Flavor innovation energizes sports nutrition category

by Jeff Gelski
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Various protein powders
More agreeable flavors have improved whey protein products and sports nutrition products.

ORLANDO, FLA. — For many years, products that contained whey protein tasted like chalk, said Mike Roussell, Ph.D. More agreeable flavors, like toasted marshmallow, have improved whey protein products and sports nutrition products in general, he said.

Mike Roussell, PhD
Mike Roussell, Ph.D.

“The bar has been raised significantly,” said Dr. Roussell, a nutrition consultant for professional athletes and a member of the advisory board for Men’s Health.

While flavors have awoken innovation in the sports nutrition category, incorporating ingredients that help people sleep and recover looks like another opportunity. Speakers at Ingredient Marketplace held April 27-29 in Orlando also mentioned such items as shelf stable probiotics, beet juice and watermelon juice as ways to boost sales.

Cinnamon bun whey protein and Mango yogurt drink
Recent launches include a cinnamon bun flavor for whey protein and a mango protein yogurt drink.

Cinnamon and mango protein

The top five flavors in sports powder beverages globally from 2013-16 were vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, vanilla (French) and banana, said Stephanie Mattucci, global food science analyst for Mintel. Recent launches in the category include a cinnamon bun flavor for whey protein and a mango protein yogurt drink. Focusing on flavor innovation and taste involves “really being able to step outside the box of just chocolate and vanilla and getting more innovative or more interesting types of flavors, or even texture,” she said.

Chris Schmidt, a senior consumer health analyst for Euromonitor International, said he, too, has seen more gourmet formulations and more exciting flavors. He pointed to Quest Nutrition, L.L.C., El Segundo, Calif., which sells bars in such flavors as cookies and cream, s’mores, mint chocolate chunk, and cinnamon roll. Such flavors may appeal more to mainstream consumers and retailers and not be as pertinent for specialty channels, he said.

Mr. Schmidt said buyers of sports nutrition products may fall into three categories. Core users are body builders and high-performance athletes. Casual users or “weekend warriors” want to buy products at familiar retail outlets like supermarkets. Fitness lifestyle users regard fitness as a fundamental element of their high-performance lifestyle.

Quest nutrition bars
Quest Nutrition sells bars in such flavors as cookies and cream, s’mores, mint chocolate chunk, and cinnamon roll.

Caffeine contrast

The three user groups may differ in the amount of caffeine they want in their products, too, he said. Mainstream consumers are worried about getting too much caffeine. Sports nutrition products sold at mass retailers either are containing less caffeine or their manufacturers are promoting the products’ green coffee beans.

The amount of caffeine in products targeted to core users, in contrast, is rising, he said. A few years ago one of those sports nutrition items might have a standard caffeine serving of 150 mg. Now, some products are going over 400 mg of caffeine per serving.

Dr. Roussell said he sees promise for products with a blend of theanine and caffeine. Theanine, which is found in green tea, may alleviate jitters associated with caffeine without taking away from the caffeine’s effectiveness.

Sleep is an emerging category, he said, as it relates to recovery and affects eating behaviors.

Mr. Schmidt said, “I think we’re going to see more investments in (sleep benefits) as more athletes begin to realize that sleep is a key part of their training routine. It’s not just the end of the day. It’s a natural part of not just your recovery but your preparation.”

For other opportunities, he mentioned beet juice and cocoa flavanols.

Beet water and watermelon juice
Emerging functional waters are beet, which has high nitrate levels, and watermelon juice with L-citrulline.

“Who wouldn’t want to eat a pre-workout chocolate bar?” Mr. Schmidt said.

Ms. Mattucci said emerging functional waters are beet, which has high nitrate levels, and watermelon juice with L-citrulline.

Shelf stable probiotics represent an opportunity, Dr. Roussell said. They fit better into traveling plans since they do not have to be refrigerated.

Sales of U.S. nutritional and performance drinks grew 42% from 2009-14, according to Mintel. Other Mintel data showed sales of performance drinks rising 18% to $1,672 million in 2014 from $1,420 million in 2012 and more double-digit growth coming from sales of nutritional drinks, rising 15% to $2,586 million in 2014 from $2,241 million in 2012. Sports drinks sales increased 1.2% to $6,743 million from $6,662 million to account for 62% of the total nutritional and performance drink market.

One decrease came in weight loss drinks, which fell 9% to $466 million from $512 million.

“It ties into a larger trend with diet and health and wellness,” Ms. Mattucci said. “It’s really not so much about a diet anymore. It is a lifestyle. Consumers are really recognizing that it really is a bigger picture and not just a quick fix or a quick diet. They are looking for products to support an overall healthy lifestyle.”

She said 91% of U.S. consumers agree it is better to eat a well-rounded diet than it is to use diet products.

The majority of consumers using sports nutrition products choose protein and energy bars.

A trust problem

Trust in sports nutrition products remains a problem for many consumers. Mintel data show only 17% of U.S. consumers think performance drinks/mixes improve physical performance and only 9% agree the products do what they promise.

Another study regards sports nutrition/performance as a “guarded” category because of consumer concerns. The Natural Marketing Institute, Harleysville, Pa., and Informa Group, P.L.C., London, collaborated on a study that analyzed the six areas of sports nutrition/performance, probiotics, digestive health, weight management, omega-3 fatty acids and protein. They surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults and 92 ingredient suppliers.

Among Americans who do not use sports nutrition products, 22% said it was because they do not want to gain weight. Other answers included “need more information about the benefits” (16%), “don’t believe they are effective” (12%) and “don’t think they are safe” (10%). 
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