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World Cup is an own goal for food culture

By Jess Halliday , 14-Jun-2010
Last updated on 14-Jun-2010 at 14:59 GMT

Sorry guys, the World Cup is not all about football. It’s about food too, and this year’s tournament should kick off a whole new debate about our sporting food culture.

Whether watching from the stands, the pub, or at home in front of the telly, most spectators won’t make it through the whole 90 minutes without some kind of sustenance. But while we’re scoffing goodies, out on the pitch 22 ultra-fit lads, whose diets have been micro-managed for months, are giving it their all.

When it comes to food and sport, it seems there’s one rule for the players and one for the spectators. It’s about time food firms and public health advisors got together to encourage World Cup spectators think about what they chow while they are cheering – and why.

So who is in the World Cup 2010 advertising and partners squad this year? Once more McDonalds, Budweiser and Coca Cola have paid big for the privilege of putting their brands before millions of pairs of riveted eyes – whose owners are a few paces from the fridge and within hand-creep distance of a crisp packet (or even the Pringoooals tube, as Pringles have been snappily re-named for the next few weeks).

But the UK’s Food Standards Agency is so worried about the nation’s eating habits over the next month that it has published a list of tips for healthier and safer snacking whilst watching the South African action.

The FSA’s concern may be justified. A survey – by African fruit growers, no less – has estimated that Brits will eat an extra 47m takeaways during the tournament than they usually do, and down 211m more beers.

Beside the fact that this is not great news for fruit-sellers, there’s a real lack of joined up thinking here.

“Look at these ads!”

“Ooh! But don’t eat too many of their products…”

The food industry and regulatory authorities made much of their partnership approach to healthy eating campaigns in recent years. Reformulated products, smaller portion sizes, and a healthy dose of exercise can all help prevent the pounds piling on.

It’s a sensible approach but if they are really rooting for the same anti-obesity team… why does it all go to pot around the World Cup?

Ok, Coca Cola has a whole section on its website dedicated to its brands and health. It has made Powerade the official World Cup drink; water or fruit juice it is not, but at least there is some sports connection. McDonald’s, too, is seeking World Cup relevance by flagging up its activities in football training.

But these efforts, communicated online where you have to go looking for them, are not going to cross the average spectator’s mind as they trot from the sofa to the kitchen to see what’s in the fridge.

Let’s be clear about this. Some football fans might go for a jog around the park after the final whistle. But not all. And no, jumping up and down and yelling loudly after a goal really does not burn enough calories.

The messages have got to be clearer.

In France, junk foods have to carry wording that exhorts the consumer to ‘manger’ and then ‘bouger’. That roughly translates (allowing for a little creative licence), as ‘if you stuff your face, shift your ass’. You can’t get clearer than that.

Sporting tournaments are a celebration of skill, fitness and health. They can also be a celebration of food, so let’s take the opportunity to explore and improve our food culture.

Now pass the apple slices please. Netherlands v Denmark kicks off in an hour.

Jess Halliday is senior editor of FoodNavigator.com. Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. She now lives in France, and was thrilled that her local supermarket placed a larger-than-life cardboard cut-out of Thierry Henry over the onions this weekend.

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