Sports drinks consumers are continuing to drive market change through an increased interest in healthier, more natural products.
The sports drinks market is fertile ground for innovation, with a number of brands working on new formulations using non-traditional ingredients. As consumers continue to become more health-conscious, brands are responding by creating sports drinks with natural, plant-based ingredients. Here are just a few of the emerging trends in sports drinks, driven by consumers’ growing awareness of health and nutrition.
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Formulators Switch to Plant Proteins en Masse
Following the general market trends, the sports nutrition space is increasingly adopting plant-based ingredients. Jim Tonkin, founder and president of Healthy Brand Builders (Scottsdale, AZ), says that one of the most exciting innovations in sports nutrition is industry’s transition to plant-derived proteins in drink formulations.
“Whey protein isolate is what most people in the industry have been using,” Tonkin says, “but the industry is now switching to plant-based proteins like pea, rice, chia, and hemp.”
Tonkin says the sports drink market is also seeing a surge of activity in sports waters, including the addition of new protein-enriched water products. Furthermore, brands entering the sports water space are increasingly marketing their products using terms like “hydration” and “hydrating benefit,” which Tonkin says is a misnomer.
“The energy coming to the hydration space is overblown,” he says. “Our bodies are 80% water. We have to drink regularly to rehydrate ourselves. Any water-based beverage is hydrating.”
Tonkin notes that while much of the industry’s attention is on plant-based proteins, whey protein isn’t going away anytime soon. Plant-based protein beverages are gaining in popularity, yes, but whey protein is still commonly used in sports drink formulations.
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Clean Energy Squares Off with Traditional Energy
The “clean energy” category is quickly becoming a strong contender in the energy drink space. Market researchers expect natural and organic energy drinks to outpace traditional energy drinks in growth over the next five years. Holly McHugh, marketing associate for Imbibe (Niles, IL), says that Grand View Market Research is forecasting natural and organic energy drinks will occupy 40% of the energy drink market by 2025, reaching $32 billion in annual sales.
“There is enormous potential for the natural and organic energy drink category,” McHugh says. “Brands are incorporating naturally energizing ingredients like green coffee, green tea, and ginseng, and are positioning their products as clean-label by making claims like ‘natural energy.’”
Tonkin agrees, noting that clean-energy drinks have been building slowly due to the fact that the existing major energy drinks players are reluctant to give up market share. Now, though, energy drinks made from natural sources like yerba mate are making their way into the market and are forcing established companies to rethink their plans.
Says Tonkin: “Monster, Red Bull, and Rockstar own the energy space, and they aren’t going to give it up easily. While these big players hold on to their declining percentages year after year, they’re also buying newly developed products that consumers love in order to expand their portfolios. These big companies aren’t very good at innovating. It’s easier for them to spend $300 million buying a smaller company than it is to create a new product themselves.”
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Protein, Cognitive Performance Dominate Pre-Workout Drinks
Pre-workout drinks are quickly adding more functional ingredients that can help athletes to perform better and recover faster. McHugh notes that ingredients like collagen and nootropics are featuring more prominently in these beverages thanks to their brain-boosting and body-repairing properties.
“Nootropic ingredients are suggested to improve focus on exercises, especially when it comes to counting reps or competitive sports,” McHugh says. “Collagen is also being used in some sports nutrition products to aid in joint recovery.”
McHugh says that protein is still a major player in pre-workout drinks, and protein waters in particular are well positioned for market growth.
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CBD: A Complicated Future
Industry interest in CBD-enriched sports drinks is growing, but CBD’s future as a supplement is far from certain. McHugh says that CBD will likely become a major ingredient in sports formulations this year thanks to its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties.
Tonkin, though, cautions that CBD is far from ready for the market. Despite the passage of the Farm Bill, he says, CBD is still considered a Schedule 1 drug and has not been approved in the United States as a dietary supplement or food product.
“The Farm Bill allows for hemp to be grown in the United States, but it’s going to be done in a controlled environment. CBD is going to grow in a few different ways, and it is going to become popular, but right now it’s a complicated time. I think you’ll start finding it in small shots that are conditioned for muscle relief.”
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Brands Continue the Search for the Magic Bullet
Sports drinks are expected to continue growing, with an emphasis on a simple, clean-label ingredient approach. As the sports drinks industry diversifies, brands will continue working on innovative products while also moving toward organic, low-sugar formulations.
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