I’m a long-time Colts fan. I still have love for Peyton…

…which is why this hurts me probably far more than it hurts him. (Undoubtedly so, since I’m pretty sure his bank account is padded enough that he no longer feels pain.)

NFL star Peyton Manning is nearly as famous for his product pitches as his football passes, building an endorsement empire that has included Papa John’s pizza and Oreo cookies. But are your kids grabbing – and consuming – what the quarterback is slinging?

bgg2wl-peyton-pizza

The Denver Broncos signal caller is one of the sports world’s top hawkers of unhealthy foods and drinks, according to a paper published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. The authors are urging famous jocks like Manning to re-think corporate offers to peddle sugar-rich drinks or high-calorie foods.

“Our ultimate hope would be that athletes reject the unhealthy endorsements or, at the very least, promote healthy foods,” said Marie Bragg, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Yale University. “These athletes have an opportunity to work with parents. Instead, they’re promoting really unhealthy foods.”

A representative for Manning did not respond to requests for comment. The QB pockets $12 million annually by lending his face, voice and persuasive powers to Buick, Reebok, Gatorade and DirecTV plus Papa John’s – and he owns 21 Papa John’s stores in the Denver area, according to Forbes.

On Sept. 29, his pizza-pie profile even ignited some on-field ribbing: During the Broncos’ win over Philadelphia, Eagles defensive players tried to drown out Manning’s play calls by repeatedly screaming the name of the pizza chain.

But according to the study, one mega-star ranks a notch higher than Manning when it comes to plugging munchies: LeBron James of the NBA champion Miami Heat. He earns $42 million per year by endorsing McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and other products. At No. 3 on the researchers’ list of low-nutrient-food boosters is tennis great Serena Williams, who in the past has done ads for McDonald’s and Oreo cookies.

A litany of pro athletes analyzed by the authors put their big names behind 44 different food or beverage brands during 2010, with 79 percent of those food products being “energy-dense and nutrient-poor,” and with 93 percent of the drinks receiving all of their calories from added sugar — including sports drinks, the paper notes.

Many of those food-and-beverage sales campaigns are aimed at young consumers.

“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,” the authors wrote.

The promotion of those meals “by some of the world’s most physically fit and well-known athletes is an ironic combination that sends mixed messages about diet and health,” added the authors, who compared the modern players’ food peddling to the cigarette ads of bygone sports stars like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

But bashing food endorsements is an unfair swipe, asserts sports-marketing expert John Rowady, because even the opinions among some nutritionists have been known to shift. Consider butter. Diet experts now agree that margarines made of inflammation-promoting, industrial fats are harmful while pastured butter has been shown to slash belly fat and lower heart-attack risk. [source]

I’m torn – I could see this in either direction.

I could stand to say that if anyone could “get away with” eating a ton of junk food, it’d be someone whose spending hours on a field or court burning thousands of additional calories a day; but I could also say that the average kid (or, quite frankly, adult) doesn’t know that, and winds up becoming attracted to foods they probably need to be avoiding.

And, as much as I wanna say that parents “shouldn’t be letting the TV teach their children about healthy food, anyway,” I think we need to go ahead and be honest about how this actually manifests itself – parents work late hours, bring work home, work work work, and TV is the most reliable babysitter… except for the fact that the TV can have one-sided conversations with your kids that you’ve never even considered having…

…and that’s where this sucks.

I don’t think Peyton is wrong for being involved in promoting the brand he obviously has a vested interest in, but I do think the answer is a little mroe complex than “if an athlete is going to promote a food, it needs to be an avocado! Or an apple!” Lots of athletes promote non-junky brands – tons of celebrities and athletes have done the got milk? campaign, Serena had her line of OPI nail polishes, tons of athletes promote fitness brands… should we be expecting athletes to have a conscience when choosing the brands they promote?

What do you think?

(And, yes, I’m blatantly ignoring having to type “Serena” and “the arches that shall not be named” in the same sentence together. Personally, I’d like to forget any of that ever happened. Let’s not smash my heart to pieces, here.)