man riding bike

Ed Finkel

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    The sports nutrition category atrophied a bit in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when athletic opportunities went into quarantine, but the reopenings of 2021 restrengthened consumer interest.

    “The category continues to enjoy consistent growth,” says Sonja Matthews, senior manager, strategic insights for Glanbia Nutritionals. “This growth reflects the fact that sports nutrition has taken on a much broader definition that appeals to a much broader set of consumers. The category is not just for performance, but for consumers with an overall desire to be fitter and healthier.”

    Elliot Freeman, vice president of marketing for Skratch Labs, sees growth powered by three factors. “More consumers are participating in endurance activities, those doing these activities are doing them more frequently, and consumers are starting to catch on that they need specific nutrition to feel and perform their best,” he says.

    By the Numbers

    Data from IRI for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 26, 2021, show increases at or near double-digit percentages across all categories of sports nutrition. Sales of sports drinks rose 19.7% to $9.5 billion, weight control product sales rose 19.4% to $5.5 billion, and sales in the combined category of snack bars, granola bars, and clusters rose 9.7% to $6.7 billion.

    woman tying shoes

    ©Pekic/E+Getty Images

    woman tying shoes

    ©Pekic/E+Getty Images

    The latter category breaks down into nutritional/intrinsic health value bars, which were up 8.5% to $3.4 billion; breakfast/cereal/snack bars/clusters, up 19.6% to $1.9 billion; and granola bars, up 0.6% to $1.4 billion.

    Nielsen data for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 1, 2022, show that the performance nutrition category saw a 20% increase in sales to $2.9 billion. Among the more robust subcategories were shakes, up 32.5% to $1.2 billion; bars, up 10.7% to $1.1 billion; and powder, up 17.6% to $510.0 million.

    In a February 2021 report on sports and performance drinks, Mintel measured 18% growth from 2015 to 2020, and the firm projected another 26% increase by 2025 to more than $13.5 billion.

    Figures supplied by Innova Market Insights show that the North American market is one of the more active for new product development in sports nutrition, accounting for 28% of overall product introductions and 14% of sports snack and bar launches between October 2020 and September 2021. While it accounts for an outsized overall share of global launches, however, the average annual U.S. growth in sports nutrition product introductions has been slower—about 10% over the past five years, vis-à-vis 17% globally.

    Top categories in U.S. sport nutrition product launches are powders, supplements, and drinks, and a 2021 Innova consumer survey shows that 41% of American consumers use hydration products before, during, or after exercising.

    Ian Muir McNally, founder and CEO of Muir Energy, says the European market is more focused than the U.S. on “real food” ingredients, but shutdowns also have been more stringent there during COVID-19. “When we get past the pandemic, we’ll be doing a lot of business with them,” he predicts.

    Pandemic Impact

    The initial stages of the pandemic were challenging for the sports nutrition category, according to data from food and beverage analytics company Spoonshot. During 2020, interest in the category declined 35% “as sports activities were scarce and major sports events were canceled,” says Sayantan Paul, senior food scientist. “Training centers and gyms were hit hard during the lockdown.”

    Data from NielsenIQ backs this up—for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 2, 2021, the overall performance nutrition category fell 5.6%, with shakes up 3.1%, bars down 13.8%, and powder up 0.6%. But the reopening of facilities helped lead to the double-digit increases in those categories last year.

    The pandemic also has impacted consumers’ mindsets, enhancing interest in immunity, cognitive health, and gut health, says Matthews of Glanbia. “A high proportion of performance nutrition consumers are placing greater emphasis on improving strength and performance as they connect optimal fitness with improved immune health,” she says.

    Muir’s Energy Gels

    Muir’s Energy Gels tout their “real food” formulations. Photo courtesy of Muir Energy

    Muir’s Energy Gels

    Muir’s Energy Gels tout their “real food” formulations. Photo courtesy of Muir Energy

    Muir Energy heard from retailers that sales of nutrition products contracted by as much as 20% to 25% at the height of the pandemic, but direct-to-consumer sales have grown, McNally says. While exercising inside tailed off, he says, hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor fitness activities have gained popularity. “People are finding relief from the stress of being incarcerated at home by getting outside,” he says.

    Trends and Claims

    Protein-related claims are the dominant health claim in the sports bar category, found on 97% of U.S. launches in 2021, according to Innova, while other health-related claims include fiber (25%) and energy/alertness (22%). Sugar-free is the top claim among sports drinks, appearing on 33% of U.S. launches in 2021, while energy/alertness was mentioned 27% of the time and low/no/reduced-calorie was highlighted on 21% of products. Active nutrition benefits fall into four clusters: all-day energy, pre-workout, post-workout, and physical and mental performance, Innova’s research found.

    Mintel’s report predicted growth for brands that use messaging to position products as part of self-care routines and provide reasons to use them other than during exercise. They should specifically link common ingredients like B vitamins with the benefits they support—and highlight benefits beyond hydration, the firm’s February 2021 report suggested.

    Spoonshot’s research has found that the top sports nutrition claims include “contains protein,” found 44.6% of the time; gluten-free, 33.9%; and natural, 14.1%. Based on the firm’s analysis of online consumer conversations about sports nutrition, top subcategories of interest include supplements, meal kits, juices and smoothies, nuts, cereals, and snacks.

    "Protein-related claims are the dominant health claim in the sports bar category, found on 97% of U.S. launches in 2021, according to Innova Market Insights."

    Overall, the category has moved beyond traditional market targeting of energy and muscle gain as health claims, Paul says, with products more specifically formulated for brain or gut health. Ingredients like glutamine and L-carnitine target weight loss, while chia seeds and omega-3 fatty acids are aimed at heart health. Nootropics, which offer functional benefits like stress relief or improved memory, have grown considerably over the past five years and are expected to grow another 30% in the next 12 months, according to Spoonshot.

    “Post-workout recovery smoothies and smoothie bowls are very popular among consumers as they are a quick and easy way to replenish proteins and carbs after a workout session,” Paul says. “Caffeine-based beverages are popular as pre-workout foods among consumers, as they stimulate the body’s mechanism, fight fatigue, and help maintain focus.”

    Icon Foods has noticed a slight increase in interest in nutrition bars and a more dramatic boost in beverages, particularly beverages enhanced with adaptogens. “There has been steady growth in clean label sugar reduction as well as probiotic claims,” says CEO Thom King.

    Icon primarily works to formulate and supply ingredients for sugar reduction, he says, although the brand has noticed “strong velocity” in ready-to-drink sports beverages that satisfy the keto high-fat/low-carb trend, along with those “that include prebiotics, as well as adaptogens, such as mushrooms and herbs, to function as nootropics, a source of energy or even relaxation.”

    Protein continues to anchor the category, with whey protein the preferred source, while plant proteins are growing in popularity, says Matthews of Glanbia. The emergence of the “smart nutrition” segment and the reinvigoration of meal replacement have gone beyond simply supporting weight loss or sports performance to encompass the “healthy body, healthy mind” trend, she says.

    Skratch Labs’ Crispy Rice Cakes

    Skratch Labs’ Crispy Rice Cakes are made from brown rice, wild rice, and quinoa. Photo courtesy of Skratch Labs

    Skratch Labs’ Crispy Rice Cakes

    Skratch Labs’ Crispy Rice Cakes are made from brown rice, wild rice, and quinoa. Photo courtesy of Skratch Labs

    Skratch Labs sees electrolyte and hydration drinks as the most top-of-mind products for consumers since “everyone needs to drink something when they sweat,” Freeman says. Given that athletes are tuned into their bodies and “always experimenting,” they continue to look for higher-quality ingredients and to grow more skeptical of anything artificial, he adds.

    Cyclists, specifically, need products that enable them to train for at least a couple of hours at a time without roiling their stomachs, Freeman notes. “It’s not as efficient a workout as [running],” he says. “What they need is something that keeps them fueled or hydrated but won’t cause any digestive distress over many hours a week.”

    McNally also sees people paying more attention to ingredient labels and what they’re putting in their bodies while searching for products with a half-dozen or fewer ingredients. “The longer you go, the more vulnerable our stomach becomes to stress,” he says. “We find that the cleaner, fewer ingredients are easier for your body to metabolize.”

    Muir Energy has made its products plant-based from the beginning, which McNally says is an ideal fit for endurance athletes. The company has worked to hit a variety of flavors, ranging from sweet to tart to savory, based on the notion that consumers are tired of “peanut butter and chocolate, or Oreo cookies, like you’re a birthday party,” he says.

    McNally sees some of the microtargeted “pre-workout” or “post-workout” claims as “marketing stuff, as opposed to general nutrition stuff that you need to be doing. Typically, after you’ve worked out is when you want to reload on protein, to help recover after all the stress of working out, and rebuild muscle tissue, refuel cells.” He adds, “A lot of it can be accomplished with real food: have a ham sandwich, have turkey, have tuna, and you’ll be fine.”

    Who’s the Consumer?

    Since only 16% of consumers consider themselves “athletes,” per se, brands shouldn’t target product messaging too narrowly to those who identify that way, Mintel suggests. Data the company gathered in partnership with Lightspeed further showed that 39% of respondents consider themselves “avid exercisers” and another 29% are “occasional exercisers.”

    “As Americans become increasingly engaged with a health and fitness mentality, the market will see a corresponding increase in diversity of users—and in turn, usage occasions,” says Karen Formanski, health and nutrition analyst with Mintel. “This will necessitate that innovations capture a broader range of health and wellness benefits. Functional wellness is quickly becoming the new barometer demanded for brands to stand out in the space.”

    Glanbia sees personalization by individual body chemistry as the overarching trend in sports nutrition, Matthews says. “Younger people will be more likely to adapt these resources to support their lifestyles,” she explains. “Both younger and higher-income people will be the early adopters as these solutions will be expensive until they scale up.” She also sees strong potential for products that meet the needs of active females at life stages ranging from pregnancy to menopause.

    Younger generations are very skeptical of what’s in their sports nutrition products and pretty health aware, says Freeman of Skratch Labs. “They are not attracted to nutrition that looks like ‘gear’ or [has] bright colors,” he adds. “They want real stuff.”

    man standing by lake

    Photo courtesy of Muir Energy

    man standing by lake

    Photo courtesy of Muir Energy

    McNally also sees the younger generation as better educated about nutrition and more health conscious. “They’re driving the industry to get cleaner,” he says, adding that about one-third of Muir Energy’s customers are 50 or older. The brand also looks at first responders as a variety of “endurance athlete,” and McNally includes nurses and other healthcare workers who are “on their feet 10 or 12 hours a day” in that first responder category. “They’re on the go,” he explains. “They don’t have the time to eat a proper meal.”

    Product Introductions

    On the new product front, Icon Foods has rolled out two new sweetness modulators—ThauSweet and CitruSweet—which have natural flavors that work with the palate to enhance and lengthen sweetness. “They work well in sport drinks, where bitter compounds, vitamins, and minerals may carry some off-notes,” King says. “We have used these in several formulations in the past months, particularly with mushrooms and herbs.”

    Matthews notes that Glanbia has unveiled three new ingredient products in recent months: TechVantage – Watson Functionally Optimized Nutrient Technologies, which improve the functionality of nutrients like vitamins, minerals, botanicals, amino acids, and sweeteners; AminoBlast Technology, which provides enhanced functionality and performance for amino acids in ready-to-drink beverages, powder drink mixes, and bars; and Crunchie Milk Protein Bites, which contain more than 74% milk protein and can be used as a snack or cereal.

    Skratch Labs has released two new products in the past year: Crispy Rice Cakes made from brown rice, wild rice, and quinoa; and Superfuel, a 400-calorie beverage with a carbohydrate called Cluster Dextrin that breaks down slowly, fueling a two- to three-hour workout. “We love making things with rice because it’s an incredibly easy-to-digest carbohydrate. It’s light, but it packs a lot of energy,” Freeman says. “We worked for a long time to develop a beverage that could pack in a ton of calories without overwhelming the gut.”

    Muir Energy has introduced a hydration mix that contains strawberry, basil, and salt, which McNally says mirrors a trend toward cleaner, less sugary mixes. “They’re really, really simple,” he notes, adding that REI will be selling the product, which is also available on Muir’s e-commerce site. “It’s my attempt to address the hydration problem for people who don’t like to drink water but want a clean hydration mix,” he explains. “You don’t have to be an athlete to use it.”

    Key Takeaways

    • After lagging during the early days of the pandemic, sales of sports nutrition products are showing strength.
    • Most sports nutrition product users don’t consider themselves athletes, so broader fitness positioning is important.
    • Consumers of sports nutrition products are gravitating toward clean label offerings.

    About the Author

    Ed Finkel is a freelance journalist based in Evanston, Ill. ([email protected]).