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Rio 2016: how British athletes are challenging the Olympic tradition of junk food peddling

The Olympics have been called a "carnival of junk food marketing" for good reason.

Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Kellogg’s are all official Olympics sponsors as well as sponsors of teams like Team USA and Team Great Britain. And when we see ads from them and other food companies during the Olympics, they’re likely to showcase less healthy items, according to the nonprofit Children’s Food Campaign.

But there’s one food company that’s going against the grain. In August 2015, the German-owned discount food grocer Aldi became the first supermarket sponsor of Team Great Britain. And instead of featuring soda or cookies in its adverts in the UK, Aldi has been highlighting fresh, local fruits and vegetables:

Aldi is the official supermarket partner to Team Great Britain. Its advert "Championing Great Britain" almost exclusively features fresh fruit and vegetables.

They also promoted their Olympic support by recreating the Rio skyline using 30 different types of fruits and vegetables:

The Rio skyline, in fruits and vegetables, by Aldi.

According to the magazine Horticulture Week, this sponsorship has paid off: Shoppers spent more than £289 million, or $375 million, on fruits and vegetables at Aldi’s UK stores between May and July — a 19 percent increase from last year. (Aldi has several hundred stores in the US, and thousands more around the world, but only consumers in the UK will see the new ads.)

And that’s not all. Aldi is also supporting Team GB’s healthy eating and cooking education program, Get Set to Eat Fresh. Taking a page from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's book, Aldi has created special programs to teach children how to cook fresh foods at 25,000 British schools.

Big Food companies have a long history of aligning themselves with sports

Part of the reason Aldi’s sponsorship is so notable is that the Olympics have such a long history of promoting — and profiting from — less healthy foods. According to the marketing magazine Campaign, in 2012 McDonald’s, which has sponsored the Olympics since 1976, paid $98 million to extend its Olympic partnership until 2020. Coke, meanwhile, doles out $43 million for every four-year Olympic cycle.

Big Food companies pay big money to get celebrities and athletes to peddle their wares for good reason: It seems to work. According to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, food and drink campaigns were among the second most popular products celebrities endorsed (after consumer goods like perfume and makeup).

By aligning with sports specifically, food companies are trying to send the message that it’s possible to outrun calories taken in from junk food. But that message is misleading — it’s actually really difficult to burn off extra calories through physical activity.

For years, nutrition experts have been calling for an end to junk food sponsorship at the games. As nutrition and food policy researcher Marion Nestle told Vox, when she was appointed to the Olympics' nutrition advisory committee in the 1990s, and visited an Olympic training camp, she was "shocked" by how poorly the athletes were fed, and how omnipresent junk food and soda sponsors seemed to be.

"This seemed consistent with the wink-wink philosophy about doping — do whatever it takes to win now and worry about what happens later, later," Nestle said in an email. "Team GB seems to be taking both issues seriously and cheers for them."

Aldi could be a signal that times are changing

Aldi’s Team GB campaign could be a sign that consumers are ready for more fruit and vegetable advertising. Other groups have already been using famous faces to peddle healthier foods. The public-private Partnership for a Healthier America launched the FNV campaign last year with the goal of changing attitudes about fruits and vegetables in the United States.

Since its inception, PHA has signed more than 70 celebrities to pose with luscious-looking produce on posters that are shown in grocery and food stores and at stands. (Think Jessica Alba and Cindy Crawford sucking on citrus fruits, and Cam Newton cuddling with a bunch of carrots.)

According to survey data from PHA, the campaign has garnered hundreds of millions of media impressions. Among those who saw it, 72 percent said they purchased more produce after seeing the campaign, while 71 percent claimed the campaign inspired them to eat more of it.

Like Aldi’s data, this wasn’t collected independently, so it’s hard to know how well this approach will work over the long term. But if we all one day see more blueberries and tomatoes being promoted at the games, and fewer sugary sodas and candy bars, that would be good news.

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