Over recent years, attention has been focused on the EU’s Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) in relation to the number and nature of failed claims and the implications for food brands. Less attention, however, has been paid to the levelling effect of successful claims and their strict wording.
Approved health claims have arguably helped to steer protein, for example, into a more prominent position in the consumer mainstream. But those same claims – that it contributes to growth in muscle mass, maintenance of muscle mass and of normal bones – are providing sports nutrition companies with very little ammunition when it comes to differentiating the plethora of protein-based products.
According to Euromonitor International, the value of the UK sports nutrition market topped £300M in 2013, thanks to strong value growth of 16%. Annual growth figures of 9% are forecast up to 2018.
With the sector no longer hiding under the umbrella of the EU’s former PARNUTs (food for particular nutritional purposes) framework directive, and without any dedicated regulation of its own, the European Commission is keen to see it governed by the NHCR.
At the British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), director general Roger Clarke says brand owners are understandably eager to safeguard innovation. “The next 15 years are likely to be even more active than the past 15 in terms of scientific development,” he says. “Brand owners want to be able to say that their products are safe, while introducing new and innovative compounds.”
At Euromonitor, US-based consumer health analyst Chris Schmidt contrasts the role of health claims in communicating with a mass sports market and the diffusion of information at the elite end of the scale. “The core consumers – body-builders, physique athletes, elite and professional athletes – don’t get their education from a product label, and are much more willing to experiment with new ingredients.”
For now, with the basic building blocks of protein and carbohydrate, the NHCR leaves European brands with very little room for manoeuvre. At Glanbia Nutritionals, regional director for Europe Carla Clissmann says: “You can describe your protein as ‘whey protein isolate’ or ‘soy protein isolate’, but you can’t make any claims on the basis of that source.”
One route towards differentiation appears to be research which highlights a general protein claim in the context of that specific ingredient. Last month, in a Sports Nutrition webinar hosted by Food Ingredients, Health & Nutrition’s (FIHN’s) sister title NutraIngredients.com, the supplier of Nutralys pea protein Roquette shared new research showing how its ingredient could increase muscle mass in co-ordination with weight training.
“Research matters,” says Roquette’s market development manager for specialised nutrition Aurélie Mauray. “We aim to supply our customers with proof of the health benefits of our ingredients.”
At the same time, examples are starting to materialise of the type of differentiation that can be achieved in the sector with more specific approved claims.
Interesting innovation (Return to top)
The launch this June of GlaxoSmithKline-owned MaxiNutrition’s Cyclone Milk was one of the sector’s more interesting and recent innovations, Schmidt argues. For the first time, it incorporated creatine into a protein ready-to-drink (RTD) product.
He believes this demonstrates first that there is a genuine “trickle-down effect” from elite athletes to the mass market. Secondly, he doubts that the product would have been launched (at least as a mass-market brand) without a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)-approved claim for creatine.
Alongside several non-authorised claims, creatine is listed on the Commission’s register with the approved article 13.1 claim that it ‘increases physical performance in successive bursts of short-term, high-intensity exercise’.
This claim is one of several relevant to sports nutrition. In fact, says Clarke at the BSNA: “The sector has done relatively well in establishing approved claims.”
As FIHN was going to press, the association was expecting to hear EFSA’s opinion on a BSNA-sponsored claim that ‘carbohydrate solutions contribute to the maintenance of endurance performance during prolonged endurance exercise’.
Meanwhile, formal enforcement of the NHCR in the UK has – to date – been conspicuous by its absence. But, according to nutrition and health consultant Liz Tucker, that could be about to change.
“Now, with the new Food Information [for Consumers] Regulation coming into force, it seems that the authorities have upped their game,” she says. This could come as a shock to sports brands using, for example, unauthorised references to ‘energy bars’ or ‘energy drinks’.
Both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health have started to emphasise their guidelines on health claims more firmly.
It is likely, Tucker adds, that the sports nutrition sector will feel the weight of NHCR enforcement more than general foods, which tend to make fewer health claims.
It remains unclear how sports products will fit inside this regulatory tent. There is a strong possibility that nutrient profiles for sugar, salt and saturated fat content, as foreseen by the NHCR, could return to haunt the food industry. If so, the risks to the sports sector would be particularly high. “There would need to be some discussions about exemptions,” says Clarke.
Blurred lines (Return to top)
But giving sports nutrition any sort of special treatment would imply that there is a clear demarcation line between sports and non-sports products. In fact, lines are blurring rather than becoming more distinct.
According to Euromonitor’s Schmidt, a further launch from MaxiNutrition – its mid-protein bar – is “positioned more as a snack-bar-with-protein, than a sports nutrition protein bar”. He adds: “This opens up a consumer group that doesn’t view its needs as similar to an athlete’s.”
At the same time, these and other formats benefit from the healthy ‘halo’ that sports products enjoy. “Products such as gels have been researched using elite athletes,” says Tucker, pointing out that this is often against a background of highly-demanding endurance pursuits. “But given the sales of these products, it’s clear they are not all going to that elite.”
Certain gels, for instance, recommend that – during intensive exercise – portions are consumed at rates of up to two or three an hour, she says. “This has potentially huge implications for people who are diabetic or pre-diabetic, for example.”
She adds: “It amazes me that people consume so many of these bars and gels. In some cases, you can get the same nutrition from a bag of Jelly Babies.”
Anecdotally, she also reports a higher incidence of athletes using sports nutrition but “not feeling good on it”. This might mean stomach problems, bouts of nausea or ‘hobby’ athletes who are actually overweight.
“I think the sports market has to become a bit savvier about what they put in their products,” she says.
Tucker works with a range of natural-focused food producers, including north Wales company Wholebake, owner of the 9bar brand. While it began as a seed or nut-based free-from range (wheat, gluten, yeast and egg-free), it has since won a loyal following among sports enthusiasts.
“The aspect which really helped the brand to grow so quickly was the ‘natural’ claim,” she says.
In an increasingly segmented market, different customers are looking for different messages, stresses Brid O'Riordan, research and development team leader at Glanbia Nutritionals. “But now, there’s increasing enthusiasm for more natural products of known origin. We’re also seeing greater interest in free-from and clean-label ingredients.”