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Big American sports leagues are pushing junk food on kids

By: Jennifer Kaplan Bloomberg
April 10, 2018 Updated: April 10, 2018 at 4:20 am
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A Coca-Cola ad featuring gold medalist Liu Xiang and other Chinese athletes was on display all around Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. MUST CREDIT: Bernardo De Niz/Bloomberg News

Kids and teens are seeing a lot of junk food ads while they're watching sports, potentially creating a link between athletic feats and unhealthy fare, says a study.

Most advertisements during the 10 sporting events most watched by viewers ages 2 to 17 featured unhealthy products, according to research published recently in the journal Pediatrics.

"The idea that we would watch these really physically fit athletes perform these amazing physical feats and then go to a commercial break and see ads for chips and fried chicken and sugary beverages - the contradiction in there was just so striking to me that we wanted to get a sense of really what does the landscape actually look like," said lead researcher Marie Bragg, an assistant health professor at the New York University School of Medicine.

Sports featuring athletes at the height of their physical prowess, accompanied by commercial breaks pushing junk food (sometimes by the best athletes) inspired Bragg to dig into the topic.

In the study, "Sports Sponsorships of Food and Nonalcoholic Beverages," the researchers evaluated the quality of foods and drinks using the Nutrient Profile Model, which identifies products that can be advertised to children in Britain and Australia. The study used Nielsen audience data for televised sports events in 2015.

PepsiCo agreed in 2011 to pay $90 million per year during a 10-year sponsorship renewal with the National Football League, reports the study, and Coca-Cola and McDonald's spent about $20 million each to sponsor the Olympics. The ads may send confusing signals to anyone watching sports, Bragg said.

The next research step will be to determine whether kids eat more of the unhealthy products if they're featured in ads during sporting events.

"It sort of sends the message to people that physical fitness is important, or sports is part of this country's landscape, and that junk food fits right in there," Bragg said. "That mixed message, I think, is problematic for diseases like obesity and diabetes, especially among young people who are watching these programs."

Chips and soft drinks long have been standards in sports advertising. But the companies behind those brands increasingly have come under fire for the nutritional properties of their products and the impact of advertising them to children.

Eighteen companies, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald's and General Mills, have signed a pledge as part of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative to refrain from pushing unhealthy products to children younger than 12. Ten of those companies are sponsors of at least one sports organization, according to the study.

The NFL didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Sports leagues have acknowledged their sway over kids by creating programs such as the NFL's Play 60 program, through which the league has committed more than $350 million to youth health and fitness programming. Other leagues have done the same. And the costly nature of sports sponsorships show that companies believe the ads are worth it.

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