Sports nutrition: not just about protein

By Nick Hughes

- Last updated on GMT

Sports nutrition market moves ever more mainstream

Related tags Sports nutrition Nutrition

As sports nutrition becomes ever more mainstream, the market is no longer just about protein.

Key points

As sports nutrition becomes ever more mainstream, the market is no longer just about protein.

Demand for sports nutrition products in the UK continues to soar, and as the market becomes ever-more mainstream, there seems little prospect of it slowing any time soon.

The UK sports nutrition market is expected to reach £799M in 2017 – up 13% on 2016 and more than double the £350M recorded in 2012 – according to market research provider Euromonitor International.

While protein products account for the lion’s share of the market and remain on an upward trend, non-protein products – with core ingredients that include amino acids, carbohydrates, creatine, L-carnitine, and nitric oxide – are also experiencing strong growth.

At the same time, plant-based proteins are being developed as a whey-alternative to serve the growing vegetarian and vegan markets, creating further opportunities to grow the category.

“Consumers worldwide are adopting healthy living and following fitness trends, especially across developed markets where healthy lifestyle aspirations have become more common.

“This is translating into an expanding consumer base for sports nutrition products,”​ explains Carolina Ordonez, industry analyst for consumer health at Euromonitor.

Ordonez notes that in addition to traditional core users of sports nutrition products – such as bodybuilders and athletes – and casual users like recreational athletes, new categories of sports nutrition users are emerging, particularly in developed markets with established sports nutrition marketplaces.

Defining sports nutrition users (return to top)

Euromonitor has labelled these new types as ‘lifestyle users’ and ‘m-consumer (mobile consumer) users’. The former are mainly young, affluent consumers who invest heavily in fitness as a fundamental aspect of a healthy, high-performance lifestyle.

Their demands for functionality are high, but they are unwilling to sacrifice health and wellness claims (such as organic, all natural, sustainable and non-genetically modified) that drive their sports nutrition purchases. It is these consumers who are driving demand for plant-based proteins.

M-consumer users, meanwhile, are digitally-engaged at all times, and track fitness and wellness goals with apps, smart wearables, and smart homes. They want more personalised nutrition options and are the most keen to sign up for membership services if they like a company.

Sports nutrition manufacturers are aware of these new categories of consumers and are tailoring their own propositions accordingly.

“Previously, it was the hardcore body-builders who used nutrition, and especially whey protein, as part of their regime.

“But now, consumers outside of this niche are choosing high-protein products and so the requirement for these to taste good remains very important,”​ says Hugh Evans, marketing manager for Synergy Flavours.

The dominance of protein (return to top)

With high-protein diets in fashion globally, and 80% of sports nutrition coming from protein-based products, Ordonez says protein products will continue to lead the industry.

Dr David Keller, vice president of scientific operations for Ganeden, notes that manufacturers are responding with the introduction of new sports nutrition products that combine protein and probiotics.

“In the first quarter of 2017, nearly 50% of new probiotic products launched with our partners were protein-focused,”​ he says.

Bioactive proteins, such as collagen peptides, are another ingredient that suppliers say deliver numerous health benefits by supporting the overall musculoskeletal system.

“Collagen peptides are widely recognised for their ability to support strong bones and muscles, and in particular joints, where it has become the second-generation ingredient,”​ says Dr Elke De Clerck, global market development manager for Peptan, a leading brand of collagen peptides.

“As the peptides are extremely versatile, they can be incorporated into a wide range of functional foods, beverages and dietary supplements.”

Innovation around packaging formats (return to top)

A further reason for the growth in sports nutrition is manufacturers continuing to innovate with convenient packaging and formats.

“For example, a big trend is in ‘bite-sized’ nutrition with smaller protein bars, protein bites and protein crisps coming to the fore,”​ says Synergy’s Evans.

“Ready-to-drink beverages now also come in a variety of formats – Tetra Paks, aluminium cans and even plastic pouches.”

Evans adds that as the market grows manufacturers are looking to enhance consumer choice and offer alternatives.

Plant proteins as an alternative to whey (return to top)

Products with plant proteins as their base – such as soya, pea, brown rice and hemp – are being used as alternatives to whey, although he notes that they still account for a relatively small share of the market.

“They provide the opportunity for consumers to experiment and can be attractive to vegans, vegetarians and those looking to make more sustainable food choices,”​ he says.

Fish and insect proteins are also being talked about as possible protein sources of the future, although Evans believes these create flavour and masking challenges.

Delivering comparable results to whey protein, at comparable solubility, and with a favourable taste, is also a challenge for developers of plant-based protein sources.

Glanbia Nutritionals, which recently launched its BevEdge pea protein in the US, says a deep understanding of flavour masking is key to creating successful products.

Microencapsulation and coating techniques also can help deal with the off-notes inherent in ingredients such as omega-3-containing krill oil.

Glatt Ingenieurtechnik says the use of such techniques means the contents are completely enclosed in a protective casing and, in addition, the coating layers themselves can be loaded with additional functionalities, tastes and flavours.

Other active ingredients that protect the body (return to top)

Although protein-based products continue to dominate, there is growing demand for other active products that protect the body from damage caused by intensive exercise.

Algatech says its AstaPure natural astaxanthin – one of the most potent antioxidants available, and an anti-inflammatory agent – is an ingredient that is emerging strongly in sports nutrition due to its ability to treat and prevent damage induced by factors such as high temperatures, high fevers, high humidity, or strenuous physical activities.

Glanbia notes that superfoods and ancient grains, such as chia, flax, quinoa or amaranth, are favourable ingredients for lifestyle users in particular, while Benny Antony, joint md for Arjuna Natural, says pre-workout products that supply nitric oxide to the system to enhance performance and stamina are gaining in popularity.

“There is a huge shift from chemical to natural compounds as a source of nitrate,”​ says Antony.

“Beetroot is a very popular ingredient in this sector. However, it is fast losing out to a much more potent product in amaranth, which has four times the nitrate content and has no naturally-occurring sugar or oxalates.”

How protein has moved into the mainstream (return to top)

Ultimately, however, it is protein-based ingredients that remain the engine of category growth. What’s more, the growing trend among consumers in western markets for high-protein diets is leading to a rush of protein-enriched foods being developed for mainstream categories such as dairy and bakery.

Rather than a threat, Evans believes sports nutrition manufacturers should see this trend as an opportunity. “High-protein foods now include products such as soup, porridge and pancakes, and developments in these areas continue to maintain consumer interest, not just in sports nutrition products, but in nutrition products in general.”

And Peptan’s De Clerck believes there is potential to grow the entire active nutrition category, as the lines continue to blur between the different user groups.

“The sports nutrition core users will remain at the top of the pyramid, while the mainstream health and wellness product group at the base of the pyramid will continue to grow,”​ he explains.

“This will leave a gap for manufacturers to create innovative products, serving those everyday users with healthy and active lifestyles.”

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