Green Right Now Reports

A study of junk food endorsements by top athletes sacked Peyton Manning this week for pushing fast food and sugary drinks.

The study received wide media coverage, re-energizing the debate over marketing unhealthful food to kids amid an epidemic of obesity.

Peyton-Manning-Gatorade

Peyton Manning drinking Gatorade, a sugary “sports” drink.

“By endorsing these nutritionally poor foods and drinks, people like Peyton Manning, LeBron James, and Serena Williams are doing a great disservice to the country and their fans.  It’s as if the dollars blind them to the fact that they are role models.  Thanks to these endorsements, kids and adults are more likely to associate junk foods with fitness or athleticism,” said Michael F. Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“Of course the opposite is true.  Drinking Sprite and eating at McDonald’s is not going to make you play basketball like LeBron James any more than smoking cigarettes will make you ride a horse like the Marlboro Man,” Jacobson said.

The study, published this week in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed the endorsements of the top 100 most influential athletes.  (The 100 were identified by using Businessweek’s 2010 Power 100 report that cited the athletes who are most prominent in their sport and have the biggest portfolios of endorsements).

Oreos and Serena and others

Athletes for Oreos,

The study authors, experts at Yale, Stanford, Harvard and Duke universities, then broke down athlete endorsements into 11 categories: Food/beverages, Automotive, Consumer goods, Service providers, Entertainment, Finance, Communications/office, Sporting goods/apparel, Retail, Airlines, and Other retail goods.

They found that of 512 brands endorsed by 100 different athletes, sporting goods/apparel represented the largest category (28.3%), followed by food/beverages (23.8%).

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was the top endorser among National Football League players, reportedly earning “$10 million per year from contracts with Papa John’s pizza (Papa John’s International, Louisville, KY), Gatorade (PepsiCo, Purchase, NY), Wheaties (General Mills, Minneapolis, MN), Sony (Sony Corporation, Minako, Tokyo), and DirectTV (DirecTV Group, El Segundo, CA),” according to the study.

Basketball player Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers “earned an estimated $12 million per year from his endorsement contract with McDonald’s (McDonald’s Corporation, Oakbrook, IL) alone.”

NBA star LeBron James of the Miami Heat, who also endorses McD’s for an undisclosed fee, “reportedly received $5 million dollars to endorse Bubblicious Gum (Cadbury USA, Parsippany, NJ), including his own flavor (LeBron’s Lightning Lemonade),” according to the study.

Tennis athlete Serena Williams was called out in the study for her endorsement of Kraft’s Oreos, which are marketed to kids via games and “lick offs” that encourage consumption of this confection. (Just two “Double Stuf” oreos provides 13 grams of sugar, 7 grams of fat and 0 grams of protein.)

The researchers looked at the quality of the foods being endorsed, and determined that “a high prevalence” of the foods endorsed by LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Serena Williams were calorie dense and “nutrient poor,” making them the biggest contributors to the marketing of unhealthy foods.

Representatives for the athletes have not responded to the study.

More than 90 percent of the drinks promoted by all the athletes studied got all their calories from sugar, making them non-nutritive.

The CSPI, which has long fought the marketing of fatty, sugary and dyed foods, maintains that when athletes give their name to junk foods, especially the sugary drinks that are a major factor in the obesity epidemic, they’re hurting their young fans.

“I hope this paper inspires some reflection on the part of America’s athletes and professional sports leagues, as well as all other celebrities for that matter,” Jacobson said in his statement.

“Would it be too much to ask of them to confine their endorsements to sports equipment, cell phones, cars, and so on?  And to limit their food deals to products that actually promote health—and possibly even better athletic performance?”