Have you heard of Fuelling Women Champions? It's a new campaign that's using the clout of Olympic medallists such as curler Jennifer Jones and bobsledder Kaillie Humphries to thrust women's sports into the spotlight and encourage young girls to stay in the game.
The campaign will also deliver financial aid to the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), the Canadian Women's Hockey League, Rugby Canada and other amateur sports organizations that are always in need of extra cash.
It sounds like a noble, feel good cause. So much so that you might not think twice when you hear the Dairy Farmers of Canada, a national industry association, is spearheading the initiative, which will include branding at local competitions, outreach events aimed at children and a social-media campaign.
But Fuelling Women Champions is not just about advocating for female sports. It's also about promoting and selling milk.
The Dairy Farmers say as much themselves, writing in online promotional material they are committed "to helping women succeed and advance in sport, while encouraging a healthy and active lifestyle in which dairy products play a role."
The campaign's official Twitter page has tweeted the merits of chocolate milk, posting a photo of Canada's women's rugby team celebrating a win by drinking chocolate milk and reposting a photo taken by soccer player Desiree Scott, who is part of the campaign, with her glass of chocolate milk.
Why does this matter? After all, it's not the first time a for-profit member of the food industry has partnered with a sporting event.
The difference is that in many of those other cases, companies aren't trying to position themselves as providers of healthy, essential, nutritious products. We all know that hamburgers, French fries and sugary beverages are not exactly health foods and seeing McDonald's or Coca-Cola branding at a hockey game is unlikely to change that (it can, however, drive product sales, which is why more experts are questioning the appropriateness of relationships between food companies and sporting events, particularly those where children are involved.)
In the case of dairy, however, marketers make a direct connection between milk and health. And most people don't question that claim because they've been hearing it for years. Dairy Farmers of Canada runs milk programs in schools across the country that espouse the nutritional benefits. Last year, they created a new "Get Enough" app that reminds users to consume more dairy. Now, the organization is upping its game, this year launching national promotions touting the connection between milk and a reduced risk of colorectal cancer; yogurt and lower rates of hypertension; and cheese and decreased osteoporosis risk.
The only problem? The purported benefits of consuming dairy exaggerate the truth and can mislead consumers. Dairy is a source of calcium and vitamin D and can have some health benefits. But it isn't the only source and there are plenty of other ways to have a complete, balanced diet that can reduce disease risk. Despite what the Dairy Farmers of Canada might say, there is no compelling reason why Canadians should be going out of their way to consume more dairy.
The Nutrition Source, published by Harvard's School of Public Health, states there is "no good evidence" that drinking more than one serving (250 millilitres) of milk a day reduces the risk of fractures. And in fact, it could even cause harm. Some research has suggested that consuming higher amounts of dairy could actually boost the risk of prostate cancer. The U.S. National Cancer institute says that men who consume a lot of dairy may have a higher risk of prostate cancer, but the same does not appear to be true for men who got calcium from other sources. World-renowned U.S. nutrition researcher and physician Dr. Walter Willett has also warned that too much dairy can be a risk factor for ovarian cancer, although the research is not conclusive. Meanwhile, Nutrition Source notes that the benefits of dairy on high blood pressure appear small. And when it comes to colorectal cancer, the U.S. National Cancer Institute notes that it is calcium – not dairy – that may reduce the risk.
And that whole concept of chocolate milk as a sports drink? Unless you are a serious athlete who spends hours a day training, the only "recovery" beverage you need is water. Certainly not a drink packed with added sugar, whether it's a neon beverage or chocolate milk.
Many of these arguments are featured in the new book Got Milked? by Alissa Hamilton. She also questions the fact that dairy has a dedicated place in national food guides and suggests that industry lobbying played a role in getting it there.
Because the dairy marketing machine is powerful, most consumers will continue to buy into the claims that more dairy is essential to good health. And considering the Dairy Farmers of Canada give money to health organizations such as Osteoporosis Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, there are not many places consumers may be able to find unbiased information about the limited benefits of dairy.