More needs to be done to stop junk food reigning supreme at sports events - study

With the country facing an obesity epidemic, the normalisation of junk food at sports venues around the country needs to change, according to a new study from the University of Otago.

A new study is calling for bold action to tackle the obesity crisis with researchers questioning crowd favourites like hot chips and hot dogs at sports venues. Source: 1 NEWS

The study found most locations, from local clubs to national sports stadiums, had energy-dense and nutritionally-poor food and drinks on offer.

The two-part study included interviews with sports administrators from a range of sports around the country, and also observed menus at 31 rugby and 20 netball venues.

Cakes, cookies, doughnuts, pies, potato chips, lollies, hot chips and other fried foods were sold at more than half the netball venues.

Water and sandwiches were the only options classified as healthy that were sold at more than 10 venues.

At rugby venues, soft drinks were the most prevalent option, followed by chocolate, burgers, hotdogs and toasted sandwiches.

Water was sold at more than half the rugby venues.

"Lollies are sold at 95 per cent of netball venues. I think we're going to have to stop doing that because we cannot afford to continue the way we are," co-author Louise Signal said.

"[Obesity is] already costing us about a billion dollars of unnecessary spend every year across the health system and across the economy."

Ms Signal said nutrition policies are urgently needed in sports clubs, and is calling on national sports organisations, Sport New Zealand and the Ministry of Health to provide leadership in this area and step up.

"Often people think that if we stop selling junk food, we'd stop having money for sport but actually, they don't make any money themselves; they contract it out to caterers who are of course obliged to make a profit... so I think we need to shift from that model, and take charge of the type of foods that are available in the sporting context," Ms Signal said.

Customer demand and profitability are what drive menu changes, according to Westpac Stadium chief executive Shane Harmon.

"It has to be a profitable operation for the stadium and the caterer," Mr Harmon said.

The stadium has recently changed to using caterer Delaware North, and now have healthier options among the usual stadium favourites, including mushroom burgers and vegetarian nachos. In summer, fruit salad, wraps and sandwiches are available.

Ms Signal said it was great the stadium is making changes but noted there was still a lot of chips and fried foods on the menu.

She said it was a positive move that water was cheaper to buy than soft drinks.

"We are seeing some change across the industry - that there is a move to having more options there, more healthy options for people that want the variety," Mr Harmon said.

He said the most popular food item was a punnet of chips, and thinks it will always be the most popular item.

"It's like going to the movies and wanting your popcorn and your choc top.

"There isn't a stadium in the world that would say they're at the vanguard of clean living because at the end of the day, coming to a stadium is about escapism," he said.

Sport New Zealand chief executive Peter Miskimmin said the government organisation is seeing a shift by operators to including a wider range of healthy options and that it's something he thinks will continue to increase.

"The issue of food sold at clubs and stadiums is ultimately a decision made by sporting organisations and venue operators," he said in a statement.

The Ministry of Health has nutrition guidelines venues can adopt, but there are no plans to make nutrition policies compulsory, according to the Deputy Director of Health Dr Harriette Carr.

Dr Carr said the Ministry is working with Sport New Zealand and other government agencies to investigate what further options there are to help improve and create healthier food environments.

"We've come to expect unhealthy food, but what we need is while we develop these guidelines. We need people to be demanding healthier food options," she said.

Ms Signal said the scale of the country's growing obesity issue requires strong stands.

"I think the sport's community will understand the importance of this issue."