Plant-based protein is here to stay say experts at AHPA's inaugural Sports Nutrition Congress


Despite shifting spending habits following the pandemic, plant-based protein still seeing significant growth, according to experts speaking at AHPA's inaugural Sports Nutrition Congress.

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The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA; Silver Spring, MD) held its inaugural Sports Nutrition Congress on October 21, 2020. During the session “Game On! U.S. and International Trends in the Sports Nutrition Market,” a number of industry professionals highlighted the importance of plant-based protein in the sports nutrition space, prior to and following the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Tom Vierhile, vice president strategic insights, North America, for Innova Market Insights, sports nutrition products with plant-based claims had a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 54.5% between 2015 and 2019. The entire sports nutrition space experienced a 19.9% CAGR between 2015 and 2019. In 2019, 15% of sports nutrition products contain plant protein. While vegan claims are growing in popularity in sports nutrition products, plant-based protein products actually have a diverse set of consumers beyond vegans.

For example, vegetarian product claims grew 61% in 2019, says Vierhile, making vegetarian the fastest growing health claim in the sports nutrition market. This is followed by joint health (+60%), heart health (+59%), whole grain (+59%), and finally, vegan (+57%) claims. The vegetarian claim allows manufacturers the flexibility of using animal-based protein alongside plant-based protein, attracting consumers who are actively trying to cut down on animal-based protein sources without removing them from their diets entirely.

Jack Gayton, senior buyer, sports nutrition, The Vitamin Shoppe (Secaucus, NJ), also points to a greater openness among clientele for such hybrid products, citing sustainability concerns around animal agriculture. Hybrid products allow consumers to buy familiar and proven proteins such as whey, but in a form that is perceived as more sustainable because it is also accompanied by plant-based protein. Hybrid products can also help consumers transition to fully plant-based products. The interest is certainly there. According to Gayton, The Vitamin Shoppe’s retail sales of plant-based protein grew 11% compared to +6% for total protein space, making it the #1 growing segment in sports nutrition

This is particularly impressive when you consider that plant-based proteins make up only about 80% of the volume of whey protein. Given the interest in plant-based protein, it may be a crucial entry point to the sports nutrition space, ultimately benefitting other products in the long term. According to Gayton, 59% of plant-based protein consumers are new to these products. So, they’re either moving over from animal-based protein or introducing themselves to the sports nutrition space entirely via plant-based protein. When looking at search trends in the e-commerce side of The Vitamin Shoppe, Gayton said there was a nearly 12% decline in the “whey protein” search term, while the more general term of “protein” increased nearly 22% and “plant-based protein” increased 20.55%. This points to a lack of interest in whey protein and a growing interest in its alternatives.

Changing habits and shifting priorities

While there may be a declining interest in certain protein sources, such as whey, there will still be a demand, seeing as plant-based protein still makes up the minority of protein products on the market, and demands a higher price point. Here, spending habits will differ, depending on the priorities of the consumer. Particularly during the pandemic, when many are experiencing financial strain or uncertainty about their financial future, lower cost options may be preferable.

On the other hand, those for whom fitness is a lifestyle, may be more than willing to continue buying their preferred dietary supplement products. For example, Gayton explains that many of The Vitamin Shoppe’s customers consider themselves bodybuilders or fitness competitors. Following the pandemic, average spend per customer grew 27% YTD, which amounts to more than $50 per customer. However, despite spending more per trip, they are also shopping less frequently (every 35 days compared to every 33 days prior to the pandemic). That makes every dollar spent that much more important.

With shoppers willing to spend more per trip to reduce the number of times they go shopping, The Vitamin Shoppe experienced a 7% increase YTD in average unit retail, as well as significant increases in digital sales. The categories with notable sales growth were on-the-go (+10%), protein (+6%), and sports nutrition products such as creatine and pre-workout (+2). Weight management products, on the other hand, saw a significant decline, with the exception of appetite suppressing supplements.

Since the pandemic started, consumers, including sports nutrition consumers are prioritizing proper nutrition and immune health to better fortify themselves against potential diseases. The increase in protein, particularly plant-based protein, and decline in weight management products may also be a reaction to the pandemic, as consumers seek to improve their health through fitness and nutrition rather than appearance through weight loss. The satiety products may also be viewed as a preventative measure, as people spend more time at home and fight the temptation of repeated trips to the fridge or pantry for snacks.

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