Protein Isn’t the Only Game in Town for Sports Nutrition

November 3, 2015
Melissa Kvidahl

,
Jennifer Grebow
Jennifer Grebow

Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.

,
Michael Crane

Nutritional Outlook, Nutritional Outlook Vol. 18 No. 9, Volume 18, Issue 9

Many other ingredients are helping serious and casual athletes reach holistic health.

As it becomes clear to consumers that physical fitness is an instrumental component of overall wellness and lasting vitality, everyone, from power walkers to CrossFit aficionados, is heading to the sports nutrition aisle in search of the right supplements.

According to Euromonitor International, the U.S. sports nutrition market reached $5.95 billion by the end of last year, with U.S. sales accounting for over half of the global $10 billion market. With numbers like that, it’s obvious that the category’s shoppers are diverse-and, in response, so too are the offerings. In other words, the high-protein bars and powders valued by bodybuilder types are no longer the only offerings on the table.

“While we all know that protein is the leader in the sports nutrition market, not every consumer is looking for the same functional solution,” says Michael Bush, senior vice president at Ganeden (Cleveland, OH). “Consumers who eat a high-protein diet aren’t looking for more protein; they are looking for non-protein offerings that will support digestive and immune health, bone health, amino acid levels, energy, endurance, and recovery.”

Though still a smaller segment of the sports nutrition market, sales of non-protein offerings are growing. Euromonitor valued the non-protein segment at just $248.6 million in 2000; by 2014, it had grown to $667.9 million; this year, it jumped over 7% to $715.9 million.

According to Richard G. Mueller, president of Biothera Health Inc. (Eagan, MN), this upward trend is indicative of a shifting mentality among shoppers that started 20 years ago with eliminating “bad” ingredients like sugar, sodium, and artificial sweeteners. Today, while shoppers have clearly embraced adding in “good” ingredients like protein, the mentality has shifted yet again-and this time, it goes beyond adding and subtracting singular ingredients to focusing on broader benefits like heart health, joint health, energy, digestion, and immunity through a multipronged approach.

“With goals of the user expanding from just fat loss, muscle-mass gain, or improved sports performance to improvements in overall energy, better mental focus, and decreased pain, the types of products people are looking for to optimize their performance is expanding beyond items like protein powders,” agrees Amanda Carlson-Phillips, MS, RD, CSSD, vice president of nutrition and research at human performance company EXOS (Phoenix, AZ). “More and more, people are starting to understand that our body is a complex system and not a series of linear actions. Creating holistic game plans around nutrition and supplementation supports benefit attainment, versus trying to solve one problem at a time.”

Though protein remains the category leader-clocking in at $5.3 billion in sales in the United States alone in 2014, says Euromonitor-non-protein offerings represent an opportunity for growth if formulators can make the case that their ingredient or product makes sense alongside an existing protein regimen or as a part of a holistic health plan in support of general physical fitness.

 

Keeping Athletes Well

At Biothera, immune health is starting to creep into the sports nutrition category and remains an area of untapped potential. “What is often not correlated is that high-intensity exercise can temporarily weaken the immune system. This is commonly known as the ‘open window’ where the immune system is impaired, causing an increased risk of infection,” says Mueller. This can pose a problem for athletes who can’t be derailed from their training programs.

To this end, the company’s Wellmune beta-glucan was found to reduce upper respiratory tract infection symptoms by 40% in marathon runners, says Mueller, and can make sense combined with protein or probiotics in a sports nutrition product. More recently, University of North Texas researchers found that Wellmune may also benefit more-casual exercisers. At the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s annual conference this July, the researchers presented the results of a study performed on 109 adults who were not regular exercisers. They found that after subjects supplemented with Wellmune and performed brisk treadmill walking or light jogging, they experienced a significant increase in salivary IgA-an antibody critical to mucosal immunity-an indicator that Wellmune alleviated the mucosal immune suppression that may come as a result of strenuous exercise.

“These new results suggest that even a small amount of exercise stress can trigger a drop in immune responses and that Wellmune can help enhance key immune functions to keep individuals healthy,” said Brian McFarlin, PhD, the study’s lead researcher.

Within herbal supplements, immune-health booster Rhodiola rosea may also support athlete health. A new study1 suggests for the first time that Rhodiola rosea may protect athletes from viral infections.

Researchers in North Carolina examined blood samples from 48 marathon runners to compare the effects of 600 mg/day of Rhodiola rosea versus a placebo on the body’s response to viral infections after heavy exercise. Although initial studies found Rhodiola rosea had no impact on inflammation or oxidative stress, additional testing of an in vitro assay found that polyphenolic compounds in Rhodiola rosea may have protected the runner’s cells against vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) by delaying the infection for up to 12 hours after the marathon.

“Basically, after heavy exertion, bacteria and viruses can multiply at a higher rate than normal due to factors in the serum like stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines,” said David Nieman, PhD, lead author of the Rhodiola rosea study. “This is why runners are six times more likely to get sick after a marathon.”

Also of interest, researchers from the University of Aberdeen (Aberdeen, Scotland) report that krill oil may increase markers of immune function after a bout of acute exercise. The findings come from a new study2 published in PLoS One.

The study followed 19 men and 18 women who were randomly assigned to consume either 2 g per day of krill oil or a placebo for six weeks. Aker Biomarine (Oslo, Norway) provided the Superba krill oil capsules used in the study.

At the beginning and end of the supplementation period, all subjects participated in a maximal exercise test and cycling time trial to evaluate exercise performance and illicit an immune response. The cycling time trial included participants cycling at 70 revolutions per minute with workload increasing every minute until volitional exhaustion.

Blood samples were collected before both exercise trials, as well as immediately after, one hour after, and three hours after exercise. Researchers examined the blood for markers of immune function, including erythrocyte fatty acid composition, plasma IL-6 concentration, thiobarbituric acid reactive substances (TBARS) concentration, natural killer (NK) cell cytotoxic activity, and peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) production.

Krill oil supplementation did not appear to modify exercise performance among study participants, but the experimental group did show increased PBMC IL-2 production and NK cell cytotoxic activity three hours post-exercise compared with the placebo group.

“The current study has demonstrated that NK cell cytotoxic activity and PBMC IL-2, but not other cytokines, are increased after krill oil supplementation,” wrote the researchers. “What remains to be established are the mechanisms through which n-3 PUFA [polyunsaturated fatty acid] supplementation results in these alterations.”

 

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