McDonald’s Deal Makes Health Advocates Sick

The controversy behind junk food brands sponsoring the Olympics

Would you like chips—er, fries—with that?

McDonald’s is a lead sponsor of the 2012 London Olympics, along with Coca-Cola—and the partnerships have not been without controversy, even though McDonald’s has been part of the games since 1976 and Coke has been backing the event since 1928.

Criticism has mounted in recent weeks. First, there was the call by England’s Academy of Royal Medical Colleges to ban both companies entirely from the games. Then came a motion from the London Assembly (the U.K.’s version of a city council) to impose tighter health restrictions on advertisers at the games.

And in its latest issue, the medical journal The Lancet is teeing off on “junk food and drink giants” for “marring this healthy vision” of athletes at the pinnacle of human physical achievement, bemoaning the presence of the world’s largest Mickey D’s just a few yards away from the Olympic grounds.

The average Briton has also put in his 2 cents—not about the nutritional content of McDonald’s menu items but, rather, about its french fries. McDonald’s fries are the only fried potatoes available at the Olympics, but, Englishmen howl, they can’t hold a candle to those thick, soft, covered-in-vinegar chips for which Britain is famous.

Vendors are only allowed to sell the traditional English chips if they’re accompanied by fish, a rule that’s prompted a small firestorm from Fleet Street tabloids, many of which ran paeans to British cuisine and screeds against McDonald’s. (The Telegraph branded the exclusive McDonald’s deal a “dictatorchip.”)

What started as a Happy Meal-level controversy is now super-sized.

Given the longevity of the McDonald’s and Coke sponsorships, why so much noise this time around?

“It’s important to this Olympics because Britain has a huge obesity and diabetes problem,” said Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “The idea that the world’s largest McDonald’s is in a country that can ill afford to eat there is very disturbing.”

McDonald’s contends it is meeting consumer advocates more than halfway. “We’re launching QR codes on packaging and cups in our restaurants on the park, a rollout that will land in a majority of our markets by the end of 2013,” a spokeswoman said. She also emphasized the chain’s inclusion of fruit and vegetables in Happy Meals at the games, as well as local favorites like porridge.

Lustig said that while some can consume burgers and drink Coke to no ill effect, they’re not the viewers of the Olympics but the participants.

“If you’re an athlete and you consume a Coca-Cola, your liver will convert it into glycogen, and you’ll get some energy for the next bout or race,” he said. “So can people get energy repletion from a Coca-Cola? Yes, but they’re not advertising to those people. They’re advertising to fat people, and fat people are going to drink a Coca-Cola, and it’s going to turn into liver fat.”

In fact, swimmer and gold medalist Ricky Berens tweeted a picture of his post-victory McDonald’s meal, composed of two medium orders of french fries, two Quarter Pounders with Cheese, a Big Mac, six-piece Chicken McNuggets and a McFlurry.

So the message here may not, in fact, be “Don’t eat McDonald’s,” but “Start swimming.”

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