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Food, fizzy, and football: unhealthy food and drink promoted through sport

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Thursday, 14 February 2013 9:51am

Louise SignalAssociate Professor Louise Signal

Public health researchers from the University of Otago, Wellington (UOW), are concerned that some food and drink companies selling unhealthy food also sponsor popular, televised sports in New Zealand.

The authors reviewed the websites of 308 New Zealand sports organisations covering 58 sports to identify sponsors and conducted 18 interviews with key administrators from national and regional sporting organisations. A quarter of websites had links to sponsors.

Sponsors were classified as healthy or unhealthy using the New Zealand Food and Beverage Classification System nutrient criteria for energy, fat, salt and fibre levels. The study found that a third of food/beverage companies sponsoring sport could be classified as unhealthy.

"Such sponsorship is likely to promote consumption of junk food and dilutes government recommendations promoting healthy eating", says Associate Professor Louise Signal from Otago's Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit.

"McDonalds and Coke are the greatest product sponsors, just like at the London Olympics," Associate Professor Signal noted.

"And one of our most popular sports, rugby, has the unhealthiest sponsorship by far with 23% of brands and logos linked to unhealthy food. In contrast, netball has only 1% linked to unhealthy food.

"Given the recent increase in obesity amongst New Zealand children this is of considerable concern," says Associate Professor Signal.

Currently, 11% of children aged 5-14 are obese, up from 8% in 2006/7, and at least 20% are overweight. The consumption of junk food is a significant contributor to this problem. Obesity is associated with a range of health problems including childhood diabetes, and heart disease, diabetes and cancer in later life.

"Our children deserve to be protected from the pressure to eat junk food while enjoying healthy outdoor activity, and parents need to be supported against pester advertising in their efforts to promote healthy eating to their children," Associate Professor Signal argues.

The study by the Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit at UOW also found that some sponsors continued to target children with additional marketing activities.

This is also developed through access to regional clubs and youth players providing them with product samples, merchandise and vouchers for purchasing more product.

"Counting logos does not capture the extent of marketing in sports and probably underestimates the extent of sponsorship," say the researchers.

"Tactics included the use of 'Player of the Day' certificates for budding All White football players as young as four, and promotion of 'Powerade' by the All Blacks. 'Powerade' is not generally recommended for children," Associate Professor Signal says.

The study found that  healthy food and beverage brands also sponsor sport, with rugby again coming out on top with 21% of logos linked to healthy foods and cricket next highest at 5%.

Increasing such healthy sponsorship is a way to support children eating a healthy diet, say the researchers, and has been shown to have an impact.  High participation rates in sport and increasing recognition of how diet benefits athletic performance suggest sports settings are ideal locations for promoting healthy eating.

All sports administrators identified the main benefit of sponsorship as financial. Although many reported sports organisations felt concerned about associating themselves with unhealthy foods or beverages, others considered sponsorship income more important than what type of food is being promoted.

Recommendations include sports codes requiring members to place a higher priority on health when selecting sponsors, and government regulation and funding to replace unhealthy food sponsorship with healthy sponsorship, just as for tobacco.

The recently created Health Promotion Agency is currently responsible for tobacco sponsorship replacement in sport. It would be a logical step to include replacement of junk food sponsorship in their mandate.

The paper has recently been published in BMC Public Health and is funded by the Health Research Council.

For further information, contact:

Associate Professor Louise Signal
Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
Tel 04 918 6477
Mob 021 0324720
louise.signal@otago.ac.nz

www.otago.ac.nz/wellington

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