Those stunning aerial shots of runners crossing the start line in any of the world's major marathons say it all. Sports nutrition is set to run and run. What once was an elite, specialist area for professional athletes and bodybuilders has evolved into much more of a mass market.
From a marketing perspective, the 'sports' positioning seems to appeal to a broad spectrum of consumers. When Nestlé acquired the Powerbar brand a few years ago, it was not intending to focus on a small group of specialised athletes. So inevitably, the definitions of 'sports nutrition' have become somewhat fuzzy around the edges.
Brands in the sector would, no doubt, prefer to see this as the emergence of different market segments. German brand owner Haleko has its Multipower range of products which are now marketed in 36 countries, says brand manager Stephanie Wullenweber. The range spans probiotic whey shakes, bars, drinks and waters. In Germany, the Multipower range is largely sold through gyms, while Haleko's Champ brand is sold through other channels, and targets less committed enthusiasts. This year at least, Haleko says it has no plans to roll out its Champ brand in other national markets.
Of Haleko's wider range Wullenweber says: "We're seeing sales through general health food and drugstore chains such as Holland & Barrett and Boots in the UK, and we're having more success with these types of channel in Germany."
One key ingredient for the company is L-carnitine, said to promote efficient energy production in the muscles. The crossover with functional products has meant that German retailer Aldi is stocking Haleko's premixed drinks containing L-carnitine alongside the bigger-brand probiotic 'shot' products, says Wullenweber.
Proteins in general, and whey proteins in particular, are probably the most important ingredients for Haleko. The company has co-branded some of its products with DSM's PeptoPro, a peptide derived from milk protein. This has the advantage of being easily absorbed and facilitates the transmission of glucose to muscles. DSM says that research at the University of Maastricht, the Netherlands, showed that adding the ingredient to a carbohydrate-based drink improved both recovery and endurance.
Professor Wim Saris of Maastricht's Human Biology department says: "People have been looking hard at the advantages of pre-digested hydrolysates or peptides versus intact proteins. The outcome is that they can give faster recovery." He believes that the combination of peptides and carbohydrate in sports drinks has been the major breakthrough of the past five years.
In fact, there has been a flurry of research over recent months in this area. Gatorade-sponsored research on cyclists at Canada's McMaster University disputed the benefits of consuming protein during rather than after exercise. DSM then kept the wheels of research spinning with a further study, this time suggesting there was indeed a boost to cycling performance.
There are two conclusions to emerge from all this work. First, sports nutrition offers attractive margins for brands and for ingredients suppliers. And secondly, the stakes are high for all concerned.
As vice-president of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Douglas Kalman sees plenty of sports-related nutritional research in the US. Kalman, who is also director at Miami Research Associates, says: "There is now a ton of research showing that essential amino acids are all you need to combine with carbohydrates."
But he adds that including these specific amino acids in a product could be cost-prohibitive. This specialist food sector has the same cost sensitivities as any other.
For Kalman, one of the most exciting ingredients for sports nutrition is carnosine. "Its ability to act as a buffer allows you to exercise harder and longer and to recover more quickly. It's going to have a great role in endurance sports," he predicts.
Dr Mark Tallon, co-founder of CR (Controlled Release) Technologies in the UK, has been working in this area. "Higher carnosine levels within muscle tissue lead to a greatly enhanced performance capacity," he reports. Combining this with cellular buffers such as creatine monohydrate generates additional performance and recovery benefits.
Included in Tallon's research has been the relationship between ageing and reduced carnosine levels. This could create opportunities both in general healthcare products and in sports ranges. The sports nutrition market of the future is likely to be tracking widening demographic groups of older, fitter, more affluent consumers.
Broadening the market
From a supplier's perspective, the sports sector has both strengths and weaknesses. Irish-based Carbery took a decision to move from general food proteins to high-protein ingredients. But while this represents a significant opportunity, it still remains a niche, says Carbery sales and marketing manager Kieran Duggan.
"You can't make a claim for your ingredients which isn't based on solid scientific data," Duggan explains. "That takes a lot of investment, and the sports nutrition market alone may not support a high volume of research."
Nonetheless, there are other attractions. "It's an industry you can get into very quickly. Price is very important," says Duggan.
Saris at Maastricht speculates about further future developments: "Maybe we will see the beneficial effects of ingredients in relation to oxidative stress, such as those natural antioxidants now available in purer forms, such as polyphenols from olives."
He adds: "I expect to see developments in the area of immune defence, although so far progress has been limited. This is an important area, since athletes run the continuous risk of being over-trained and immune-depressed."
Ingredients suppliers and their customers are eager to grab their own yellow jersey of the 'ultimate' sports food or drink. But, asked if there is a dream product that every brand would love to have in its portfolio, Saris neatly sums up one of the main paradoxes facing researchers in this market: "If such a product existed, it would certainly be on the doping list."
This is a market where suppliers risk falling foul of different types of regulation, both when claims cannot be substantiated and when they can.
In 1989 and then again in 2000, the EU Commission tabled Directive texts aimed at regulating sports nutrition products, but nothing came of either draft. According to Paris- and Brussels-based law expert Nicole Coutrelis, who is a partner in the law firm of the same name, "We are back in the situation where we have to apply national law."
The complications begin when products are traded within the EU. "Some states have regulations, others do not," says Coutrelis. "A French importer should of course abide by national law, but de facto France has to accept the free movement of goods." So there is a contradiction; something admittedly not unusual in the EU.
Options for the future include an obligation for mutual recognition among Member States and complete harmonisation.
Growth rates for sports nutrition products in Europe and the US are very similar, according to market researcher Datamonitor.
Annualised growth in European sports food and beverages was 6.4% between 2000 and 2005, reaching a consumer spend of $1.43bn. Year-on-year growth to 2010 is expected to be slightly slower at 5.5%, reaching a forecast figure of $1.87bn.
This compares with a rise in consumer spending on sports supplements of 2.4% in the five years to 2005, to reach $257M. Similar growth rates are predicted to yield sales of $287M by 2010.
In the US, spending on sports food and beverages spiralled to a remarkable $3.1bn in 2005, reflecting an annual growth of 6.7% over a five year period. Up to 2010 these rates will slow to 5.9%, reaching a total value of $4.1bn.