For products which are more body-food than brain-food, ready-to-drink (RTD) sports drinks provide a surprising number of mind-teasing paradoxes in areas from development to marketing.
Firstly, there is the fact that the sub-category is one of the fastest-growing ones within the European soft drinks market. Like the related functional and energy drinks categories, 'sports' products appear to be largely immune to the vicissitudes of summer weather. They offer very respectable margins, at least for the brand-owners and retailers that sell them. And as we know, 'sports' positionings generally have a strong appeal for consumers.
So where is the paradox? The fact is that specialist ingredients suppliers are all too aware of the category's potential, but feel shut out of its current and future growth.
With its PeptoPro peptide product, DSM believes it has an ingredient with huge potential in the sports arena. In May, the company announced that Japan was the latest country for which regulatory approval has been gained. But the vast majority of applications to date have been in powder formats for small, niche, often national brand-owners.
Product manager Villaume Kal says: "We are working on a few projects in Europe. We believe the RTD market represents a sizeable opportunity, and we are in a joint collaboration with one of Europe's leading beverage ingredients suppliers." But he adds: "Generally speaking, we feel there's been relatively little innovation in sports drinks over the last decade or so."
Of course, there are exceptions. Atlantic Multipower uses PeptoPro in its RTD products, for instance. But Kal says: "The cost limitations on ingredients in this sub-category are generally quite challenging. In Europe, we are pursuing opportunities very selectively with premium brands."
In other words, the larger brand-owners are quite happy to cash in on this market's potential volume and margins, but they want to keep those margins for themselves, while minimising costs. Nothing new there, you may think. But what if that means those brands are missing out on genuine performance and recovery benefits?
Well, that brings us to our second paradox. While the 'sports' tag sells product, the practical physiological benefits are not necessarily so important. Or, as Kal puts it, the majority of 'sports' drinks are probably drunk sitting on a sofa.
As Mintel points out, only one in 10 UK consumers claim to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. Presumably this is not the precise demographic that brand-owners like GSK and major retailers are targeting with 'sports' and 'energy/stimulant' drinks.
The latter sub-category seems to have long outgrown such trivial limitations. According to Britvic Soft Drinks (quoting Nielsen figures), over 30% of the UK population buys an energy/stimulant drink at least once a year.
Analyst at Innova Market Insights Natalie Tremellen says: "There is a definite shift from the professional market to the consumer market for sports nutrition and performance nutrition products."
Certainly, there is no shortage of new launches. In May, PepsiCo sprang a new formulation of Gatorade on UK consumers, the first time it has done this in a national market. Produced by Britvic, the new variant is said to contain no preservatives, and no artificial colours, flavours or sweeteners. It is billed as: "The world's bestselling and most scientifically researched sports drink." And, in case anyone is in any doubt, the launch press release returns to the 'sports' definition several times.
Emphasising the same clean no-artificial-colours-or-flavours credentials, Aimia Foods in the UK has launched its Slazenger S1 hypotonic sports drink. Aimia brackets together developments in the sports, 'healthy', energy and overall functional beverage categories. The larger UK retailers have been equally fleet of foot both in dissolving these distinctions and staking their own claim in the market. As Tremellen points out, Sainsbury's and Boots have both launched own-label sports/energy drinks.
This lack of clear category distinctions has been accentuated since the World Anti-Doping Association lifted a ban on caffeine, she adds. "This has allowed manufacturers of caffeinated drinks to be associated with elite sport, as in the case of Red Bull with Great Britain Athletics and Lucozade Energy with the London Marathon." Lucozade Sport with Caffeine Boost was launched in the UK last summer.
Also significant is a blurring of the sports drink and functional water categories, notes Tremellen, referring to the example of Pepsi's Propel Invigorating Water, launched in the US last year. It contains 20mg of caffeine, is bright red and is delivered in a sports bottle.
Some suppliers of sports nutrition ingredients point to a broadening-out of European markets in comparison with the US. Swiss-based Lonza produces the Carnipure brand of L-Carnitine. Ulla Freitas, scientific marketing manager, says that while the company has seen European applications in bakery, confectionery and dairy as well as beverages, applications to date in North America have principally been in supplements. She adds: "We definitely see that Carnipure beverages are moving away from mere sports nutrition towards the mainstream market. They are no longer exclusively sold for top athletes, but are opening up for 'weekend warriors'."
According to Freitas, the impact of L-Carnitine on recovery is the area where the most interesting research data has been collected to date. She explains: "It has been found that, after Carnipure supplementation in athletes doing strenuous exercise, the markers of oxidative stress are less enhanced than in the placebo group. They also reported less muscle soreness."
Grape extracts could be the next sports nutrition super-ingredient. New Zealand Extracts (NZE) has been busy carrying out work in this area with Oxi-fend Vinanza grape seed extract. The ingredient was given in capsule form to groups of rowers. Results from preliminary trials indicate that Oxi-fend Vinanza may be effective at reducing the muscle damage that occurs in trained athletes following exercise.
A larger clinical trial will follow. However, NZE says it has no evidence at this stage that antioxidant supplementation improves exercise performance.
But the NAT'Life division of French ingredients supplier Naturex claims that results with its Powergrape antioxidant have in fact shown an effect on performance. Marketing support manager Karine Nardon says: "Powergrape is a completely new antioxidant application with a clear link established in athletes between an exceptional antioxidant power, performance and vitality."
Much work has also gone into the most effective types of carbohydrate for use in sports drinks. Palatinit, part of the Beneo group, has had considerable success with its Palatinose isomaltulose.
Head of product management Stephan Hausmanns says: "Palatinose is the only known fully-digestible carbohydrate which is low-glycaemic, yet which supplies the same amount of energy in the form of glucose as sucrose."
In Germany, Palatinose has been used in Hassia's Rosbacher Drive sports drink, which features Michael Schumacher in its ads. The Enervit hypotonic brand from Also, Italy, uses the sweetener, as does Reviva, a sports beverage from Princes in the UK.
Paradoxically, while ingredients suppliers carry out research on their products in ever-finer detail and are required to take greater care in the precise claims they make, category definitions and distinctions are being daubed over with a very broad brush.
So while the 'sports' category as a whole may grow, differentials in function and price between one end of the market and the other should increase with equal speed.