But even conveniently packaged sports powders face competition from their ready-to-drink (RTD) counterparts. As Hagerman says, “It’s been proven that convenience has a ton of merit, and it doesn’t get more convenient than ready-to-drink beverages.”
Still, insists Wheeler, “A great-tasting powder remains the best dose form for sports nutrition.”
Hagerman agrees. “The vast majority of sports nutrition customers we work with are making powdered drink mixes,” he says. The bulk jugs are economical, lightweight, and easy to ship—crucial in a largely online marketplace. Powders are also cheaper to produce, making for a lower price point. And they deliver more actives per serving, Hagerman adds, “which is vital because many staple sports nutrition ingredients are dosed in gram increments.”
Where convenience really hits sports nutrition is in the snack aisle. Observes Beaty, “A number of brands are innovating through the creation of not just new protein powders, but healthy snack and dessert options, like pizza crusts and cookies.” Why? “Their healthy-snacking appeal means more impulse purchases from a wider demographic than traditional supplements.”
Pointing to a Mintel finding that 94% of U.S. adults snack daily, Lynch bets that the “next big thing” will be protein crisps and other sports-snack formats. “As snacks continue to become ingrained into the American diet,” she says, “the market is ripe for nutritive snack innovations.”
But sports-nutrition supplements—read: tablets and capsules—retain a loyal following for their convenience, versatility, and easy-to-swallow format, Erickson says. “Capsules suit a range of ingredients,” she says, “and with the latest technology can address more than one health benefit in a single capsule—from sports nutrition and energy to bone and joint health.”
Sports nutrition brands are addressing those benefits with a number of functional ingredients—some familiar, some less so.
“Acetyl-L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, cassia cinnamon, chromium picolinate, citrulline, creatine, glucosamine, glutamine, isoleucine, leucine, valine, arginine, glutathione precursors, and others all have sound data showing they enhance cellular repair when used with naturally sourced antioxidants and healthy foods,” says LeDoux.
Protein remains a top draw, too. “Consumers associate protein with muscle growth, strength, and a healthy diet overall,” Wheeler says. “Traditional protein powders, like whey, comply with keto and low-carb diets while plant-based sources—pea, soy, and hemp, for example—attract flexitarian and vegan consumers newer to the sports nutrition space.”
Erickson points to studies demonstrating L-carnitine’s role in sports nutrition. “Its main metabolic function,” she explains, “is to transport long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondrial matrix for beta oxidation and energy generation—so it’s necessary for the use of fatty acids as energy, which is important in exercise and sports because fatty acids are the main fuel for endurance athletes.” Further studies show L-carnitine may enhance recovery, too, by increasing blood flow, attenuating metabolic stress markers, decreasing muscle soreness, improving recovery time, and “reducing hypoxic effects generated during exercise,” she adds.3
Erickson is also bullish on marine ingredients. A unpublished pilot study found that a 25-g dose of Lonza’s marine phytoplankton product Oceanix (Tetraselmis chuii) significantly boosted several biomarkers of exercise performance and recovery compared to baseline and control in 32 student athletes. Researchers noted high concentrations in the treatment population of superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant enzyme that protects against oxidative stress during activity, suggesting that the supplement may not only optimize physical performance, but may promote faster recovery, too, she says.
Hagerman notes that phosphatidic acid (PA), in conjunction with sufficient dietary protein and mechanical stress on muscle, significantly activates the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signaling pathway, which regulates muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Studies involving his company’s branded Mediator PA ingredient also show a loss in fat mass, as “one of PA’s roles is to turn on fat metabolism and manage fat transport,” he notes.
Future of Fitness Fueling
But while most sports nutrition research to date has focused on physical performance, the effect of nutrition on cognitive “athletics” is just beginning to attract attention.
“The rise of gaming, or esports, places huge demands on the body, as players need sustained energy and mental clarity to stay focused for several hours of continuous play at a time,” Erickson points out. “While it may not be a typical sport, this challenges manufacturers to create nutritional solutions that allow longer, modified release for sustained energy and focus.”
Chemi Nutra’s SerinAid phosphatidylserine (PS) and AlphaSize alpha-glyceryl phosphoryl choline (alpha-GPC) enjoy an established reputation for enhancing cognitive performance as well as athletic, Hagerman says. “Alpha-GPC is a well-regarded ‘mind-to-muscle’ ingredient due to its involvement in motor-unit activation of muscle fibers and subsequent muscle contraction, as well as its mental-sharpness benefits,” he adds.
Pankow Fritz notes that Kemin is exploring the benefits of its spearmint extract Neumentix and its FloraGLO lutein for esports athletes. Studies on the former, a natural nootropic, show improvement in choice reaction performance and sustained attention, she says, while the latter helps filter blue light, “a common exposure in this population.”
But what really has Pankow Fritz excited is the promise of personalization, which she predicts “will take on a whole new meaning in the context of exercise and sports nutrition,” she says. “The application of personalization is appearing in simple concepts like macronutrient recommendations and more complex ideas like hydration suggestions based on sweat rate, or supplementation with actives like caffeine and beta-alanine based on responsiveness and activity levels.”
While such opportunities are still in the vision stage, “companies are starting to find creative ways to personalize products and recommendations to account for training status,” she says. In the future, she wouldn’t even be surprised if the trend roped in nutrigenomics to assess the relationship between athletes’ genes and their responses to specific actives. And that’s a prospect anyone could be a good sport about.
- Grand View Research. “Sports Nutrition Market Size Worth $24.43 Billion by 2025 | CAGR: 9.7%” December 2018. Accessed at: www.grandviewresearch.com/press-release/global-sports-nutrition-market
- Leswing K. “Apple Rises on Earnings Beat.” CNBC. July 30, 2019. Accessed at: www.cnbc.com/2019/07/30/apple-earnings-q3-2019.html
- Fielding R et al. “L-carnitine supplementation in recovery after exercise.” Nutrients, vol. 10, no. 3 (March 13, 2018): 349