What do LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Serena Williams all have in common? Clearly they're top athletes. But they also promote unhealthy foods and drinks more than their peers.
A recent study found that the majority of foods and nearly all the drinks endorsed by celebrity athletes were unhealthy or filled with sugar.
James, Manning and Williams led the pack in unhealthy food and sugary drink endorsements, but many other professional athletes also promoted unhealthy food products.
In addition, the age group most likely to see commercials with these endorsements were teenagers.
This study, led by Marie A. Bragg, MS, MPhil, of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, looked at the types of foods that celebrities endorse and how often kids see them.
The researchers first identified 100 professional athletes who were listed in Bloomberg Businessweek's 2010 Power 100 rankings for being successful with endorsements and in their sport.
Then the researchers divided the 512 endorsements the athletes had participated in based on 11 product categories, such as food/drinks or sports clothing.
When the researchers focused on the endorsements in the food/drinks category, they assessed the nutritional value of the foods athletes endorsed, including the number of sugar-added calories in the drinks.
The most popular form of endorsement was for sports clothing products, which included 28 percent of the total endorsements among those 100 athletes.
However, food/drink product endorsements were close behind, making up 24 percent of the total endorsements by those athletes.
Overall, 62 food products and 46 drinks were associated with one or more of the 100 athletes studied.
Of the foods endorsed by the athletes, 79 percent had high calories and did not contain many healthy nutrients.
Meanwhile, 93 percent of the drinks endorsed by the athletes had all their calories (100 percent) come from added sugar. Most of the drinks (39 total) were sports drinks, followed by soft drinks (21 total).
The three athletes who led the pack in promoting unhealthy foods and sugar-added drinks were football player Peyton Manning, basketball player LeBron James and tennis player Serena Williams.
Among James' endorsements were Sprite, Glaceau Vitaminwater, McDonald's and Powerade. Manning's endorsements were Gatorade, Wheaties, Nabisco and Pepsi-Cola.
Williams' endorsements were Oreos, Gatorade, Nabisco, 100 Calorie Pack Snacks and Got Milk.
The researchers then used marketing data to see which age groups were most likely to see the 28 of the 48 commercials involving sports celebrity endorsements that ran in 2010.
The group most likely to see these commercials included teens, aged 12 to 17, who saw an average of 35 commercials that year.
Adults over age 18 saw an average of 33 commercials, and children (under age 12) saw an average of 21 commercials.
"These results reveal a high prevalence of food/beverage brand endorsements among professional athletes," the researchers wrote.
"When taking into account the nutrient quality of the products endorsed and the amount of advertising for each product, Peyton Manning, LeBron James and Serena Williams are the highest contributors to the marketing of unhealthy foods," they wrote.
The researchers pointed out that the tactics used in marketing unhealthy foods resemble some of the same tactics tobacco companies used to use, including athlete endorsements in tobacco commercials until 1964.
"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 authors noted.
Eve Pearson, a licensed and registered dietitian at Nutriworks CNC in Dallas-Fort Worth, said the findings were not surprising at all.
"Consumers – adults and teens – need to realize the athletes do not consume the products they endorse on a regular basis," she said.
"These elite athletes have comprehensive staffs of sports dietitians, doctors, trainers, coaches and sometimes even chefs that help them understand how nutrition choices affect their body, their performance, their injury and recovery rates and even how often they get sick," Pearson said.
"It's one thing to think they may consume the non-nutritive product they endorse once in a while, but I can guarantee you, when in season, they do not consume them regularly," she said. "Consumers need to understand that even if the athlete touches the product they're endorsing, it's likely their 'cheat.'"
This study was published October 7 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the Rudd Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.