Why does creatine still dominate sports nutrition?
Creatine is still going strong, with emerging research continuing to prove its benefits.
As the sports and active nutrition market reclaims its glory, which ingredients and products are the champions?
If you thought this summer’s scorchers were hot, check out the sports nutrition market’s temperatures.
The numbers speak for themselves. And the numbers are beyond steaming, heading towards boiling over.
For example, Grand View Research sized the global sports nutrition market at an estimated $42.9 billion in 2022, with an expected compound annual growth rate of 7.4% from 2023 to 2030.1
In the U.S. alone, market researcher SPINS LLC (Chicago) reports the sports/active nutrition supplements category at over $6.8 billion in sales for the 52-week period ending July 16, 2023, a 17.6% jump from the previous 52-week period—and a lava-like leap from the $2.5 billion recorded back in 2020.2
It’s not just the post-COVID rebound that’s making the market sizzle, although that certainly didn’t hurt. According to Scott Dicker, market insights director for SPINS, it was “the expansion of the audience to include women and ‘casual’ gym-goers/athletes” who show growing interest in some of the category’s supplements that “have benefits beyond just exercise.”
Creatine Attracts New Consumers
Creatine is one such supplement, says Dicker. With $48.6 million in U.S. sales in the 52 weeks ending July 16, 2023, compared to $34.1 million in sales one year ago—amounting to a 42.5% increase—the ingredient is experiencing a rebirth of sorts.3 Once the domain of hardcore bodybuilders and emulating teenage boys, creatine attracted controversy back in the aughts, despite what proponents claim was a strong and safe scientific profile for helping support muscle growth, strength, and recovery. Today, the growth for creatine rests with audience expansion and emerging scientific research that shows promise for some cognitive functions, like memory and brain fog.
Creatine is still going strong, with emerging research continuing to prove its benefits.
Dicker says that creatine continues to find renewed success as new audiences of women and the cognitive health–focused “flock to the well-studied muscle builder as new research is starting to support creatine beyond the gym.”
And then there are the TikTok influencers, but not necessarily the ones you’d think. According to this year’s annual Health and Wellness Trend Report 2023 recently released by The Vitamin Shoppe, the “creatine explosion,” as the retailer refers to one of its top-five trends, is partially driven by creative content from female influencers on TikTok, including those who spout the supplement’s benefits for maintaining bone and muscle health when combined with resistance training during and after menopause.4
The report says that beyond bodybuilders and gym rats, creatine supplements are attracting more women, older demographics, and even vegans (who don’t typically consume creatine-rich foods), as research has shown it can support a host of benefits, from healthy aging and combatting muscle loss in older individuals to supporting brain function and memory.
Meanwhile, sports drinks continue their steady upswing, according to Circana, a Chicago-based market research firm (formerly IRI and The NPD Group). Since 2020, Circana has tracked double-digit gains for U.S. sports drink sales, with the latest report showing $11.35 billion in sales for the 52-week period ending July 16, 2023.5 The steady percentage gains in the past four years alone have been impressive: 12.6% in calendar year 2020 (ending January 3, 2021), 19.3% in 2021 (ending January 2, 2022), 13.4% in 2022 (ending January 1, 2023), and 10.6% in the 52 weeks ending July 16, 2023.
Likewise, energy drinks are enjoying similar success, according to Circana, with a 13.6% increase in U.S. retail sales in the 52-week period ending July 16, 2023, compared to the previous 52-week period, taking sales to $20.2 billion.5
Energy Drink Sales Get Caffeinated
In fact, “the turbocharging of the already booming category of energy drinks” is the top trend from The Vitamin Shoppe’s 2023 report.4 The retailer also reported that its sales in the energy drink category “jumped over 40% at its stores in the first four months of the year, on top of a 12% gain in 2022.” In a May 2023 consumer survey commissioned by The Vitamin Shoppe, respondents who regularly consume energy drinks said they did so for the following reasons: to stay alert/focused (55%), for exercise/workouts (55%), and because they enjoy the taste (52%).4
And SPINS reports that caffeine ingredients reached U.S. sales of a whopping $267 million in the 52-week period ending July 16, 2023, representing a 21% change from the prior 52-week period.3
That makes sense given that caffeine is one of the most popular and prolific ingredients in energy drinks, as is another through-the-roof ingredient for this market: taurine.
The Rise Of Taurine
Taurine is bursting with a 634% increase in sales, rising to $10 million in the 52-week period ending July 16, 2023, compared to a year ago, according to SPINS data.3
Taurine’s sales explosion was “mainly buoyed by a lot of new products entering the market,” says Dicker. He goes on to explain that “taurine has received a lot of media buzz around longevity. With longevity a buzzy topic in general right now, it makes sense that any ingredient linked to it will see a sales bump.” However, he adds that the “longevity” of that sales bump remains to be seen.
Hydration Helps Quench The Sports/Active Nutrition Category
Ohad Cohen, CEO of ingredient supplier Gadot Biochemical Industries (Haifa, Israel), says that countless numbers of fitness enthusiasts are looking for products to assist in performance. “Within the sports and active nutrition category, hydration is trending,” he says.
The Vitamin Shoppe report tags hydration as its number-two trend in 2023, crediting innovative brands and young consumers with elevating demand for electrolyte products that are fun and flavorful.4
The steep incline in hydration and electrolyte product sales—SPINS data for the U.S. demonstrate that the category grew by 68% in the 12 months ending in March 2023, on top of a 168% increase in the prior year, the report notes—represents a shift from the traditional audience for these products.
Previously it was athletes and those plagued by dehydration who were the category’s stalwarts, but the audience is morphing, with “young individuals over-indexing the average shopper by over 60% in this category, and boomers and seniors under-indexing the category by nearly 70%,” The Vitamin Shoppe reports.4
Another hot ingredient is magnesium. The Vitamin Shoppe gave magnesium the last spot in its top-five trends in 2023.4 Brittany Michels, RDN, LDN, CPT, The Vitamin Shoppe’s registered dietitian nutritionist, says that “there are estimates that up to 70% of the general population is deficient in magnesium.”
Magnesium is a mineral and an electrolyte, and Michels explains that “we lose magnesium via sweat and stress” and that “athletes, especially those with high sweat rates, are prone to magnesium depletion. The need for magnesium increases as physical activity levels go up.”
Beyond magnesium’s physical fitness–related benefits, including energy production, muscle relaxation and recovery, and normal blood pressure support, Michels says that “some research shows that magnesium may reduce the accumulation of lactic acid during hard exercise sessions, as well as exert a protective effect on muscle damage.”
Like many of the trends noted in The Vitamin Shoppe’s report, magnesium owes its meteoric climb, in part, to influencers. Although health professionals still rank number-one (24%) as the primary source of information for wellness trends, social media and influencers (21%), health and wellness websites (20%), and news media (19%) are not far behind.4
Influencers, Technology, and Personalization Seen as Growth Trends
For a category that built its business through testimonials, celebrity athletes, and influencers long before social media was a thing, those rankings may not seem like much of a surprise. But there is a shift, whether subtle or not, in the mindsight that accompanies brands working with sports heroes or assembling a small army of everyday fitness fanatics.
Joel Totoro, RD, director of sport science at Thorne, a health and wellness company with deep roots in sports supplements and strong ties with celebrity athletes and ambassadors, believes that “with the continued rise and popularity of social media, celebrities, athletes, and influencers have a huge opportunity to connect and engage with audiences around the world.”
He appreciates that “social media enables them to bring attention to many topics, including health and wellness.” However, he also acknowledges the weight that comes along with working with sports heroes and other influencers, particularly in this new time of rapid and constant wall-to-wall noise.
Totoro says that while social media platforms “spark buzz and foster conversation, there is a huge responsibility and an important one to provide accurate information, education, and resources.” He adds that “celebrities and athletes that do this well rely on their networks of healthcare providers and experts to help highlight and share the right messages and avoid misinformation.”
Beyond supplements, Thorne sells a collection of in-home tests—for sleep, stress, and the gut, for example—that enable people to test their urine, blood levels, and saliva, relying on biomarkers to help determine what nutrients and hormones they may need more of, or less of, as the case may be.
Technology is one of two top recent innovations for this category, according to Totoro, who says that “technology plays a crucial role in shaping the sports supplement landscape. The availability of data from wearables to personalized nutrition and at-home biomarker testing has enabled companies to tailor supplements to an individual’s unique makeup and specific performance goals.”
The reason why this personalized approach is promising for future category growth? It’s resonating with consumers, says Totoro.
Microbiome & Mushrooms: Two to Watch
The gut-brain axis—a bi-directional communication system between the gut and the brain—is the next trend that Totoro wants the industry to be aware of because he says that “a healthy gut microbiome supports cognitive function, mood regulation, and stress management, all vital elements that separate the champions from the rest.”
He credits advances in research and testing with pushing the importance of gut health to the forefront. Totoro notes that “although a well-balanced diet can provide the body with essential nutrients, it’s the gut microbiome that acts as the gatekeeper to unlock its full potential.”
Totoro reminds us that “the gut’s ability to break down and absorb nutrients directly impacts energy levels, muscle recovery, and overall endurance,” all of which are important for consumers whether they are competitive athletes or those who simply enjoy an active lifestyle.
One of Thorne’s top nutritional supplements that has exhibited impressive growth in the past year is EnteroMend, with curcumin and L-glutamine, both functional ingredients that support gut health, according to Totoro.
Dicker is not surprised by the science-based hype for microbiome-related products. When asked about anticipated trends for the coming year or two, he says that “microbiome and mushrooms are two segments that are just scratching the surface of what can be true game-changing products for the active-lifestyle consumer and the consumer at large.”
While he advises that it’s hard to pinpoint which specific ingredients or strains will be successful, he tells the industry to be on the lookout “for the next generation of active-lifestyle ingredients to come from these buckets.”
Protein Priorities, Caffeine Consistency, Shroom-Boom
NSF International’s (Ann Arbor, MI) Principal Technical Manager John Travis identifies a few ingredients that he deems as ones to keep an eye on.
First, the grandaddy of sports nutrition: protein. “There is a continuing trend in the popularity of protein, likely driven by the research findings on its positive impact on athletic performance,” says Travis. “Researchers continue to study [this] impact, and the positive findings from those studies are not lost on the sports dietitians or the athletes they serve.”
Caffeine, acknowledged earlier as a super thriver from a sales perspective, is also one of Travis’s trending ingredients. He says, “It has been a staple of energy and preworkout products, and now it’s permeated hydration products.”
Based on what he’s seeing within the company’s NSF Certified for Sport program, Travis aligns with Dicker’s prediction of the shroom-boom, stating that “ingredients from fungi are also becoming more prevalent, likely due to the purported positive impact on cognitive function,” a necessary component of athletic performance.
Major Breakthrough For CBD
Travis is also not surprised that “CBD is a trendy ingredient, with athletes seeking natural alternatives for their [pain]-relief needs,” a necessity given the intense workouts, conditioning, and physical competitions that athletes subject their bodies to on a daily basis.
The thought is that hemp cannabidiol (CBD) will become more widely accepted as policies and legislation are clarified and continue to evolve.
One important victory pushing CBD into the mainstream was last year’s June announcement by Major League Baseball (MLB) that officially opened the door to league and MLB club sponsorships with CBD companies, available to those companies that are NSF Certified for Sport. Four months later, MLB and Charlotte’s Web, a market leader in hemp-derived CBD products, announced an exclusive multiyear strategic partnership, making Charlotte’s Web pioneers with the first CBD sponsorship deal with a major pro sports league. According to a press release, this deal provides CBD visibility to MLB’s professional athletes, millions of fans, and communities.6 Making the deal happen required a rigorous approval process that brought the two legacy brands together and filled a major gap in the sports channel for an NSF Certified for Sport portfolio of CBD products for players and consumers demanding safe, natural options to support recovery, help keep calm under pressure, and help sleep cycles and focus. Charlotte’s Web’s ReCreate Daily Edge was the first broad-spectrum hemp-derived tincture to be Certified for Sport by NSF.6 But it’s likely not the last.
A huge part of the growth in the sports/active nutrition market comes from the mainstreaming of sports nutrition products through an expansion of audience to include more active-lifestyle consumers.
A few years ago, Dicker unofficially coined the term as “the sportification” of non-athletes, an inclusionary approach that he says has led the category to “being for everyone.”
He explains that “the thought is that what is good for elite athletes is probably good for [everyone else] too,” at least from a fitness standpoint. Dicker continues, “With a great emphasis on healthy living and remaining active as long as possible, combined with a softening of marketing in this category to not only appeal to the ‘hardcore’ athletes, the category has become a staple of an ever-growing number of consumers, including women and older generations.”
Fit Lifestyle Opens Up New Opportunities for Industry And Consumers
This leads to another top-five trend from The Vitamin Shoppe’s 2023 report—and this one’s a big one, like a gigantic, fully open umbrella that aims to protect that broader consumer outreach with a welcoming approach. The approach encourages sports enthusiasts and the vitamin crowd to coexist, using some of the same sports and wellness supplements, sometimes for some different reasons. What’s also intriguing is The Vitamin Shoppe’s success with this concept to allow consumers to comfortably cross over to territories they previously wouldn’t have approached. Dare we say it’s a kinder, gentler movement that finds moms with kids in some of the same aisles as gym rats with bulging muscles.
Identified by The Vitamin Shoppe under the trend “Fit Lifestyle,” it builds on the interest from traditional sports supplement users to “expand into wellness supplements that address holistic needs.”4
Here’s the concept: not only are more traditional sports nutrition categories, like protein, preworkouts, and creatine, representing a majority of sales at The Vitamin Shoppe, but gym goers and sports nutrition customers are increasingly integrating more foundational health products—such as supergreens powders, stress-support formulas, immunity products, and multivitamins—into their supplement routines.4
What’s more, savvy brands were quick to drive this initiative forward. Brands traditionally known more for their proteins and preworkouts are now expanding with holistic health products to meet the demand, helping lead the way for the trend.4
“This cross-pollination of brands, product categories, and customers led The Vitamin Shoppe to create a new merchandise concept in December 2022 called Fit Lifestyle, which brings these whole-body wellness products from sports nutrition brands into a cohesive, shopping-friendly display at stores,” the report notes.4
Brian Hoke, chief merchandising officer at The Vitamin Shoppe, added in the report, “‘Fit Lifestyle’ is about complementing primary sports nutrition categories with categories that promote balance, recovery, and overall well-being—and what’s best is it’s with products from the same brands the sports nutrition customer knows and trusts. Our goal is to keep this customer thriving, in and out of the gym.”4
And it’s working. According to The Vitamin Shoppe, the Fit Lifestyle concept was an immediate success with customers, and robust initial sales led The Vitamin Shoppe to increase its original sales forecast for the initiative by 40% in 2023.4
The concept begs the question: will this work both ways? How far will the traditional vitamins-only customer travel into the unknown world of sports supplements? And will they need to learn another language? If the creatine trend is any indication, borders may already be broken down.
Jack Gayton, divisional vice president of merchandising at The Vitamin Shoppe, tells Nutritional Outlook, “Anecdotally, I can say that we have seen customer crossover from our vitamins and minerals categories into the Fit Lifestyle category. Our super-branded greens have been doing very well, along with our hydration products.”
So perhaps there’s a common language after all?
Then there is the continued strong interest in creatine to which Gayton says that “while most of those sales are from sport-minded customers, we are seeing the traditional vitamin customer, especially those in the 40-50+ age group, getting into creatine for its cognitive benefits.”
Gayton breaks news that “next year, we are going to expand on our Fit Lifestyle position and focus on longevity and products that can support staying vibrant as you age. I think that will be a trend all customers will have interest in, regardless of age.”
Staying Active Intertwines with Benefits, and Vice Versa
So, what does this all mean for the marathoners, the daily five-mile cyclists, the pickle ballers, and the Pilates proponents? And the mom who says she just likes the taste of protein bars?
Dicker says it means there is stronger focus on total wellness. “The dots are being connected that staying active leads to many health benefits like increased sleep quality, better cognitive function, and immune support. The same is true in reverse: sleep quality leads to being able to have more energy and stay active,” he says.
To pull a Martha (Stewart)-coined phrase, “It’s a good thing.”
For Dicker, the holistic crossover approach “makes more casual ‘athletes’ less apprehensive about buying these products now.” Using creatine as an example, he says that was a product that women typically stayed out of; however, social media, with women advocating the actual use of creatine—the whats, whys, and hows, along with explaining the health benefits—made it less scary for women to try it out, even if they were a casual gym-goer instead of a power lifter.
Dicker adds that “once you’ve tried a form of supplementation, and you hear about the benefits of another, it is not as daunting anymore.”
Of the sports and active nutrition market, “The overall category struggled in 2020 but came roaring back in 2021 and hasn’t looked back, being the fastest-growing category in Vitamins, Minerals, Supplements (VMS) [for] the past few years,” says Dicker.
Perhaps that’s the best news of all for companies in the sports/active nutrition category—its rise from the almost-ashes to red-hot lava heights—proving that reinvention is possible and victory is attainable.