Eighty percent of the food products endorsed by professional athletes are energy-dense and nutrient poor, and an astounding 93.4% of the beverages they advertised received all their calories from added sugar, finds an important new study. 
The three professional athletes with the most food/beverage endorsements, Denver Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning (Gatorade, Wheaties Fuel Cereal, Nabisco, Pepsi-Cola), the Miami Heat's LeBron James (Sprite, Glaceau Vitaminwater, McDonald's, Powerade), and tennis star Serena Wiliams (Kraft Oreo, Gatorade, Nabisco 100 Calorie Pack Snacks, Got Milk?), were also the highest contributors to the marketing of unhealthy foods targeting adolescents, sports beverages, soft drinks, and fast-food.
Sports beverages comprised the largest category of athlete endorsments, accounting for 39% of the total, followed by soft drinks (21%), and fast food (16%).
Manning appeared in more advertisements for food or beverage products than any other athlete. The study found that adolescents aged 12 to 17 saw an average of 35 food commercials on television with athlete endorsers in 2010, slightly more than adults and children, who saw an average of 32.5 and 21.0 commercials, respectively.
The study was reported in the November 2013 edition of the journal Pediatrics.
"The promotion of energy-dense, nutrient-poor products by some of the world's most physically fit and well-known athletes is an ironic combination that sends mixed messages about diet and health," writes lead author, Marie Bragg, MD, MPhil, of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, and her colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health, Stanford, and Duke.
The study supports calls by the World Health Organization, among others, to limit young people's exposure to food advertisements, for promotion of messages that encourage physical activity and consumption of healthful food and beverages, address the use of professional athletes to market unhealthy foods to children and adolescents, and for professional athletes to use their unique position to use their highly visible status and role as role models to promote healthy messages to youth.
Drawing a parallel to the use by tobacco companies of baseball stars Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig in cigarette advertisements in the early 1900s - a practice which continued until 1964, when the tobacco industry voluntarily agreed not to depict well-known athletes in advertisiements - Bragg and her colleagues suggested that endorsing unhealthy foods and beverages might become a similar liability for athletes.
"Professional athletes have an important opportunity to promote the public's health, particularly for youth, by refusing endorsement contracts that involve promotion of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and beverages," the study concludes. "In addition, countries worldwide should consider policies that would restrict food endorsements featuring professional athletes in youth-targeted media."
Researchers gathered information collected about 100 professional athletes ranked by their popularity and endorsement value. Researchers tracked 512 brands associated with the athletes, with sporting goods or apparel ranking highest at 28.3 percent, food and beverages at 23.8 percent, and consumer goods coming in at 10.9 percent.
An overall nutritional score was calculated for each food and beverage product, with higher scores for less healthful products containing more calories, saturated fat, sugar, or sodium, and lower scores for products containing more healthful nutrients such as fruits/vegetables/nuts, fiber, and protein.
Researchers then used marketing data and nutrition data to create an overall index to reflect the negative impact of each athlete. Assessing the nutritional quality of the foods and beverages featured in athlete-endorsement television advertisements, and they found that James, Manning, and Williams had more food and beverage endorsements than any other athlete, and they were the highest contributors in the marketing of energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods, with Williams achieving the dubious distinction of having the worse scores, and baseball player Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies endorsing the fewest energy-dense, nutrient poor food products.
While the use of professional athelte endorsements in food marketing compaigns has been criticized by the public health community for promoting unhealthy foods and sending mixed messages about fitness, health, and diet, the study in Pediatrics claims to be the first to examine the extent and reach of such marketing.
1. Bragg MA, Yanamadala S, Roberto CA, Harris JL, Brownell KD. Athlete Endorsements in Food Marketing. Pediatrics 2013;132:1-6. doi:10.1542/peds.2013-0093 (e pub October 7, 2013).
Posted October 7, 2013