The event that many of us have been anticipating for the last 4 years is finally here. Yes, the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil is happening as we speak. It is time for each country to come together as one in support of their football team. And in turn comes the increased consumption of junk food and drink.
Research from Webloyalty - a consumer research organization - predicts that in the UK, people will spend around £271 million ($459 million) on food and drink for the World Cup.
It is very unlikely that healthy food and drink choices will be included in this spend. In the first week of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, for example, sales of chips increased by 10% in the UK and sales of chocolate rose by 37%, compared with the same week the previous year.
And it seems this pattern occurs during most major sporting events. During the London 2012 Olympics, sales of sugary drinks increased by 10% in value and 8% in volume, compared with the same period the year before.
But why do we consume more junk food and unhealthy beverages during such events?
Junk food sponsors 'represent a direct attack' on public health efforts
According to public health experts, the sponsors of major sporting events are a contributing factor. For this year's World Cup, FIFA's partners include soda giant Coca-Cola, while its sponsors include fast-food firm McDonald's and beer company Budweiser.
Fast-food and sugary drink sponsors of major sporting events, such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's, "represent a direct attack" on worldwide efforts to reduce obesity, according to de Sá.
In fact, McDonald's have been an official sponsor of the World Cup since 1994, while Coca-Cola have partnered with FIFA for the event since 1978. The soda company has partnered with the Olympics for even longer - since 1928 - and for the London 2012 Olympics, chocolate company Cadbury even jumped on the bandwagon as a sponsor.
In a recent letter published in The Lancet, Thiago Hérick de Sá, of the Department of Nutrition at the University of São Paulo's School of Public Health in Brazil, says such sponsors "represent a direct attack" on worldwide efforts to reduce consumption of unhealthy food and drink in order to tackle increasing obesity rates.
Since 1980, the rates of worldwide obesity have almost doubled. In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults were overweight or obese. As of 2012, more than 40 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese.
Such figures have caused global concern, prompting authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) to launch campaigns with the aim of reducing obesity rates. Specifically, WHO have set a goal to stop the worldwide increase in obesity by 2025.
But how exactly are fast-food and sugary drink sponsors of big sporting events hindering public health efforts?
Are marketing strategies aimed toward children?
"The basic aim of any company is to sell their products or services and to profit," de Sá told Medical News Today. "The sponsorship of major sporting events [by fast-food and sugary drink companies] is part of the company's marketing strategy to achieve that aim, to encourage people, including children, to consume more of their products."
And it seems such companies are not shy in aiming their marketing strategies toward children. For example, McDonald's have launched the "McDonald's GOL!" smartphone app for this year's World Cup. A customer can simply hold their smartphone up to one of 12 specially designed fry boxes to download the app, which allows them to play a football game.
In addition, the fast-food giant ran a competition that offered 1,408 children ages 6-10 from 69 countries the opportunity to walk onto the pitch hand-in-hand with their football idols during a World Cup game.
In the UK, Coca-Cola are running a "Win-A-Ball" promotion during the World Cup, where every purchase of a bottle of Coke or Coke Zero gives the consumer a chance to win one of a million Coca-Cola footballs.
As well as the aforementioned marketing strategies, there is certainly no avoiding the companies' presence at sporting events, as their logos are usually covering banners and displayed in flashing lights around the arenas. During the 2010 World Cup, approximately 3.2 billion people worldwide watched television coverage of the event for at least 1 minute, so that is a lot of exposure for sponsors.
But their marketing strategies reach much further. In his letter in The Lancet, de Sá notes that Coca-Cola actively made their presence known at side meetings for the World Cup, as they were "giving away its products and propaganda."
According to Susan Swithers, PhD, a professor in the Department of Health and Sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, there is no doubt that such marketing strategies pose a problem for children's health.
She told Medical News Today:
"They see these messages everywhere and we know that children are more vulnerable to advertising messages than adults. And for many kids, athletes are role models so unhealthy foods get a boost in the eyes of children through their connection with events like the Olympics.
While parents clearly have a role to play in this equation, the constant exposure to these messages can wear down even the most well-meaning parent."
Companies' physical activity marketing 'contradictory'
Perhaps surprisingly, as a part of their marketing strategy for the World Cup, Coca-Cola in the UK launched a campaign to encourage consumers to "get more active." The company's "trophy tour" involved visiting every country that had ever won the World Cup and giving people the chance to have their photo taken with the trophy. One million samples of cola were distributed during the campaign, as well as branded footballs to "encourage people to play the sport."
The attempts from fast-food and sugary drink companies to encourage physical activity are "contradictory," according to public health experts.
The campaign formed part of a Public Health Responsibility Deal that the company signed up to in 2012, which involved taking nine "pledges" to encourage people in the UK to adopt healthier lifestyles and increase their physical activity.
In addition, Jeff Mochal, senior director of Global External Communications for McDonald's, told Medical News Today that they also actively promote increased physical activity for consumers.
"McDonald's has a long-standing legacy of promoting physical activity for kids at the local, national and global levels," he said. "We understand the importance of play in bringing families and friends together, and we provide access to all types of play through partnerships with various sporting associations."
He continued: "Our restaurants around the world support their local communities through grassroots programs ranging from hockey clubs in Russia, to youth baseball teams in the US, to youth soccer teams and coaching programs in the UK."
The fact that Coca-Cola and McDonald's are actively promoting increased physical activity is "contradictory" given what they sell, according to public health experts.
"The contradiction is in the fact that sweetened soft drinks are agreed by practically all relevant independent organizations and investigators to be one of the major causes of the currently uncontrolled pandemic of obesity and, therefore, harmful to the public health," said de Sá.
Swithers, who conducted a study last year revealing how diet soda drinks may increase the risk of obesity, told us:
"The message that is getting sent is that the consequences of poor nutritional choices can be fixed with increased physical activity. This isn't actually true. Not only that, but the amount of activity people would need to do to actually burn off the calories in typical fast food meals is much greater than most people understand."
"For example, a meal comprising a cheeseburger, fries and a soda can easily provide more than 1,000 calories," she explained. "Someone who weighs 150 pounds would have to run for about 90 minutes at 6 mph to burn off those calories. So the players on the World Cup pitches are likely okay, but I'm betting their training regimens don't include fast-food and soda."
'We have a responsibility to parents and kids, which we take very seriously'
Speaking to Medical News Today, a spokesperson from Coca-Cola Great Britain said the company's promotion of physical activity "complements" the work they are doing elsewhere to encourage healthier lifestyles.
"As part of our Responsibility Deal calorie reduction pledge we have taken a number of actions, including reducing the calorie content of Sprite by reducing the sugar and introducing stevia leaf extract; launched the smaller 250 ml can across the Coca-Cola portfolio and announced a £20 million ($34 million) commitment to get 1 million people more active by 2020," said the spokesperson, who added:
"Recently we announced our intention to launch Coca-Cola Life - a lower calorie cola with a third less sugar and a third fewer calories than regular cola - later in the year in the UK."
Mochal told us that McDonald's has quality food on their menu and more than 95% of their restaurants around the world offer fruit, vegetables or low-fat dairy as an option in Happy Meals - their meals created specifically for children.
"We provide clear nutrition information in ways such as on select packaging, online and through a QR (quick response) code which allows customers, including parents, to make the right decisions for themselves and their families," he said, adding:
"We have a responsibility to parents and kids, which we take very seriously. We are committed to playing an appropriate role in children's well-being through educating, empowering and encouraging our customers and their families to make informed choices so they can live a balanced lifestyle."
Major sporting events 'an opportunity to promote healthy eating'
But when it comes to the sponsorship of major sporting events, Swithers and de Sá remain cynical that the main goal of fast-food and sugary drink companies is to encourage healthy lifestyles.
"The real question is how much effort and money are being expended to promote activity compared to that expended to promote the consumption of unhealthy beverages?," said Swithers. "It's a good PR move, but the overall goal is still to sell their beverages."
According to de Sá, international sports federations, such as FIFA, should refrain from using any kind of unhealthy sponsors, noting that cigarette companies have already been banned from sponsorship at many sporting events worldwide.
Swithers agrees and told us that such events should be utilized to promote healthy food choices instead:
"These events are huge opportunities to educate people about what healthy diets actually look like, instead of implying that world-class athletes get that way by eating fast food and drinking soda."
And such strategies may not be unachievable. According to The Obesity Games report - which looked at the effects of sponsorship from fast-food and sugary drink firms during the London 2012 Olympics - corporate sponsorship accounted for less than 10% of total funding for the games, and junk food sponsors alone contributed to less than 2% of this, indicating that sporting events do not necessarily need these sponsors to go ahead.
Speaking to Time magazine in 2012, Terence Stephenson, a pediatrician and chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges in the UK, said that organizers could cut costs in other areas to avoid using junk food sponsors for sporting events, such as the Olympics.
"If the Olympics can't continue in its present form without extracting money from companies that sell unhealthy products, then it has become too bloated and needs to look for a different business model," he said. "Fewer events, fewer freebies. It needs to be slimmed down."
But whether international sporting federations will take note of such recommendations for future events remains to be seen.