Sports nutrition will be an important and successful market even after COVID-19 passes, says Michael McGuffin and AHPA, who hosts its upcoming Sports Nutrition Congress

September 28, 2020

Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, talks about why the time is right for the association’s first Sports Nutrition Congress happening on October 21.

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA; Silver Spring, MD) will host its first-ever Sports Nutrition Congress on Wednesday, October 21, at 8:00 AM-4:30 PM PDT. The event will take place virtually and will identify opportunities and challenges facing the sports nutrition industry today. The Congress also celebrates the 10th anniversary of AHPA’s Sports Nutrition Committee, which for the past decade has aimed to help promote responsible practices in the sports nutrition market by bringing sports brands, suppliers, and manufacturers together with regulators, legal experts, and more.

Nutritional Outlook spoke with Michael McGuffin, president of AHPA, about how this event will provide direction on how to navigate the sports nutrition market amidst emerging changes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most importantly, the event will underline why this category continues to be one of the most prominent in the dietary supplements and nutrition market, and how companies should continue to put their focus on safety, quality, and best practices to ensure longevity.

Nutritional Outlook: I understand this is the 10th anniversary of AHPA’s Sports Nutrition Committee. Can you discuss what the committee has focused on during its 10 years and why AHPA decided to host this first, inaugural Sports Nutrition Congress?

Michael McGuffin: We founded the Committee essentially because our members asked us to. We had quite a few of our legacy brands that had a footprint in that marketplace, and they felt like there was a need for companies in that part of the trade to have an opportunity to talk with each other to work on issues in common. One of the things we did fairly early on is look at the controversy around quantifying proteins, how to calculate protein. And protein products are still a big part of the sports nutrition marketplace. So, that was one thing we worked on early on and had developed a recommendation to better inform consumers about the amount of protein in their products. So that was one pretty big effort.

We also talk a lot about how to build the integrity of the brand and clarify the responsible center of the industry focused on providing nutrient-rich products. That’s really what this whole category is. It’s maybe imprecise a term because not all of the ingredients are de facto nutrients, but that’s really where so much of the focus is: working for a consumer who wants to have some additional supplementation as they work on whatever their physical work is. And some of those are extreme athletes and people who like to work out a lot, but I also know that…the products are attractive to the mom who wants to jog three days a week, or somebody who’s doing yoga and knows they want to balance their electrolytes and recover well from their practice if they’ve had a strenuous practice. So, it’s a much broader consumer base than is generally perceived. It’s not just so-called gym rats who want these products.

And then, why now? To some degree, it’s a celebration. As you know, it is the 10-year anniversary. We found that there was a reason to call attention to that and also that this community of companies—really, they like each other. They like the opportunity to be together and to continue to both help each other and challenge each other. And so that’s really where this came from.

There’s been this gradually increased perception that AHPA is really good at content development. We are well known for that. We have just come off producing our really successful second Hemp-CBD Supplement Congress. We’ve been producing our Botanical Congress for—I think it will be year eight this year. It might be nine. And so that was part of what attracted this subgroup of our members to say, “Hey, how about us?”

So, it’s a combination of those factors: a recognition of being good at developing an agenda for these kinds of things and a chance to really mutually thank each other. We want to celebrate the membership, and the membership want to express their appreciation for maintaining our focus here. So, that’s how it came together.

Given AHPA’s membership and who you represent in the industry, did you feel there was a need to provide a platform specific to your audience in the sports space where they might not have been as vocal or represented before?

There are events that occur every year that are very focused on athletics, more in the area of bodybuilding events. And we knew that some of our members were going to those events and had trade show booths at those events. But, they didn’t really have a forum to talk to one another. They didn’t really have any kind of industry governance, any kind of industry trade association. We felt that, as they started to talk to us, could we start our own trade association? Well, maybe that’s not necessary. We bring a lot of tools to the table already; we have really good relationships with the regulators, we understand how to produce these kinds of content-rich events, we have expertise in communication and education. But I think that was a recognition of a gap, a recognition of a vacuum and the opportunity for people in this industry to work with one another in the context of cooperation rather than only being competitors.

Why is it an important time to be focusing on the sports nutrition market? What’s going well, and what are the main challenges the marketplace faces today?

Great question. You know, Nutrition Business Journal reports 6%-7% growth annually since 2013. It’s a really good growth category. So, one of the challenges that we faced prior to March of 2020 is how do we continue that growth? Where’s the innovation? Where’s the research? And that’s why three of the sessions at our Congress are really focused on measuring the category and building the category. So, I think that’s the challenge today. We have success, and we can’t rely on success necessarily breeding success unless we put some effort into that. So, I think that’s one of the challenges. How do we innovate? How do we engage in research in a cost-effective manner to push forward new products?

And then we have to talk about how, starting in March 2020, we’ve got a new challenge: the coronavirus pandemic and the health agencies’ response to that. And one of those responses has been that places where people meet in large numbers, in small rooms where they’re breathing on each other, were shut down. That includes gyms. So a real challenge that a lot of companies are facing is that they had extended their retail offering to point-of-purchase to gyms. Well, with those closed, that’s a challenge. How do we get our products to our consumers? There’s been a big shift toward online that of course was already pretty strong, but there’s also been a significant increase and an interest and commitment in brick-and-mortar stores. We’re just thrilled that Jack Gayton, the senior buyer for sports nutrition at The Vitamin Shoppe, is going to be on that first panel, because we think that it’s a real challenge. How do we get our products to our customers when they’re not going where they were a few months ago?

You and I were on that Nutritional Outlook panel last week looking at particular product categories and product ingredients that have seen a lot of growth in the last few months due to fellow citizens’ interest in protecting their health. And you’ll recall nobody talked about sports nutrition. Nobody talked about protein or creatine or any of the key ingredients that are sold in that category, until the end when we were talking about what do we project going forward? And…we started talking about—and I think this is the current challenge—we’re all homebound, and we’re all tired of it. And so we’re starting to look at things for support for things like stress and sleeplessness, and also we’re all starting to look at the need to move our bodies more. We’re stuck in chairs, we’re behind desks all day. We’re not even walking across the parking lot. We’ve abandoned some of our exercise regimens, and I think that is something that we acknowledged at that really excellent panel event that Nutritional Outlook put together, and that is relevant to our upcoming agenda. It’s time to get back out of our houses. It’s time to really push ourselves individually to get back to maintaining our physical strength. And then these products matter again, and we’ll solve the distribution issue simultaneously. But I think that’s the challenge at the moment.

You asked the question before, “How do you innovate?” And we talk now in the industry about how it’s difficult to innovate in the time of COVID-19 when you don’t know what future demand will be. And I think the sports nutrition market, based on what you’ve said about gyms being closed, finding new distribution methods, is a good example of that: How do you innovate if you don’t know what the usage is going to look like going forward? So, in terms of the Committee and maybe what the Congress will be covering, what is the outlook on that? Is there a great deal of concern for this category, because I know when we’ve covered the sports market recently, in the beginning of the pandemic people surmised that perhaps sports nutrition would be one of the categories to take a hit. What is the outlook on that among the Committee and going into this Congress?

I think there’s general optimism. We’re going to get past this. Any slowdown is assumed to be temporary for the product category, and if anything, this has provided an opportunity to get focused on research agendas, to look at product development, to look at innovation, while we’ve got a little bit of time to devote to that. In a way, there’s a reinvestment of the time that we would have been spending on more active marketing, going to events, going to trade shows or sports events. If we can refocus that and reinvest it into the efforts towards the future, there’s a sense that that will pay off once we get there and we get back to that 6%-7%-per-year growth. There’s every reason to use this time to build the product category and to focus on innovation—innovative strategies and research strategies.

You have some notable guest speakers lined up for this event, including former NFL player David Vobora, founder of the Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF). Why is it so important to introduce voices like these to those in the sports nutrition industry?

What we’ve tried to bring to the forum and the speakers are some of the leaders in the industry—the leaders in branding, the leaders in product development, the leaders in regulatory compliance. I think our thinking is that that’s who our audience wants to see. They want to hear from the people who have been successful, who have provided excellent guidance. That’s who we learn from, isn’t it? Pretty much in any product category, we always love to see those successful people at the front of the room, even though the audience is sitting there knowing that that they’re also successful. But there’s a way that we really learn from the people who have pushed things forward, and that’s the goal in our speaker selection: to bring people here who have something to teach because they have been a leader over the last decade or so.

It looks like attendees are going to get some great direction at a time when people are searching for direction in this category—a category which obviously will continue to be important in the future, very much so as it has been. I know that you’re highlighting a lot of other key important points: adulteration, clean label, research, etc. What are you hoping the audience takes away from this event?

One, that they recognize that the marketplace opportunity is strong. Two, that they recognize that we control our own destiny. You said it—this focus on clean products, this focus on avoiding adulteration. To some degree, we’re addressing a false narrative. The false narrative is that this class should be suspect. That’s just not the case. This is a really responsible class of goods. We know that. The companies that are successful here know that. And we’re attacking these things head-on because we believe that what the attendees can come away with is a clear understanding that we’re a successful category poised for greater success and a really good industry that’s committed to health, that’s committed to providing products that support health. Those are the main two takeaways that we’re looking for.

Sessions from the Sports Nutrition Congress include:

  • Keynote by David Vobora, NFL veteran and founder of the Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF)
  • U.S. and international trends in the sports nutrition market
  • Building the Business Through Winning Innovation: People, Pipeline and Process Strategies
  • Champion of Compliance: Ingredient and Product Testing for Label Validation, Prop 65, and GMOs
  • Staying Out of the Penalty Box: Liability and Risk Reduction
  • Clean and Trusted: Opportunities to Leverage Banned-Substances Testing and Quality Marks in Sales and Marketing
  • Proven Performance: Developing a Highly Efficient, Cost-Effective Research Program

For more information on the Virtual Sports Nutrition Congress, including the agenda and speaker roster, and to register for the event, click here. The event is sponsored by AIDP, Dymatize, Eurofins, International Protein Board, KML Laboratories, LGC, NSF International, Nutrition 21, and REDCON1.