Sports nutrition grows up: Behaviors, trends, ingredients, and advancements driving today’s sports nutrition products

Today’s market is flush with various sports-nutrition supplements, including plant- and animal-based protein powders, tablets, capsules, tablets, and more.

Industry observers looking at the sports nutrition category today most likely don’t know that the entire segment evolved out of the clean living and physical culture movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

One of the most famous early popularizers of exercise and nutrition was Jack LaLanne. In 1936, LaLanne opened what many considered the country’s first health and fitness club in Oakland, California. Even in those early years, LaLanne believed that processed foods were the reason for many health problems and that daily nutritional supplementation was important.

During this time, our nation’s first health food stores emerged, and along with them, the very first “sports nutrition” products. Two examples, both introduced in 1938, were low-carb, high-protein bread (“Proteo Bread”) and bulk nut flours.1

While initially inspired by these early pioneers and product entrants, the current sports nutrition market has expanded and skyrocketed over the last 83-plus years.

The Sports Nutrition Market Today

Today, sports nutrition plays a crucial role in maximizing the effects of physical activity for consumers exercising to improve physical health. According to industry market data published between 2019 and 2020, the value of the global sports nutrition market declined by 32.1%. The primary reason for this decline was the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the global market value is $15.6 billion, and experts expect it to grow at a CAGR of 8.9% from 2020 to 2027.2,3

The market data suggest that today’s consumers are more likely to make dietary changes that support healthy aging than to make changes only based on athletic performance. More than 20% of consumers seek performance products that offer value-adds, such as anti-inflammatory effects or support for cognitive, vision, or bone and joint health.

Sports Nutrition Consumers—An Overview

The importance of leading an active lifestyle is fueling the sports-nutrition marketplace. A 2021 report4 from the Physical Activity Council shows that high percentages of Americans aged six and above are involved in fitness sports (67%), individual sports (43.3%), and outdoor sports (52.9%), with a healthy number participating in team sports (22.1%).

Consumers are becoming more aware of the value of optimal nutrition and healthier lifestyles, all of which positively impact the sport-nutrition supplement market.

Current trends in sports nutrition reveal that:

  • There is an increasing emphasis on clean-label statements, including—but not limited to—”No banned substances,” “No artificial sweeteners,” and “No GMOs.” Clean-label sports nutrition finished products are customarily priced 25% above the category average.
  • Consumer and manufacturer demand for plant proteins, like pea and soy, is rising as interest in animal-protein alternatives expands.
  • Pre-workout formulations are becoming very popular on social media. Note the ubiquity of the “#preworkout” hashtag, which recently amassed 4 million posts on Instagram.

Popular Sports Nutrition Ingredients and Products

Today, the market is flush with various sports-nutrition supplements, including plant- and animal-based protein powders, tablets, capsules, tablets, and more.

Among the most popular offerings are branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), B vitamins, caffeine, and creatine, not to mention the plethora of hydration and sports drinks. Then there are protein supplements. Protein products are a virtual market unto itself comprising protein powders, protein bars, and energy bars.

The nutritional drinks segment shows one of the strongest growth lines in the category, as this space easily allows companies to highlight health benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike.2

Sports Nutrition Drinks

According to a report from Mintel, “Sports Nutrition and Performance Drinks—US, March 2019,”2 consumers are looking for more “functionality from beverages in a growing number of categories, which will continue to put pressure on sports, performance, and nutrition drinks.” The report also highlights a blurring of lines between nutritional, performance, and weight-loss drinks.

In addition, Mintel’s data suggest that most consumers between the ages of 18 and 54 believe that performance and nutrition drinks contain “too many artificial ingredients.” That is bad news for mainstream brands that still feature artificial flavors and artificial sweeteners, like sucralose—not to mention high-fructose corn syrup—but good news for “clean label” natural brands, as noted above.

Protein

Mintel’s “Better for You Eating Trends–US, August 2018” report cited by Mintel in 2019 showed that protein content is a vital purchasing factor for 43% of consumers seeking healthy foods and beverages. Additionally, 52% of consumers who buy sports, nutrition, and performance drinks are looking for high protein content, making protein the primary health benefit driving the growth of this category.2 In a survey of 1,168 internet users aged 18+ who purchased any sports nutrition product in the preceding three months, 81% stated they purchased protein powders and 77% bought protein drinks.2

Another noteworthy finding of the Mintel report was that consumers are looking for a healthy mix of dairy and plant-based protein options. Brands that offer a range of formulations are likely to have the broadest appeal.

Collagen

Collagen continues gaining traction in the beauty segment. Consumers are looking for natural, simple formulations that can enhance appearance—and more—from the inside out. Since collagen is excellent for skin appearance, having high-quality collagen in your product offering will be imperative. In recent years, collagen has grown to be an integral ingredient in beauty-from-within supplements and related products. As recently as 2020, consumers in the United States spent an estimated $293 million on collagen products.

One of the reasons why collagen is becoming such a popular ingredient and standalone finished product in sports nutrition is its versatility. For example, collagen supplementation can help promote joint comfort and flexibility, including knee joint discomfort in athletes. In addition, collagen studies show that a combination of collagen supplementation plus resistance training can increase muscle strength in older adults experiencing muscle mass loss or sarcopenia.

The global collagen supplement market is strong and is estimated to reach $795 million by 2025 with a CAGR of 5.8%.

Aside from these benefits, as noted above, a growing body of research indicates that collagen promotes beauty from within and supports cardiovascular health.

Brand owners are encouraged to think about dose forms, unique packaging, and mixability as ways to stand out in this very crowded but lucrative space.

Greens and Mushroom Blends

Greens continue to gain momentum as part of the daily routine of many consumers. Enhancing your greens with probiotics is a great way to add value to the typical greens formula.

Advancements in blending techniques and improvements in flavoring options have made the consumption of these beverages more mainstream—and tolerable!

Though newer to the protein powder game, pea protein has proven to be an alternative to people who want a plant-based, soy-free option. Research also shows that pea protein is equally satiating when compared to whey protein. It also contains all nine essential amino acids that the body requires (as does soy).

Medical Mushrooms

Mushrooms are an emerging category that brand owners would be wise to watch closely. The latest research published on mushrooms indicates that they can also safely support cognitive function. Brand owners are currently positioning their mushroom powders as replacements for morning coffees and tea.

What about sports nutrition?

Well, compounds in medicinal mushrooms support the blood cells’ ability to carry and enhance energy production in muscles. In addition, these constituents reduce lactic acid accumulation within muscles and accelerate its clearance from the body, which results in the increased capacity of an athlete to train effectively—and longer—with less fatigue.

Medicinal mushrooms, like shiitake, also may support healthy cholesterol levels already in a normal range, and arterial health. Medicinal mushrooms are additionally packed with nutrition and fiber and are low in sodium and calories. They provide essential nutrients while supporting satiety and reducing snack cravings. The feeling of being full helps consumers taking these products to manage their weight effectively.

Importance of Flavors in Sports Nutrition

Gone are the days of poor-tasting powders, drinks, and bars. Today, the flavor of a product plays an all-important role. According to surveys carried out by Mintel2, more than 75% of consumers are influenced by the flavor of a sports nutrition product when purchasing it.

Consumers today demand excitement and innovation and are greatly influenced by new flavors. In addition, innovative flavors help your supplements stand out in a field of competitive products.

There is absolutely no doubt that the sports nutrition category has grown up.

Vincent Tricarico is the executive vice president of Twinlab Consolidation Corporation and NutraScience Labs (Farmingdale, NY). With over 20 years of direct-to-consumer and business-to-business experience, Tricarico is a respected executive in the dietary supplement industry and is well known for his ability to consistently build and grow successful teams that produce results. Over the years, he has been featured in numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Medium.com, Natural Products Insider, Nutritional Outlook, and Whole Foods Magazine.

References

  1. Health Foods Retailing. 1938–1939 [bound volume]. Chicago, Illinois.
  2. Mintel report. “Sports, Nutrition and Performance Drinks US, March 2019 — Executive Summary.” Published March 2019.
  3. Grand View Research report. “Sports Nutrition Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product Type (Sports Drink, Sports Supplements, Sports Food), By Distribution Channel (E-commerce, Brick and Mortar), By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2021 – 2028.” Published May 2021.
  4. Physical Activity Council report. “2021 Physical Activity Council’s Overview Report on U.S. Participation.” Published 2021.