Powerade, with 11 teaspoons of sugar in a 750ml bottle, is the official sports drink of the Olympics. There’s even a limited edition Rio Gold flavour. You can find Olympic rower Mahe Drysdale quenching his thirst with it on the Powerade website. Along with Drysdale, NBA player Steven Adams and Black Caps captain Kane Williamson are Powerade ambassadors and the sugary drink also lists the Black Caps and Silver Ferns as its sporting partners.
Earlier this year, the New Zealand Rugby Union ended its 21-year relationship with Powerade – owned by Coca-Cola – to switch to Gatorade. Pepsi-owned Gatorade has 15 teaspoons of sugar in a one litre bottle. As the All Blacks drink of choice they are in elite company. A TV ad welcoming the All Blacks to the Gatorade team features global sporting figures such as Usain Bolt and Lionel Messi.
Lots of young Kiwis have a favourite Super Rugby team. But whether it’s the Highlanders, Hurricanes or Crusaders, KFC has it covered. KFC is a sponsor of Super Rugby teams – it even has a dedicated “forthefans” website where you can post a photo from the game, win prizes by entering a code on your KFC receipt, and listen to your team’s favourite tunes on KFC radio. There are ads showing rugby players making creations out of KFC buckets or happy fans ending their “Super” evening at one of its fast food restaurants.
Burger King hooks up with the big hitters. This year it sponsored boxer Joseph Parker’s “road to the title” and after one of his big wins Burger King sold $2 Whoppers for a limited time. Burger King also has ties to basketball, rugby league, motor cross, and taekwondo.
McDonald’s is an official Olympic partner, so expect to see Olympic-branded marketing during the Rio games. McDonald’s also sponsors many community-level sporting teams and events. Across New Zealand, it provides player-of-the-day certificates that come with a free food voucher, along with a mixture of branded and unbranded water bottles and sports equipment.
On the world stage, we’ve picked up the bronze medal when it comes to childhood obesity. Young New Zealanders are the third most overweight and obese children in the OECD. The 2014/15 New Zealand Health Survey found 22 percent of children aged between two- to 14-years-old were overweight. A further 11 percent were obese. Maori and Pacific children, as well as children from areas of high deprivation, have even higher obesity rates.
Being overweight can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and social and mental health issues.
Then there’s tooth decay. More than 40 percent of Kiwi kids have experienced tooth decay by the time they are five, and treatment for dental decay is one of the leading causes of avoidable hospital admissions for children under 14-years-old.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says there is unequivocal evidence the marketing of unhealthy food and drink is linked to obesity.
In 2010, the WHO published recommendations on the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children. It called for governments worldwide to put in place policies to promote responsible marketing. One recommendation is areas where children gather should be free of any marketing of unhealthy foods. These places include (but aren’t limited to) schools, playgrounds, family and child clinics.
Sponsorship of sport by companies selling unhealthy food and drinks has public health experts and organisations concerned.
A US study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2013 looked at the brands promoted by 100 elite athletes including LeBron James and Serena Williams. It found 79 percent of the food products were energy dense and nutrient poor, and more than 90 percent of the drinks had 100 percent of the kilojoules from sugar. Sports drinks were the largest category, followed by soft drinks and fast food. The study authors concluded the promotion of these products by elite athletes sends mixed messages about diet and health, and countries should consider policies to restrict food ads featuring professional athletes in youth-targeted media.
A New Zealand study “Food, fizzy and football” published in 2013 looked at 308 websites of national and regional New Zealand sporting organisations to identify food and beverage sponsors. Seventy-four websites had food or beverage sponsors, and 10 of the 36 food companies on these websites were classified as producing unhealthy food.
Otago University Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit deputy director Dr Moira Smith said children seeing their sports heroes promoting foods high in sugar and fat influenced them. “Sports heroes and teams are important role models for children and this type of sponsorship is sending mixed messages. In recent research, we found drinks children associated with sport were overwhelmingly inconsistent with nutrition guidelines,” she said.
Dr Smith said parents felt frustrated by the messages their children were receiving. “Many parents told us the messages being sent by the sports environment contradicted the healthy image of sport and the messages they were getting at school and at home.” But she said parents did welcome the association between athletes and healthy choices – such as Weet-Bix and the All Blacks.
Nelson Marlborough District Health Board principal dental officer Dr Rob Beaglehole believes it’s morally and ethically wrong for sports teams and players to promote unhealthy products. “It normalises these products and kids think it’s OK to drink these drinks because their sporting heroes do,” he said.
New Zealand Rugby Players Association chief executive Rob Nichol said rugby players are contracted to an organisation. As part of that contract they agree to a certain amount of sponsorship activities. “When working with a company that promotes fast food or controversial products ... we try to encourage brand association, rather than a direct product association. Athletes appear in groups of three or more, so they appear as a team rather than individuals, and we’re careful how they feature – ideally you won’t see a rugby player eating or holding fast food in an ad,” he said. Players can ask not to be involved with a particular company on family, ethical or religious grounds but Mr Nichol said this isn’t done very often.
Former All Black and Kiwi league player Marc Ellis said as a player there’s pressure to toe the company line and front for unhealthy products. “It’s the easy option, especially for young players. But sportspeople should consider how they brand themselves and which companies they associate with.”
Some sportspeople promote healthy choices. For example, former Silver Fern Irene van Dyk is the New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) “Switch to water” ambassador. NZDA oral health educator, Dr Deepa Hughes said Irene was a fantastic role model. “Irene really believes in the message and would tell the kids she got where she was by just drinking water – she didn’t need any other drinks,” Dr Hughes said.
Silver Fern Maria Tutaia promotes Wattie’s Steamed Vegetables as a quick healthy option, All Black Ben Smith “jumps out” of a porridge packet in the Harraways ad to encourage kids to eat their oats. Anchor milk is also getting behind athletics Olympians such as Eliza McCartney and Tom Walsh.
The main argument for sponsorship is that it provides necessary funding. Sport New Zealand chief executive Peter Miskimmin said sport provides a community good and to remain sustainable it requires financial backing. Society’s views can change over time and sports organisations need to be mindful they reflect that when they make decisions about how they run their club, Mr Miskimmin said. Sport New Zealand advises organisations to carefully consider which partnerships are right for them and their community.
But Julian Moore, an Australian and New Zealand sponsorship consultant, believes there’s no place for unhealthy food marketing in the sports arena. “In my opinion, the money argument doesn’t fly. There will always be other companies keen to step in and we’re already seeing this with telecommunication companies, insurance companies and banks,” he said. Mr Moore said he works with fast food companies but he would never place them in sports or youth engagement.
Mr Moore said you also need to consider why companies get involved with sponsorship. Companies may claim sponsorship is to support the community but their main aim is getting their brand perceived favourably by children to build life-long relationships. “Sponsorship is an ‘early customer catcher’,” he said.
Last year, the Ministry of Health released its Childhood Obesity Plan. The plan acknowledged restrictions on the marketing, advertising and sponsorship of low-nutrient, high-energy foods and beverages has a role to play in preventing obesity and identified sponsorship of sport as a particular concern.
The industry is mainly self-regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which develops voluntary codes of practice and hears complaints about ads. All ads for food and beverages that influence children should adhere to the ASA’s Children’s Code for Advertising Food and its Code for Advertising to Children.
The Children’s Code for Advertising Food says food ads shouldn’t undermine the food and nutrition policies of the Ministry of Health or the health and wellbeing of children. The code has guidelines for promoting competitions and using characters or people well-known to children. But there are no guidelines relating to sponsorship.
As part of the Childhood Obesity Plan, the ASA is reviewing the two codes. One of the questions asked at the submission stage was whether there should be a specific guideline regarding sponsorship.
Consumer NZ and many public health organisations are advocating for change. Agencies for Nutrition Action (ANA) executive director Siobhan Molloy said we can no longer be complacent. “The marketing of unhealthy food and beverages, which includes sponsorship, does impact on what children choose to eat and drink,” she said.
There is agreement between public health and medical experts that regulating unhealthy marketing to children is a top priority. Some public health groups said the ASA’s advertising codes should be extended to cover sports grounds, sporting clubs and any public space where sports activities occur that are visited by children.
Rob Nichol said it would be helpful from a player’s perspective if there were regulations around how heroes of the young can or cannot be associated with fast foods and sugary drinks.
Groups don’t want to do away with all sponsorship and marketing. One suggestion is using nutrient profiling criteria to determine whether a food can be marketed to children. One option is using the Food and Beverage Classification System, which is already being used in schools and early childhood centres. This identifies food as “everyday” or “sometimes” foods.
There’s also concern a self-regulatory system is problematic and doesn’t adequately protect children. ANA and the Heart Foundation favour a co-regulatory system with government input and independent pre-vetting, monitoring and evaluation.
The ASA has reviewed all submissions and identified major issues. But no date has been set for reporting on the recommendations.
Consumers International is collecting examples of the UEFA EURO 2016, the Olympics and their players and athletes being used to advertise food and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar. Anyone who sees an example is encouraged to share it on social media using the hashtag #junkfoodgames.
The Coca-Cola Company said it doesn’t market any products directly to children under 12 and it has a responsible marketing policy. It said Powerade is a natural fit with the Olympics as sports drinks are for adults undertaking regular, prolonged or intense exercise.
Frucor New Zealand, which markets some Pepsi Co brands, said Gatorade is a product for active adult sportspeople and it does not directly advertise Gatorade to children. It said the partnership between NZ Rugby and Gatorade came about because Gatorade is a “scientifically-proven sports drink" that replaces electrolytes lost during intense physical activity. Frucor supports the ASA review and is participating in the process.
McDonald’s said it won’t be using athletes in its Olympic advertising – it’s “more about families watching the games and getting behind the New Zealand team”. Its sponsorship of junior football is about providing equipment such as balls, bibs, cones and coaching resources. Its player-of-the-day certificates have the choice of a grilled chicken snack wrap, cheeseburger or a donation to Ronald McDonald House charities.
Restaurant Brands, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Carl’s Jr, said it supports sporting events and teams to help promote an active lifestyle and be part of a fun atmosphere. It doesn’t try to pretend there is any connection between its products and the diets or success of the players. Its policy is not to advertise or market products directly to children.
We asked a class of 38 Year Seven children (11- to 12-year-olds) about what they knew and thought about the sponsorship of sport by food and drink companies. We wanted to know what food and drinks they associated with different sports; what ads they knew that had sports links; and what athletes or teams they associated with different products.
More than three-quarters of the children associated rugby with Powerade or Gatorade, followed by Weet-Bix, then KFC. It was a similar story with rugby league – Powerade, Gatorade and KFC got the most mentions. About half the kids associated Burger King with boxing – followed by KFC, Powerade and Carl’s Junior.
Nearly half the class linked soccer to McDonald’s – a few kids also mentioned Milo and Powerade. The cricket responses were dominated by Gatorade (eight kids) and KFC (six kids).
Netball got the healthiest mentions – Wattie’s veges, Anchor Milk, Up & Go and water all got airtime. Wattie’s veges were mentioned by 12 children.
Food or drink ads
Rugby reigns supreme when it comes to food and drink ads. Weet-Bix ads featuring All Blacks were the ads mentioned most often by the class, followed by Powerade and the All Blacks, then KFC and rugby or rugby league. About a third of the class mentioned Joseph Parker and Burger King.
We showed the class three TV ads: KFC “for the fans”; Gatorade “welcome to the All Blacks”; and Wattie’s Steamed Vegetables with Silver Fern Maria Tutaia. The majority of the children said Maria was a good choice for Wattie’s to use in its ad because vegetables are a healthy option.
Most kids thought it was OK for Gatorade to use sportspeople in its ads because Gatorade “gives you energy”, “you need energy before and after sports games”, and it “hydrates players”. A few kids said they’d drink it because famous sports teams use it.
There was a mixed response when it came to the KFC ad. Some children thought it was OK for KFC to sponsor Super Rugby because KFC puts money towards the teams. But others said it wasn’t OK because it’s an unhealthy product and some people might think it’s healthy because it sponsors a sports team.
We also asked the class about player-of-the day certificates sponsored by food companies. Ten children said it was important to get the food voucher and 28 said it was more important to be recognised as player-of-the-day.