The answer is yes, according to a new study published online today in the journal Pediatrics. The study, authored by a cadre of public policy and obesity researchers from Yale, Stanford, Harvard, and Duke, examined the number of food and beverages endorsed by professional athletes, the nutritional quality of those products, and reach of such television ads to children, adolescents and adults in 2010.
Previous research has already established that celebrity endorsements help sell products and, when it comes specifically to foods and beverages, parents perceive them as healthier when they are promoted by professional athletes.
In the current study, the researchers focused on one hundred professional athletes listed in Bloomberg Businessweek's 2010 Power 100 report, which ranks the top athletes by their prominence and the value of their endorsement contracts.
The researchers next analyzed marketing data and found that food and beverage ads featuring professional athletes have far-reaching exposure (consider that 106 million Americans watched Larry Bird, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James endorse McDonalds in an ad aired during the 2010 Super Bowl). Interestingly, they determined that adolescents aged 12 to 17 saw the most athlete-endorsed food commercials, followed by adults, and then children.
Moreover, the foods that the celebrity athletes were endorsing WERE hardly anything most parents would want their kids to eat. Seventy-nine percent of 62 foods in these ads were deemed nutrient poor and energy dense (i.e., high calorie), and 93 percent of the 46 beverages shilled by athletes were of the liquid Satan variety (meaning 100 percent of their calories came from added sugars). Serena Williams, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Apolo Anton Ohno were deemed the worst offenders in terms of the nutritional value of the foods and beverages they promoted, while hometown hero Ryan Howard endorsed the fewest number of nutrient poor products (at that time, he had contracts with Subway and Powerade).
"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," the authors note dryly in the discussion of their study. They remind readers that Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams used to appear in cigarette ads in the first half of the 20th century, but that for any athlete to do so now would be a public relations disaster. They suggest that growing public pressure and public policy changes might make it a similar career liability for athletes to promote unhealthy foods. They further call for athletes themselves to refuse to take part in such endorsements, as well as an international effort to consider policies that would restrict such ads in media targeted specifically to the young.
Let's hear from a local expert: "I find the results of this important study very distressing," said Robert Berkowitz, M.D., director of research, eating and weight disorders program in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"Professional athletes' paid endorsements for high energy dense foods and sugar sweetened beverages aimed at our nation's youth is very unfortunate, as greater consumption of these foods is associated with the rising rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus," he said.
Berkowitz said he agrees with the authors who note that these athletes could play a major role in the health of children by declining to promote the consumption of energy dense food and sugar sweetened beverages. Rather, these athletes could promote consumption of healthier foods, drinks and physical activity.
For more information:
International Association for the Study of Obesity: A junk-free childhood: responsible standards for marketing foods and beverages to children
Federal Trade Commission: Perspectives on marketing, self-regulation, and childhood obesity. Washington, DC: Federal Trade Commission, July 2008.
Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here.