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Junk food industry is hijacking sports and children's health

The power of UK sport to influence healthier lifestyles is being undermined by a constant barrage of unhealthy food and drink sponsorship deals and advertising, a new report by the Children’s Food Campaign and Food Active has found.

Credit: RF_studio/pexels

Credit: RF_studio/pexels

Published on 24 November, the report Kicking Out Junk Food: sports sponsorship and a better deal for health documents how 2021’s ‘Summer of Sport’ was used by the food and drink industry to deluge families with marketing, advertising and sports personality-led promotions for pizzas, burgers, chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks.

Researchers also invited parents to share their views and experiences of sports sponsorship by less healthy food and drink brands:

  • 90% said the marketing of junk food through sport made it harder for them to feed their children a healthier diet food.
  • 86% said Government should create new laws to stop partnerships between junk food brands and sport.
  • 9 in 10 also agreed that grassroots sports and physical activities shouldn’t have to rely on food and drink brands for funding

Key sporting events monitored by the research included UEFA’s EURO 2020 tournament, the English Cricket Board’s new The Hundred tournament, the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, and a host of football leagues and cup competitions. Brands named in the report who established deals with sports bodies in order to be associated with sports clubs, tournaments and stars included Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Just Eat, Deliveroo, Cadbury/Mondelez, KP Snacks, Papa John’s Pizza and Carabao energy drinks, amongst others.

However, some sports stars are starting to agree with health campaigners and parents on the health of these partnerships. In one of the most memorable points of the sporting summer, global soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo removed two Coke bottles during a UEFA Euro 2020 press conference, urging fans to drink water instead. In October 2021, Australian cricketer David Warner attempted to repeat this feat, only to be told to replace the bottles on the desk.

In the research with 346 parents across the UK, many voiced serious concerns about the way sports bodies and celebrities associate themselves with junk food brands, rather than acting as role models for healthy eating for children. Parents' comments included:

“My son asked to buy crisps at the weekend because it had a Euro Football competition on the pack.”

“It was encouraging to see Ronaldo remove Coca-Cola bottles at a press conference and say 'drink water' and I hope that more sportsmen and women will use their platforms to take a stand in this way.”

Download the full Kicking Out Junk Food: sports sponsorship and a better deal for health report.

The report’s authors are calling on Government and the sports industry to take action to kick junk food advertising out of sport including:

Government to include sports sponsorship in all future healthier advertising and marketing regulations for food and drink.

Sports associations to refuse all further sponsorship deals that include marketing less healthy food or drink brands

High profile athletes and sports personalities to use their influence to support healthy food programmes and refuse to work with less healthy brands.

Barbara Crowther, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, says:

“Children should be free to play or watch sport without being deluged with advertising for crisps, chocolate, pizzas and burgers. Parents feel very strongly that their children get very mixed messages, and it’s shocking to see the scale and range of tactics being played by the junk food industry in sportswashing unhealthy food and drink. It’s clear that voluntary agreements with the food and drink industry about responsible partnerships with sport are utterly failing, and perhaps it’s time for the Government to step onto the field and show junk food advertising in sport the red card.”

Report co-author Beth Bradshaw of Food Active,  a programme run by the Health Equalities Group, says:

“We hope the Government takes note of this important collection of case studies and voices from parents across the UK, clearly showcasing how integrated junk food has become in watching, following and participating in sport. Parents are acutely aware of the impact that these marketing tactics are having on children’s food preferences and brand awareness, and the difficulties they present especially in light of the difficulties some already face in feeding their child/ren well. What was clear from the parents we spoke to is they are sympathetic to the need for funding sport and physical activity at grassroots and junior levels but believe that current dependency on less healthy food and drink advertising for these revenues is unacceptable – and we wholeheartedly agree.”

Jacob Rosenberg, 17, a Youth Board Member with health campaign Bite Back 2030 has contributed a viewpoint to the report, following their #PacketIncampaign calling on the England and Wales Cricket Board to end the relationship with KP snacks which saw elite players during The Hundred wearing kits branded with different crisp, nuts and snacking products. In the report, Jacob says:

“Sports creates heroes and role models that young people look up to and trust. Athletes and teams should be looking to use their influence for good and put child health in the spotlight and it saddens me that they choose not to.”

Case studies collected over the summer found a plethora of marketing techniques utilised by less healthy food and drinks brands, including street-level advertising; shirt and sleeve sponsorship; social media and app-based promotions; the use of sports personalities, and discounted matchday food bundles at retail outlets and through online food delivery platforms.

When parents were asked what effect marketing of less healthy food and drink through sport has on children, the top three impacts were cited as: ‘pestering their parents for less healthy food and drink’ (81%), followed by ‘preferring the brands linked with their favourite team or player’ (78%) and ‘thinking it is okay to eat less healthy food and drink’ (77%).

Read more findings from the Parents' Jury in the full Kicking Out Junk Food report.

This is particularly concerning given the recent National Child Measurement Programme results indicating a significant increase in levels of obesity in primary school aged children over the Covid-19 lockdown.

The Kicking Out Junk Food report is released as the Government is set to implement new legislation on healthier food marketing via the Health and Social Care Bill currently being debated in Parliament. As well as a 9pm watershed and total online restriction for a selected range of less healthy food and drink products, it is also introducing legislation to limit retail multibuy price and in-store display promotions. However, brand level advertising and many other tactics used in sports sponsorship marketing falls out of scope of these plans.

 

Support for Kicking Out Junk Food report

Caroline Cerny, Alliance Lead at the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of 50 health organisations, said:

“Sports sponsorship is a highly effective way for food companies to ensure their unhealthy products are centre stage in children’s minds. As the Government brings in tough new rules to protect children from junk food adverts on TV and online, we are concerned that much of this marketing will now flood into sports sponsorship, undermining the positive message about physical activity that sport gives children."

 

British Dental Association Chair Eddie Crouch said:

“The junk food industry’s fingerprints are found in every corner of professional sport.

“Our children’s sporting heroes have free rein to flog products that would never get past their team nutritionists. Until Ministers show they are willing to step up and draw a line, health professionals will keep counting the cost in rotten teeth and expanding waistlines.”

 

Dr Kawther Hashem, Campaign Lead at Action on Sugar and Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London says:

"It's absurd that UK sport, which should encourage healthier lifestyles is being compromised by certain irresponsible brands who are peddling their unhealthy products at vulnerable young children who watch these top events. Whilst we welcomed the recent news on restricting advertisement of products high in fat, salt and sugar online and before 9pm on TV, more must be done with regards to restricting sponsorship of unhealthy products if we are to truly create a healthy environment for future generations."

 

Notes to editors:

The full report Kicking Out Junk Food including all data and graphs can be downloaded from www.sustainweb.org/publications/nov21-kicking-out-junk-food/

The research was carried out online with 346 parents from mid-June to mid-September 2021. Participants were recruited via newsletters, social media and partner organisations. The full survey findings can be downloaded from https://www.sustainweb.org/secure/Kicking-Out-Junk-Food-Parents-Jury-Appendix.pdf

For media interviews or further details, contact Barbara Crowther barbara@sustainweb.org or press@sustainweb.org

Published 24 Nov 2021

Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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