New Frontiers in Sports Nutrition Energy

In the world of sports nutrition, recovery and muscle growth claims tend to reign supreme. However, energy and endurance claims are also important and are a major driver of the nearly US$2 billion non-protein products category and, increasingly, an avenue for differentiating protein products, as well. In this article, I examine the evolving landscape around energy claims in sports nutrition.

Protein products increasingly adopting an endurance position

Protein products – consisting of sports nutrition protein powder, ready-to-drink (RTD) and bars – are the bedrock of the sports nutrition market. In 2015, they accounted for US$8.6 billion of the category’s US$10.6 billion in global retail value sales. While these products have long been marketed around recovery and muscle growth, companies both large and small have increasingly been highlighting protein’s role as an energy-delivering macronutrient in new product launches. Whether promoting protein alone as a convenient, relatively low-calorie energy source (as seen by RTD brands like Post Holding’s Premier Protein or Maxinutrition’s Protein Milk) or pairing it with common energy boosting ingredients like caffeine or carbohydrates (such as Optimum Nutrition’s Protein Energy and Ferrara Candy’s RAP Protein gummies, respectively), companies are increasingly capitalising on growing consumer interest in protein as a sustained energy or endurance product.

Non-protein products fighting to overcome checkered past

While protein products offer a compelling new avenue for energy products, non-protein products –including combination pre-workout supplements, concentrated carbohydrate/electrolyte mixtures and other performance boosters – are the traditional domain of energy products in sports nutrition. Though long popular with the category’s core demographic of bodybuilders and performance athletes, producers have found it much more difficult to bring average consumers to the category. In general, many of the category’s key ingredients (beyond caffeine) are unfamiliar to consumers, while some, including category mainstay creatine, have been publicly demonized by popular media in the past. While inaccurate and sensationalist reporting has certainly damaged its credibility, the category’s has also been undercut by a long history of adulteration and questionable formulation, such as the recent DMAA saga. Promoted as a powerful mental and physical stimulant of supposedly botanic origin, 1,3-dimethylamylamine (DMAA) exploded onto the formulation scene in the late 2000’s before being linked to a number of deaths. With regulators cracking down on the ingredient, including the mid-2013 decision by the US Food and Drug Administration to ban its sale in the United States, the ingredient became a poster boy for malfeasance in the category and the potential danger of energy- and performance-boosting sports nutrition supplements.

While the ongoing emergence of banned-substance-free-certification as a de facto standard in sports nutrition should help, a number of brands have also invested in public outreach, such as product sampling at races and public fitness events. Popular pre-workout supplement brands like Nutrabolt’s Cellucor C4 have taken to sponsoring obstacle races that are gaining broad favour among young fitness consumers who may not necessarily spend time in traditional gym settings or otherwise be exposed to sports supplementation. By engaging with these potential consumers directly, explaining the science and provenance of the ingredients and providing an opportunity to experience their benefits in an athletic context relevant to them, companies can potentially cement the legitimacy of key energy and endurance ingredients (including even more “core” ingredients like creatine) among new consumers moving forward.

The new face of energy in sports nutrition

While caffeine remains the undisputed king of energy ingredients in sports nutrition products, particularly the combination pre-workout supplements that account such a large share of the US$2 billion non-protein products category, marketers are increasingly responding to evolving consumer preferences by seeking out more palatable sources of caffeine and experimenting with more novel endurance ingredients.

Mirroring the rise of interest in all natural formulations that has revolutionised the health & wellness packaged foods and beverages industries, a growing cadre of sports nutrition companies have opted for natural caffeine sources. Spanning the portfolios of specialty channel standbys like Post Holding’s Dymatize (PursuitRx Pre-Workout) to natural channel powerhouses like WhiteWave Foods’ Vega (Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer) brands that target young, fitness lifestyle users are increasingly using tea extracts to make their “natural” caffeine claims. Additionally, tea extracts allow producers to make add-on antioxidant delivery and fat burning claims in more relaxed regulatory landscapes. In addition to tea extracts, fruit extracts like pomegranate and beet root are also gaining a foothold in pre-workout formulations. By supporting improved blood circulation, these extracts can help reduce fatigue and boost endurance, promising consumers greater power output over a longer period of time.

Carb no longer a “dirty word”

Though long a mainstay of products targeting endurance athletes, the public demonization of carbohydrates has driven many average consumers away from the energetic macronutrient. However, with the exploding popularity of distance races around the world, ranging from 10-K’s and obstacle races to marathons and triathlons, the importance of carbohydrate intake in extended exertion exercise is gaining new relevance for a growing number of fitness consumers. Convenience formats like gel packets and chews are now established anchors of portfolios from global behemoths like Gatorade down to like specialty producers like Omega Pharma’s Etixx. While many products pack simple sugars in with electrolytes, there is a growing appreciation for higher-quality carbohydrate sources, even among less sophisticated users. Endurance sports media has helped drive awareness of the concept of gastric emptying rate, which has benefitted ingredients like Vitargo and cyclic dextrin. Looking forward, while the calories involved with these ingredients could put some users off, consumer education around their ability to provide sustained energy and drastically boost performance could help their expansion into products targeting less intense users, potentially unlocking a massive new market opportunity.

Global Sports Nutrition Retail Sales by Type, 2015-2020

Sports Nurtition Sales by type 2015 to 2020

Source: Euromonitor International

This article appears in the November 20th edition Digital Issue of Natural Products Insider.