Professional athletes may
be known for their fitness, but the foods they endorse are usually less than
healthy, a new study finds.
The study found that food
and beverages promoted by the likes of Peyton Manning and Serena Williams are
most often high in calories and devoid of nutrients. Of 62 food products
athletes endorsed in 2010, 79% fell into the junk food category. And nearly all
athlete-promoted beverages got 100% of their calories from sugar.
Experts said the findings,
reported online and in the print issue of Paediatrics,
are not startling.
But they are concerning, in
part because athletes are paragons of fitness, said Dr Michael Rich, a paediatrician
and director of the Centre on Media and Child Health, in Boston.
"There's an implicit
message that the athletes actually use these products, and that (the products)
are healthy," said Rich, who did not work on the study.
Linking an athlete to a
food or drink "could lend it a health halo," agreed Marie Bragg, the
lead researcher on the study and a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University in New
The finding that athletes
endorse nutritionally suspect foods is no surprise, according to Bragg. "I
think everyone has the sense that this is what's happening, just based on what
we see," she said.
But, she added, this study
actually examined the nutritional content of athlete-endorsed foods, and looked
at the marketing reach of those ads.
"You see them
everywhere – TV, newspapers, magazines, the Internet," Bragg said. And
based on Nielsen data, her team found, teenagers see those TV ads more often
than adults do.
That's troubling, Bragg
said, because teenagers often idolise sports stars.
And, Rich added, "kids
are much more likely to see TV ads than to read nutrition labels on
For the study, Bragg's team
looked at data on athlete endorsements during 2010. Of 512 brands hawked by 100
athletes, 24% were for food and beverages – including McDonald's, Burger King,
Oreos, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Red Bull.
LeBron James of the Miami
Heat (National Basketball Association), Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos
(National Football League) and tennis star Serena Williams were the
"highest contributors to the marketing of unhealthy foods," Bragg's
Perhaps not surprisingly,
athletes most commonly promoted sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade. But
the researchers considered any drink that gets 100% of its calories from sugar
as unhealthy – and sports beverages fall into that category.
"Sports drinks are
basically soda," Rich said. But consumers, particularly kids, may view
them as health foods, he noted.
The American Beverage
Association, which represents the industry, said its members have been careful
to avoid targeting young children.
"This study, in fact,
reaffirms that children younger than 12 are not the age group primarily viewing
food- and beverage-related advertisements that include professional
athletes," the group said in a statement. "Our industry offers
consumers a variety of choices to help make informed decisions and we respect
parents' roles as the primary decision makers in choosing what their children
Rich agreed, saying parents
need to be savvy consumers and teach their kids to do the same. He suggested
that when an athlete endorsement pops up on your TV screen, talk to your kids
about it. "Let them know, just because Peyton Manning is sitting by a jug
of Gatorade, that doesn't mean Gatorade made him what he is today," Rich
Bragg agreed, but
"just being aware isn't enough," she added.
Parents should be vocal
would stop promoting unhealthy foods," Bragg said. And if parents are
really concerned, she noted, they could "find ways to be vocal about
it" – such as supporting nutrition advocacy groups.
What this study cannot say
is whether kids, or adults, actually eat more junk food because of athletes'
endorsements. Both Rich and Bragg pointed to the millions of dollars that companies
are willing to pay athletes: NBA star Kobe Bryant earned an estimated $12
million per year from his contract with McDonald's, Bragg's team wrote.
"If companies are
investing that much," Bragg said, "I think it's safe to assume
there's a reason."
The American Psychological
Association has more on food
ads and child health.