There are many kinds of sports customers these days. How do brands reach them?

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 22 No. 2
Volume 22
Issue 2

There is no singular sports nutrition shopper today. For sports nutrition brands, this fact is as exciting as it is challenging.

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There is no singular sports nutrition shopper today. For sports nutrition brands, this fact is as exciting as it is challenging. “There has been an interesting shift over the past half-decade,” says Cody Flynn, product manager, innovative ingredients, Prinova (Hanover Park, IL). “Sports nutrition was once driven by the bodybuilding community. As the space continues to grow, bodybuilding continues to have a smaller and smaller influence.”

If one had to categorize, for a moment, what the new sports nutrition customer is generally like, the description sounds very much like that of the general, overall health and wellness shopper-that is, a consumer seeking strategies to stay healthy throughout life. “The new buzzword for sports nutrition is ‘preventative care,’” says Flynn. “As the cost of healthcare continues to skyrocket, consumers are being more health conscious and thinking about longevity. These same brands that once targeted bodybuilders are now shifting focus to your average gym member who is focused on staying fit and healthy for years to come.”

What does this mean for sports brands? It means that the market is looking for holistic, well-rounded approaches to maintaining a healthy body, in which exercise plays only one part. As such, more companies are drawing a line between sports formulas and other areas of health that impact physical performance, including immune and brain health.

“When formulating sports nutrition products, it is important to consider the cognitive aspects, along with the physical benefits of the ingredients,” says Heidi Rosenberg, senior public relations counsel for marketing, branding, and public relations firm BrandHive (Salt Lake City, UT). “Minerals such as iron, zinc, and magnesium play important roles in achieving optimal physical and cognitive sports performance and are considered to have nootropic characteristics.”

Products that support sleep and recovery are also seeing growing interest from both professional and young amateur athletes, says Brian Jordan, RSCC*D, CSCS*D, technical manager at NSF Certified for Sport (Ann Arbor, MI). He notes these athletes’ “growing desire for functional foods that support sleep and recovery due in large part to the amount of travel and long competitive seasons.”

Anti-inflammatory ingredients are also a growing “buzzword” among sports shoppers, says Flynn. He thinks an ingredient like hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) might one day find opportunity in the sports space for this reason.

For an up-to-date look at ingredient science in the sports sphere, one need look no further than the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s (ISSN) “ISSN Exercise & Sports Nutrition Review: Research & Recommendations” report.1 The report, which was most recently updated last year-it’s been updated a few times since it was first published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 15 years ago-provides, among other information, an updated look at the science backing some of the most popular sports nutrition ingredients on the market. The report authors categorize ingredients by those considered to have “strong evidence to support efficacy” and deemed “apparently safe” to those with “limited or mixed evidence to support efficacy” and those with “little to no evidence to support efficacy and/or safety.”

Ingredients the authors considered to have strong evidence for building muscle are beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (HMB; a metabolite of the amino acid leucine), creatine monohydrate, essential amino acids (EAAs), and protein. Ingredients deemed to have strong support for enhancing exercise performance are beta-alanine, caffeine, carbohydrate, creatine monohydrate, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium phosphate, and water and sports drinks.

Ralf Jäger, FISSN, CISSN, MBA, managing member of consultancy Increnovo LLC (Milwaukee, WI) and one of the ISSN paper’s authors, highlights a few ingredients he also considers strong contenders in the sports space today.

One of them is probiotics. What makes probiotics so promising for physical performance? Says Jäger: “New clinical studies have recently expanded the use of probiotics from digestive and immune health in athletes to improved nutrient/protein absorption”-pointing to a 2016 study he oversaw on Kerry Group’s (Beloit, WI) Ganeden BC30 Bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086, probiotic strain2-“or faster recovery and improved performance”-pointing to a blend of bacterial strains Bifidobacterium breve BR03 and Streptococcus thermophilus FP4  developed by Probiotical S.p.A. (Novara, Italy) and distributed in the United States by Ashland (Kearny, NJ) and which Jäger himself also studied3 in 2016.

Jäger also believes in the power of plant proteins, noting, “New studies show how to use them as effectively as animal proteins,” such as through use at higher doses, the addition of digestive enzymes (“to break down complex carbohydrate structures of plant proteins”) or probiotics, or through the addition of HMB (“to increase anabolic potential”). And, finally, he says ATP is supported by new science “showing it works acutely.”

The ISSN authors1 point out how active sports nutrition science is. In their study abstract, they state: “Sports nutrition is a constantly evolving field with hundreds of research papers published annually. In the year 2017 alone, 2082 articles were published under the keywords ‘sport nutrition.’ Consequently, staying current with the relevant literature is often difficult.” But companies try their best.



Driving Trends

Aside from keeping up with the latest sports science, marketers must also keep their eye on what’s driving consumer preferences.

Sports consumers are no different from the standard consumer packaged goods customer searching for one big thing: convenience. “The millennial generation often points to snacking/eating on the go, as they do not have the time to sit down and eat a complete meal,” says Prinova’s Flynn. “In terms of how this affects manufacturing, we are seeing more ready-to-mix powders in single-serving pouches as opposed to the traditional 30- and 60-serving tubs.” While these single-use formats are typically more expensive for the customer, marketers can often make up for that by including more functional ingredients-ingredients that might otherwise be cost-prohibitive to include in a more price-sensitive product like a 60-serving tub.

Ready-to-drink beverages are also increasingly popular because they are convenient. Flynn says RTDs offer another benefit over “adding a powder mix to a generic shaker cup”: a better branding opportunity with each RTD package, which can help grow consumer awareness.

Nutritional Outlook also asked interviewees whether any trending diets-paleo, ketogenic, and the like-are taking hold of the sports nutrition space.

“The ketogenic diet is the frontrunner in 2019,” says Flynn. “Results typically come quickly if followed properly, which helps keep dieters motivated. Given the framework of the diet being 70%-75% calories consumed from fats, this opens the door to many new launches and product development.” This is part of the reason more consumers are looking for products with healthy fats. “Coconut oils and other tree nut oils have seen a lot of consumer interest from those trying the keto diet,” he says.

Right now, keto hasn’t really crossed too far into the sports world, Flynn says. But companies may eventually find opportunities there. “Keto is so different from other diets that you don’t see as much crossover and competition in the sports space yet,” he notes. “The typical meal replacements and protein powders, both dairy and vegan, have been on the market for some time but don’t fit into the keto framework. This is allowing new brands to move into the space by attacking a new market.”


Engaging Consumer Tastes

The vast range of sports customers today-from the hardcore athlete to the weekend warrior and customers of all ages and genders in between-means brands often find themselves trying to please everyone.

NSF’s Brian Jordan says, “At NSF Certified for Sport, we’ve noticed an increased drive by brands to cover as many interests as possible. It’s a real balancing act as brands try to be as inclusive and reach the broadest market, while still providing products individualized to a specific audience’s needs.”

He continues: “An increasing refrain we are hearing at NSF Certified for Sport is ‘Inclusive yet Individual.’ Like a lot of industries, manufacturers of dietary supplements are striving to reach new markets while maintaining a broad base that appeals to as many people as possible. It’s a challenge that runs all the way through their business, from the experts in product development to the teams designing the packaging labels, and I expect that challenge to only grow as consumers continue to diversify themselves through education and experience.”

Flavor is a pivotal tool for reaching consumers and an especially powerful one for catering to mainstream customers. When one considers how the sports market has diversified, and about how mainstream customers may be more flavor-sensitive than a bodybuilder who, in the past, may have been more willing to trade perfect flavor for performance, it’s clear that sports formulators today have their work cut out for them in order to identify flavors that will capture new customers and retain the old ones. Flavors specialist Synergy Flavors (Wauconda, IL) quotes Mintel data noting that over 75% of consumers are influenced by flavor profile when purchasing a sports nutrition product.

To help product manufacturers “seize the opportunity to be pioneers in flavor development and stay ahead of the game in the ever-evolving sports nutrition market,” last fall Synergy released a “Flavors of the Future” report. The company said: “As part of our ongoing flavor exploration journey, we wanted to ensure that we uncovered the stars of tomorrow and beyond. Utilizing world-class trend data, coupled with analysis of social media, food blogs, and Google search trends, we have identified 17 flavors from North America and Latin America we anticipate to be the up and coming flavors in the sports nutrition category over the coming years.”

The company separated these flavors into four categories: 1) Emerging (“Ahead of the curve, new to consumers, and generally too novel to be on menus”), 2) Growing (“Starting to appear in food products, with potential to mainstream in the near future”), 3) Mainstream (“Regarded as normal or conventional in a segment and poised to work in sports nutrition”), and 4) Established, with Global Potential (“Well established in certain regions, with potential for global appeal”).

In North America, the report listed the following. Emerging flavors: yuzu and mochi. Growing flavors: tart cherry, turmeric, speculoos, and matcha. Mainstream flavors: pecans. Established flavors with global potential: S’mores, birthday cake, cookie dough.

In Latin America, the report pegged the following. Emerging flavors: taro. Growing flavors: pitaya. Mainstream flavors: tiramisu and acai. Established flavors with global potential: alfajores, tres leches, and papaya cream.

Alexandre Massumoto, marketing research lead at Synergy Flavors, said in a press release that some of these flavors “are so novel to the market that those product manufacturers that are considering them are true trendsetters.”

By contrast, Massumoto told Nutritional Outlook recently, “10 or 15 years ago, sports nutrition companies didn’t have many flavors in their portfolios.” Early adapters were more focused on the new kinds of products coming out, with less emphasis placed on flavor. But not so today. “Time has passed, and consumers are increasingly demanding of flavors and product tastes,” he says, especially when it comes to some of the sports performance ingredients that can have an unpleasant aftertaste.

And while, in North America at least, the three major sports flavors are basic-vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate-consumers are looking for new kinds of indulgent flavors and also more adventurous flavors, Massumoto says. The ice cream market has always been a big influencer of sports flavors, he points out. “Because ice cream is typically dairy based, and a lot of protein powders are still whey protein–based, flavors that work well in ice cream usually transfer well to instant protein powders,” he explains.

Massumoto commented on some of the flavors Synergy forecasts for the sports future. Speculoos is an ice cream and dessert flavor based on the popular biscuit from Europe, which he says some have dubbed the “new Nutella.” Taro is still a very novel flavor starting to be seen in Latin America in, for instance, ice cream and yogurt. Massumoto notes that taro is probably not going to be in the sports market anytime soon-not in 2019 or 2020, for example-but he says “it could be in 2021.”

In terms of fruity flavors, yuzu is a novel citrus flavor that many flavor houses pegged as a trending flavor this year. And tart cherry is seeing a resurgence in popularity as a flavor, such as in energy drinks. “Tart cherry probably won’t work in whey-based protein, but we can perfectly see it in BCAAs or in preworkout products,” Massumoto says. Then there’s cashew. Cashew is trending as a flavor in products like ice cream and maple pecan coffee. “We understand it can be applied quite well to sports nutrition applications,” Massumoto says. (Synergy also tested these ingredients in various sports formulations to see how well they work.)

Finding the right flavor is a way to reach the right customer and also to stand out in a very crowded market. “I think creating innovative flavors for this market is certainly something that should be a priority for any brand that’s looking to the future,” Massumoto says.


Safety, Efficacy

Another priority for any supplement brand? Ensuring the safety of its products. To this end, Jordan says NSF International has revamped the logos for its NSF Contents Certified and NSF Certified for Sport certification programs for dietary supplements and functional foods/beverages to ensure they are even more immediately recognizable to consumers and retailers who are looking for NSF-certified products.

“The new marks we developed with feedback from current certified brand owners, dietitians, athletes, and consumers, who are all busy people looking for the most efficient way to instantly recognize the level of certification a product holds,” he says. For athletes concerned about the presence of banned substances in the supplements they take, certification adds an extra layer of security.

And, as always, efficacy is the key to success for any sports product. After all, if a consumer is going through the trouble to invest financially in products and invest in the time to train, they want to make sure the products work. “Products backed by science will be the future of sports nutrition,” says Prinova’s Flynn.


  1. Kerksick CM et al. “ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations.” The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, vol. 15, no. 1 (August 1, 2018): 38
  2. Jäger R et al. “Probiotic Bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086 reduces exercise-induced muscle damage and increases recovery.” PeerJ. Published online July 21, 2016.
  3. Jäger R et al. “Probiotic Streptococcus thermophilus FP4 and Bifidobacterium breve BR03 supplementation attenuates performance and range-of-motion decrements following muscle damaging exercise.” Nutrients, vol. 14, no. 8 (October 2016)
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