Sports programs expose children to 'unhealthy' food messages, study finds

How much exercise to burn off a McWrap?

To burn up the kilojoules contained in just one McDonald's wrap, Fairfax's Peter Munro has to run for longer than he bargained for.

More than 1.25 million children involved in sports programs across Australia are being exposed to "unhealthy" messages from the food and drink companies that sponsor them, a study has found.

The study shows 40 per cent of the children are exposed to Nestle's Milo through junior cricket programs in most states and 11 per cent are exposed to McDonald's through its sponsorship of Little Athletics nationally, Hoop Time basketball in Victoria, and Platypus Lagoon swimming in Queensland.

Nicholas Austen in Milo-sponsored cricket gear at his school.
Nicholas Austen in Milo-sponsored cricket gear at his school. Photo: Adam Hollingworth

Kathy Chapman, co-author and director of cancer programs at Cancer Council NSW, says these sponsorships could undermine the healthy lifestyle the programs aim to promote.

"We know that children are a major target market for advertising, as they influence their parents' spending, have their own money to spend, and have the potential to become brand-loyal," she says.

"The more children are engaged in a sport, sport team, or with an athlete, the greater the influence that junk food sponsorship will have on a child."

The study identified 11 food, beverage, alcohol and gambling companies with access to 1.25 million children on sports programs.

Ten were deemed to be having an "unhealthy influence"  by producing and selling a product that failed to meet Food Standards Australia and New Zealand criteria for health claims.

Published in the latest Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, it found all the food and drink sponsors had a logo on the programs' website, a third had naming rights (for example, Nippy's Spikezone in SA), a third had given out branded gear (McDonald's for Little Athletics), and a quarter had put their logos on uniforms (Milo in2cricket).


It also found Little Athletics and Surf Lifesaving had the greatest number of unhealthy food and drinks sponsors, including Robbies Confectionary, Gatorade, and Schweppes.

Ms Chapman said the study was the first of its kind and the findings showed the need for sponsorship of children's sport programs to be included in food marketing regulation.

"Interviews of 10 to 14-year-olds have found they think of food and drink companies that sponsor their club and favourite team as 'cool'," she said. "They even said they'd like to return the favour to these sponsors by buying their products."

McDonald’s sponsors junior athletics, basketball and swimming programs.
McDonald’s sponsors junior athletics, basketball and swimming programs. Photo: AP

A Nestle spokeswoman defended the 23-year partnership between Milo and Cricket Australia, saying Milo was a formulated supplementary food, which when made as directed, achieved 4.5 health stars.

"It's important that any food sponsorship communicates balanced and sensible eating, as well as healthy activity," she says.

"We're careful to ensure that we encourage appropriate portions, and that we strongly emphasise the importance of regular physical activity."

Nestle, owner of Milo, has partnered with Cricket Australia for 23 years on grassroots programs.
Nestle, owner of Milo, has partnered with Cricket Australia for 23 years on grassroots programs. Photo: Edwina Pickles

A McDonald's spokeswoman says the fast-food chain supported sports clubs in a responsible manner.

"We see it as positive that we help so many Australian kids get active and involved, and reject the idea that McDonald's shouldn't be allowed to support grassroots sport," she says.

Little Athletic's relationship with McDonald's made headlines in 2013 when a Melbourne mother started a petition to break up the pair, after her daughter received a McDonald's voucher along with an achievement award at a meet.

At the time, Little Athletic's chief executive Kerry O'Keefe said without the sponsorship "we would not be able to reach as many kids, they're helping more kids get active by learning about sport".

Michele Chevalley Hedge, nutritionist and founder of A Healthy View, says concerned parents should not take an extreme approach when encouraging kids to eat healthily.

"Take a modest one, with small steps in the right direction. Instead of fundraising with high sugar, trans fat-laden doughnuts, why not try a cake stall where you suggest that everyone bake something somewhat healthy," she says.

"Healthy food needs to be normalised and not called 'healthy'. For example, bliss balls loaded with seeds or nuts, cocoa powder, dates and some maple syrup should just be called 'bliss balls', not 'healthy bliss balls'."

Since the research was conducted, the naming rights partnership between McDonald's and Basketball Victoria's Junior Development Programs, including Hoop Time, have been discontinued. But McDonald's will continue to provide branded equipment this year.

Update: Kellogg was mentioned in the research as a junior sports program sponsor. A spokesman said, contrary to what the research shows, it doesn't sponsor Nippers.