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We’ve become numb to one of the biggest drivers of obesity

A new study shows how sports leagues like the NFL fan the childhood obesity epidemic.

NFL player T.J. Ward wears Frosted Flakes socks at practice August 25, 2015.
Denver Post via Getty Images

There’s a reason sports heroes like Michael Jordan have been appearing on cereal boxes for decades. Food and beverage companies have learned that spending billions of dollars on marketing targeted at kids as young as 2 can sway the food choices they make for a lifetime. Yet we have become numb to this advertising because it’s all around us — and it’s a major and often ignored driver of the obesity epidemic.

New research in the journal Pediatrics reveals the precise role America’s beloved sports leagues play in this marketing blitz. The first study to quantify food marketing to children through professional sports organizations in the US, it casts these leagues in a new light: as key peddlers of junk food to children.

The paper, led by researchers at New York University, focused on sports sponsorships — or the money food and non-alcoholic beverage companies pay teams to use their logos, brands, and products in sports venues and advertisements. The researchers found that major sports leagues like the NFL and NBA have millions of young viewers (about 412 million under the age of 17 per year, to be exact). And that food and non-alcoholic beverage companies — including McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Mars, Kraft Heinz, and Kellogg — were the second-largest category of sponsors to these leagues, after only the auto industry.

The food sponsorships are ubiquitous — appearing in the names of playing fields and the socks players wear on those fields (see photos above and below). What’s more, the vast majority of the snacks and drinks featured through these sponsorships is overwhelmingly unhealthy.

The takeaway is this: The millions of kids who follow sports leagues are being saturated with messages about junk food, from Doritos to Skittles to soda. “[Children] see these pro athletes at the pinnacle of physical fitness — then cut to a commercial and see sponsorship for chips and sugary drinks,” said Marie Bragg, assistant professor of population health at NYU School of Medicine and the study’s lead author, in a statement. “At [best], it’s an ironic paradox. At worst, it could lead kids to think these products are healthier than they are.”

The junk food saturation is especially pervasive for football fans. Of the 10 leagues most watched by youth, the NFL carried the most food and beverage sponsorships, followed by the NHL and Little League, the researchers found.

“There is overwhelming evidence that kids eat more when they see food ads compared to when they see non-food ads,” Bragg added. “[Our] study shows us, in addition to the more generic food ads that young people are seeing on TV, they are also getting a heavy dose of these ads through sports sponsorships. And the association with sports may be especially problematic — it fuses this healthy activity with this really unhealthy message.”

76 percent of the foods shown through sports sponsorships were unhealthy

A PepsiCola sign at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Food companies have a major presence at America’s sports venues.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The rate of obesity in children and adolescents has risen tenfold globally in the past 40 years. Of the 20 largest countries in the world, the US had the highest rate of childhood obesity, at 13 percent. One of the well-appreciated contributors to childhood obesity globally is food marketing.

A 2006 report by the Institute of Medicine reviewed dozens of studies on the impact of food marketing to kids and determined there’s a link between the rise in childhood obesity and the ubiquity of junk food ads targeted at young people, as I’ve reported with Eliza Barclay.

In 2014, according to the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, food companies spent $1.28 billion on snack food ads — and nearly 60 percent of that advertising promoted sweet and savory snacks, while just 11 percent promoted fruit and nut snacks. This problem has been growing worse over the years. According to Rudd, ads for snacks increased 15 percent, even between 2010 and 2014:

Javier Zarracina/Vox

The global sports sponsorship business is even larger. In 2015, the new study found, sports sponsorships totaled $57.5 billion worldwide. To find out how food and drink companies were investing this money, the researchers compiled a list of all the sponsors of the 10 most-watched sports organizations among children and youth, and identified all the products shown in sponsorship ads. They then rated the products for their healthfulness, using the Nutrient Profile Index, a scoring system used in the UK and Australia that evaluates foods’ nutrition value.

Seventy-six percent of the foods shown through sponsorships — such as Snickers bars, Doritos chips, and chocolate and Frosted Flake cereals — were deemed unhealthy (or, more specifically, “energy-dense, nutrient-poor products”). More than half of the beverages being marketed were sugar-sweetened — most commonly, full-calorie soda, followed by diet soda and sports drinks. In contrast, ads for plain water were only featured six times among the 273 advertisements in the sample the researchers examined.

The US is lagging in the global crackdown on food marketing to kids

Justin Timberlake performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show of Super Bowl 52 on February 4, 2018.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Food companies invest money in ads targeted at kids because they work, said Scott Kahan, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness and a faculty member at both Johns Hopkins and George Washington University, who was not involved in the study.

“There are data showing that when kids see a given food that is branded with a character or a superhero or a sports hero, they eat more of it than they would if it didn’t have branding or marketing, and they say it tastes better,” Kahan added. “[Marketing] strongly impacts kids’ assessment of food, kids’ desire for food, and ultimately creates potentially lifelong preferences for given foods and given brands.”

This is why groups like the World Health Organization have long suggested stricter regulations on food ads targeted at kids. And it’s why many countries, from Chile to Ireland to Norway, have followed those recommendations, cracking down on food companies’ abilities to reach kids through bans and restrictions on advertising and marketing.

American lawmakers have moved more slowly on this front. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act mandated that schools stop marketing and selling the fat-, sugar-, and salt-laden snacks — the sugary beverages, the candy — in cafeterias and vending machines, and that they replace those offerings with lower-calorie and more nutritious alternatives like fruit cups and granola bars.

“But other than the limits on junk food sales in marketing in schools as a result of [the act],” Margo Wootan, a longtime nutrition advocate and director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told me, “we as a country have been relying on companies to do the right thing and self-regulate to address this important issue of food marketing to kids.”

In 2011, an Obama administration effort to pass voluntary guidelines that would have curtailed the food industry’s ability to peddle to kids failed in the face of fierce food industry opposition. And there’s no sign of an imminent crackdown now, either. The Trump administration has said childhood obesity is not a priority. It’s also repeatedly signaled a desire to back off from the issue, including relaxing school lunch regulations that were targeted at making the food in schools more nutritious.

Sports junk food ads create unhealthy associations

Sporting events are synonymous withs sugary products like chewing gum and Gatorade.
Getty Images

It may seem ironic that sports are now synonymous with junk foods, but Bragg views it as part of the food industry’s campaign to change how we view their products (even though the preponderance of evidence suggests what you eat matters much more than how much you exercise when it comes to weight).

Food companies have for decades put out messages — and sponsored science — suggesting that it’s okay to eat junk food as long as you burn it off with exercise. Ads during sports games reinforce that misleading message.

“Sport sponsorship is useful to the food industry, not just in the context of direct marketing but also to help thwart legislative efforts to rein them in as tying themselves to healthy behaviors,” said obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff, “and pointing to their sponsorship of youth sports directly, allows them to make a case that without their dollars, youth sports would not survive.”

Interestingly, many big food companies — including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Kraft Heinz — have signed on to a voluntary pledge through the Council of Better Business Bureaus to reduce unhealthy marketing to kids under 12 via media with an audience of at least 35 percent children. “But when they sponsor organizations like these, and there are 412 million kids watching each year, this allows them to circumvent the spirit of the pledge,” Bragg said.

“While people are sitting watching sports, they are being bombarded by foods that are going to undermine their health, and that just doesn’t seem right,” Wootan added. The CSPI and the authors of the new study would like to see sports organizations, whose audience include so many young people, adopt policies promising to avoid marketing junk food to children.

Bragg pointed out that there was a time when professional athletes would endorse smoking — a practice that died when consumers and policymakers got fired up enough to stop it. “As a society, we have to wake up and think about the message we are sending to kids, and adults, about what it means to be physically fit and healthy,” she added. “And sending these unhealthy diet messages is not the right way to reverse the obesity epidemic.”