What we consider a “sports nutrition drink” today might be changing. Recent data from Mintel (London, UK) suggests that traditional “sports drinks,” while still the dominant health drink in terms of total U.S. retail sales, are losing market share—7.5% loss in market share between 2010 and 2015, to be exact. Experts say this market decline isn’t indicative of a struggling industry, however, but rather an industry undergoing a metamorphosis, because declining sales in sports drinks are being offset by growing sales in functional drinks.
What is a functional drink? Functional drinks provide health benefits that go beyond basic nutrition. These benefits may include benefits for athletes, but they may also include benefits such as energy, for instance. In fact, if you scan today’s beverage shelves, you’ll see that sports drinks are no longer simply electrolytes and sugar dissolved in water. Today’s sports drinks are more advanced and specialized than ever before, with new formulations emerging to meet changing consumer demands.
As the market evolves, new formulations and advertising strategies will be required to effectively reach sports drinks users. Here are just five of the current market trends happening in the sports drinks space.
Natural Ingredients and Colors Becoming Mainstream
One of the most significant changes happening in the sports drinks space is the substitution of artificial compounds for healthier natural alternatives. Kristen Wemer, lab manager and senior product development specialist at beverage development company Flavorman (Louisville, KY), says more sports beverage manufacturers are now looking to make inroads in the natural space.
“There’s a big push toward natural ingredients,” Wemer notes. “Some people are trying to remove sugar and replace it with natural sweeteners, while others are using natural colors. Some people are trying to use juices instead of adding vitamins and minerals.”
Wemer notes that traditional sports drinks will likely invest in more specialized offerings like low-sugar drinks, as manufacturers strive to offer low-sugar alternatives. The challenge, Wemer notes, is in making sports drinks both healthy and tasty.
RTDs Going Strong
In Wemer’s opinion, while powdered sports drinks have their audience, ready-to-drink (RTD) sports beverages are set to enjoy much more popularity.
“Ready-to-drink is much more popular because it’s more convenient. The powder is definitely popular among hikers, campers, and ultramarathoners who need something light and convenient, but the majority market is RTDs, and I don’t see that changing.”
Dairy Protein Remains Dominant, but Plant Protein Advances
Incorporating protein into sports drinks is still common practice in the industry, but manufacturers are beginning to change formulations and are eyeing plant proteins for specific purposes. As such, Wemer says, while dairy proteins, specifically whey protein, are maintaining their dominance in the market, more opportunities are emerging for plant protein–based drinks.
However, Wemer adds, “Whey is very easy to work with from a technical standpoint. Dairy protein is more soluble than plant protein. You can use dairy protein in a Gatorade-type drink without giving it a creamy texture. Plant proteins are becoming more popular, but they’re harder to work with—they’re better for creamy post-workout drinks.”
Sports Drinks Category Broadens to Include Functional Drinks
While past sports drinks have focused on improving sports performance—with a specific emphasis on electrolytes—industry research shows that the sports drinks market is expanding to include products that have traditionally been considered functional beverages. A 2016 report by research firm MyDrink Beverages (Kaunas, Lithuania) has found that the definition of “sports drink” has expanded.
“Sports drinks are becoming multifunctional, incorporating rehydration, nutrition, and recovery to benefit the body before, during, or after sports,” Juste Akmenskyte, partner marketing consultant at MyDrink Beverages, said in a press release.
Wemer agrees that the boundaries of the sports drinks category are changing. “The lines are getting blurred with respect to what’s a sports drink and what’s a functional drink,” Wemer says. “We’re seeing similar ingredient lists—simple carbohydrates, and maybe just sodium as the electrolyte.”
Thermogenic Drinks Gaining Ground, but Face an Uphill Battle
Weight loss still remains a priority among sports drinks users, but experts say thermogenic sports drinks are seeing only minor growth. Wemer notes that many of the ingredients typically used in thermogenic drinks are impractical for a variety of reasons.
According to Wemer, “A lot of thermogenic ingredients are expensive, or they don’t work well in a liquid format, or they don’t taste very good.” Wemer also points to thermogenic ingredients’ short shelf life as another limitation. Most liquid-soluble thermogenics simply don’t store well, she says, which is problematic when using them in a beverage.
Specialization Will Drive Future Market Growth
MyDrink Beverages’ 2016 report studied the recent brand launches of 10 sports drinks and found that the most successful drink launches were those that had a specific target audience. Wemer agrees, pointing to the proliferation of new niches as opportunities for sports drink manufacturers.
Says Wemer: “In the next six months, the market is going to get much more specialized—more niche drinks for different types of consumers. We’ve seen some sports drinks with a target market in e-sports, for instance.”
Industry data show that the sports drinks niche isn’t shrinking, but rather, changing. With a growing demand for natural and multifunctional drinks, new formulations will be required to meet the needs of specific demographic segments. Combined with an effective marketing strategy, manufacturers and distributors can maintain a competitive edge by producing natural, low-sugar sports drinks with a clear niche in mind.