Clean Label and Open Label Gain Traction in Sports Nutrition Non-Protein Products

As sports nutrition continues its ascent from the niche of athlete food to a health and wellness mainstay, prescient trends from the packaged food industry are beginning to exert greater influence on producers. The movement to satisfy the ever growing consumer demand for greater formulation purity and transparency is increasingly evident in the non-protein products category of sports nutrition. Long a refuge for some of the most closely guarded and, frankly, suspect formulations, non-protein products are increasingly adopting clean and open labels to help grow the mass appeal of the category.

A Rogue’s Haven

While sports nutrition in general has had something of an edgy image among mainstream consumers, no category been more maligned in the public than non-protein products. Often containing a litany of chemicals, pre-workout supplements, thermogenics and testosterone boosters, in particular, have long been home to some of the most suspect ingredients in the dietary supplement realm, including ephedra, 1,3-dimethylamylamine (DMAA) and anabolic steroids. Often used to boost energy and concentration, non-protein products are often the supplements blamed by athletes for positive doping tests, such as the recent disqualifications of German biathlete Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle and Italian bobsledder William Frullani at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

While the industry has made significant headway in cleaning up its image, controversial ingredients continue to make their way into the products of both fly-by-night and established producers. While many consumers may think of illegal supplements as trading hands in the shady back rooms of hardcore gyms, the DMAA saga illustrates how quickly a questionable (and definitively illegal) ingredient can soar in popularity. USPLabs Inc’s now infamous Jack3d pre-workout supplement accounted for 14% of category sales in its heyday, before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US cracked down on its sales.

Global Non-Protein Products Sales (US$, RSP – constant, fixed 2013 exchange rates), 2008-2018

Source: Euromonitor International

Clean Label: Soon to be the de Facto Standard?

Born in the packaged foods industry, the term clean label has taken on a slightly different connotation in sports nutrition, where functionality concerns tend to trump those of artificial ingredients. While some brands, such as Twinlab’s Clean Series (launched in early 2013) follow the traditional packaged foods understanding of clean label (absent of artificial flavours, colours and sweeteners), in the broader sports nutrition dialogue, the term has also come to stand for banned-substance free. Like many trends in sports nutrition formulation, the needs of elite athletes have been a primary driver for banned-substance-free certification. Because doping allegations and positive tests can tarnish reputations and cost millions in forfeited prizes and lost future revenue for professional athletes, a number of sports leagues and international athletics bodies have collaborated with laboratories to develop supplement testing schemes. The National Sanitary Foundation’s (NSF) Certified for Sport and HFL Sport Science’s Informed Choice programmes have emerged as the industry’s standard bearers. Though both founded in the mid-2000’s, uptake of their certification programs has exploded recently. The uptake has followed the traditional trickle-down pattern in sports nutrition (whereby innovations tend to be taken up by elite athletes, then gym and fitness enthusiasts and, finally, weekend warriors and other mainstream consumers), and now many overtly mass-facing brands, such as Iss Research LLC’s OhYeah! And Muscle Pharm’s FitMiss feature certification. Given the rapid uptake by major producers and sports nutrition potential to grow awareness with mainstream retailers and consumers alike, third-party-tested certifications may soon become a de facto standard for the industry and an important part of communicating the category’s safety and quality.

Transparency Concerns Give Rise to the “Open Label”

Transparency is one of the major trends shaping the packaged food and especially the health and wellness industries recently. Beyond simply knowing who a company is and how they operate, consumers are increasingly concerned with the provenance of the products they consume. This trend poses a serious issue for non-protein products. For years, the combination products (such as pre-workout supplements) that dominate the category have featured enigmatic ingredient lists and proprietary blends that mask the actual dosage of listed ingredients. In the US, the world’s largest sports nutrition market, supplement labelling regulations mandate all ingredients be listed. However, these only need be listed in order of relative weight, meaning producers could guard their exact formulation by grouping multiple ingredients together into a category and only disclose the total weight of the combined ingredients.

Over the last several years, there has been a gradual shift toward greater formulation transparency. While companies have an obvious interest in protecting their formulations, the core non-protein consumer base is highly informed and fairly critical. Not knowing how much of a product’s key ingredients are actually in a serving can pose an issue. In response, a growing number of companies, including industry leaders like Cytosport Inc (including their Monster Pump pre-workout supplement) are adopting “open labels”. The marquee of an open label is full disclosure, with all ingredients listed with their exact dosages. While this opens a company’s formulation up to potential copycat competition, it also allows consumers to better determine the relative value of a product, based on their preferred supplement intake. Open label is becoming increasingly popular, particularly among brands targeting sophisticated supplement consumers, such as Crossfit participants and those concerned with all natural formulations. In addition to a growing roster of companies, both of the US’ largest supplement specialty retailers GNC and Vitamin Shoppe have added clean and open label products to their own offerings. Vitamin Shoppe Inc launched its True Athlete line in early 2012 (including the True Athlete Training Formula with creatine, arginine, beta alanine and AstraGin). GNC followed suit in March 2014 with its Puredge line, including the Complete Amino and Daily Energy non-protein products. Both lines are free of artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives and feature complete breakdowns of their ingredients.

Label Comparison – GNC Complete Amino (left – open label) and Iovate’s Six Star Creatine X3 Elite Series (right – proprietary label)

Label comparison.JPG

Looking forward, greater emphasis on safer, more identifiable formulations has the potential to truly push the non-protein products into mainstream, further catalysing growth in a sports nutrition category that is already expected to grow more than twice as quickly as the overall total consumer health market through 2018.