By Daniel Hunt, Freelance Consultant in Public Health Policy

Given the sheer volume of junk food marketing and promotions we see associated with sport, it’s easy to forget that this type of food is fundamentally unhealthy. For example, at their heart, the energy drinks you see plastered on billboards and all over ‘adventure sports’ are essentially fizzy water, sugar and the caffeine of a double espresso.

Because most junk food has little nutritional benefit, some brands are desperate to artificially ‘re-badge’ their products as popular, beneficial or socially desirable. And for that, there’s nothing better than associating them with sporting heroes.

By sponsoring sporting ‘achievers’ and ‘winners’, junk food brands tie themselves to the élite performance of athletes. It dishonestly perpetuates the myth that junk food is compatible with keeping healthy, as long as we ‘run it off’.

And that myth is big business. Coca-Cola and McDonalds reportedly paid $100m each to sponsor the London 2012 Olympic games. McVities is currently spending an estimated £10m on a biscuit marketing campaign with Team GB athletes. And in football, Cadbury’s has launched a multi-million pound campaign to sponsor the Premier League, including a program to “change the lifestyles of 60,000 children”. As part of this campaign, buying chocolate gave children a chance to meet their sporting heroes.

In reality, these products are a far cry from the diets of these ‘winners‘. Olympic athletes are not fuelled by biscuits. What we don’t see is the meticulous planning that goes into their nutrition, and absence of calorific sugary and fatty foods from their diets.

At best, junk food brands tying themselves to exercise is a deeply cynical attempt at market protectionism. At worst, it’s spending massive amounts of money to profit from rotting teeth, childhood diabetes and human misery.

Exercise gives food corporations a ‘lobbying scapegoat’

This dominance of food companies translates in the policy arena. Put simply, companies who profit handsomely from selling junk food actively avoid trying to pay for the diseases they cause. Sugary drinks companies lobbied tooth and nail to oppose the UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy, which has taken 30,000 tonnes of unnecessary sugar out of drinks, or 29.1% of total sugar in the market. At the same time, companies making other sugary foods have consistently missed voluntary targets to reduce sugar levels.

For junk food companies, exercise is nothing more than a convenient scapegoat. It shifts focus away from their corporate conduct onto perceived individual ‘deficiencies’. Our lack of willpower, rather than their irresponsible advertising to manipulate that willpower. Our inability to exercise enough, rather than the calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods that set us unrealistic targets to exercise off.

This often plays out through a narrative of ‘balance’. The idea that if we equal out the calories in / calories out equation, everything is fine.

That simplistic argument masks the direct link between how companies profit from junk foods, and the disease they exacerbate. And more importantly, it also overlooks the evidence of what’s happening across the population. As we’ve learned, caloric overconsumption is a much bigger cause of weight gain in children than a lack of exercise. And at least five times as much healthy life is lost because of diseases linked to the foods we eat, rather than from not exercising enough. If anything needs balancing, it’s that discrepancy.

It’s not hard to understand why junk food brands love sport. Food companies use sponsorship to manipulate the popularity of athletes, with the purpose of selling fatty and sugary foods that create disease.

For them, exercise is fair game. It’s also particularly problematic for children’s obesity, with kids all over the country avidly watching and trying to copy their heroes.

Using sport as a vehicle to pedal ultra-processed food is disingenuous, and speaks to the lengths that companies will go to run adverts for their products. Ultimately, it’s yet another example of the ruthless corporate conduct of junk food brands in the battle for children’s mouths, minds and stomachs.