Anyone questioning the growth of the sports nutrition market can look at the merger and acquisition space. The most recent transaction in this market — at press time — was The Simply Good Food Co. — known for its Atkins and Quest brands — on April 29 purchasing plant-based ready-to-drink protein shake brand Only What You Need for $280 million. 

“The acquisition of Only What You Need (OWYN) is strategically compelling as it brings a third, complementary brand to Simply Good Foods and further enhances our presence in the fast-growing RTD (ready-to-drink) shake segment,” Geoff Tanner, president and CEO of Simply Good Foods, stated at the time of the announcement. “Additionally, OWYN reaches a new, incremental consumer segment which strengthens our category leading presence with retail customers.”

There is no doubt that dollar sales of sports nutrition products will grow. According to Euromonitor, sports protein RTD beverages are already a $1.4 billion market in the United States, with the entire sports nutrition market at $14.1 billion in 2022, with an anticipated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.9% between 2022 and 2027, the market research firm adds.

The sports nutrition space can grow via adjacent products, suggests Jenn Adams, IFPC.
The sports nutrition space can grow via adjacent products, suggests Jenn Adams, IFPC. Photo courtesy of IFPC.

The active nutrition space is strong and growing, reiterates Bret Barhoover, category marketing manager for Specialty Nutrition at Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill. “In many cases, it’s some of the newer brands that are leading the charge, with double- or even triple-digit volume sales growth. Sports nutrition/recovery RTD shakes and powders are doing especially well, attracting a broader base of consumers with new flavors, low-sugar and protein-packed options.”

Protein and more protein

The growth of the sports nutrition market heavily relies on ingredient suppliers. Consumers seek specific ingredients in these beverages perhaps more so than any other dairy product.

Let’s first look at the No. 1 thing athletes look for in dairy-based sports nutrition beverages: protein. Is it always going to be what consumers desire the most?

“Consumers are seeking more protein (specifically plant-based) and added functionality of energy, clean label and ‘better-for-you,” responds Jennifer Tesch, chief marketing officer for Healthy Food Ingredients, Fargo, N.D.

Protein remains the largest ingredient category in sports nutrition, led by dairy proteins, adds Niki Kennedy, director of insights and content at Glanbia Nutritionals, whose U.S. headquarters are located in Chicago. “There is a lot of buzz about plant protein ingredients. However, the market remains partial to dairy protein due to functionality and flavor. Regardless of region, dairy-based proteins are the most sought-after protein ingredient source, particularly when it comes to fortified protein snacks and sports nutrition products.”

Dairy milk protein has a complete amino acid profile, making it a compelling functional ingredient, says Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager at Virginia Dare, Carteret, N.J. “A 2022 report from SPINS showed a 17% increase in demand for protein and meal replacement powders containing whey,” he says. “It’s common to layer on functional ingredients to support a need state holistically since multiple ingredients provide different pre-workout or recovery benefits. This has the added benefit of giving people ‘bang for their buck,’ which assures them their needs are being met from multiple angles.”

However, this often leaves taste by the wayside and introduces bitter, harsh notes notorious in functional ingredients, Caputo adds. “To address this, we apply taste modulation solutions to amplify favorable notes and tone down off-flavors. For extremely pungent, bitter ingredients, we go one step further and mask flavors.” 

Dairy processor Shamrock Farms has enlisted the help of Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zac Gallen to promote its Rockin’ Protein sports nutrition drink.
Dairy processor Shamrock Farms has enlisted the help of Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zac Gallen to promote its Rockin’ Protein sports nutrition drink. Photo courtesy of Shamrock Farms.

Protein has been, and remains, the single most important ingredient, stresses Barhoover.

“Many products offer 20 or more grams of protein in a serving. Dairy proteins are the mainstay, but plant proteins are carving out a place in the marketplace, too,” he says.

Changes are a coming

There are some changes occurring in the sports nutrition space, however. “Manufacturers are racing to hit 50 grams of protein in a single serving. Consumers want more protein, more fiber and low or no sugar,” reveals Thom King, CEO and chief food scientist at Icon Foods, Portland, Ore.

FlavorSum is watching shifts from traditional energy sources like caffeine to “cleaner” energy ingredients like B vitamins and green tea, adds Phil a’Becket, senior consumer insights manager, for the Kalamazoo, Mich./Mississauga, Ont.-based company. “Up-and-coming energy ingredients include l-theanine (in 37% more launches last year), guayusa extract (in 27% more launches), and ginseng (with Panax Notoginseng in 50% more innovations). In the hydration space, brands are exploring watermelon and coconut as base ingredients in addition to traditional electrolytes. Both featured in more beverage innovation last year,” he says.

Shannon Fitzgerald, marketing manager for Montvale, N.J.-based Balchem, certainly expects protein to remain popular. However, it could have additional functions. “Hydration and protein are important factors when it comes to sports nutrition. Consumers are even using sports nutrition products for a myriad of other purposes and health benefits, such as stress relief and energy properties,” Fitzgerald notes, citing Mintel’s “Nutrition Watch: Addressing Gaps in Sports Nutrition” report.

Consumers also seek products that support their dietary needs in other ways. “In response, manufacturers are adapting their formulations accordingly. For example, they are developing products compatible with the keto diet, which not only appeal to the keto community but can also resonate with consumers monitoring carbohydrate intake or blood sugar levels,” relays Jim Kappas, vice president of Specialty Ingredients, ASR Group, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Jenn Adams, director of ingredient technology and applications, Hazelwood, Mo.-based IFPC, suggests the sports nutrition space will keep growing while tapping into other products. “Electrolyte flavored water is growing, and there is increased awareness of key vitamins and minerals and how the different formats are absorbed. Consumers are looking for bioavailability to improve results,” she says. Clean sources of energy… More vitamins plus natural sources versus synthetic caffeine.”

Matt Hettlinger, technical sales manager, Ingredients, Cultures and Enzymes, Nelson-Jameson, Marshfield, Wis., holds a similar sentiment. 

 “Protein is still the main focus in sports nutrition and whey protein remains king, but some non-dairy proteins have become more popular,” he relays. “There’s a stronger emphasis on lactose-free, fortification with vitamins and minerals, Omega-3s, and nootropics for focus and mental acuity. pH-adjusted waters and electrolyte replacement have surged in sales in recent years too.”

Don’t forget an “oldie but goodie,” creatine. “Creatine is not a ‘new’ ingredient but is experiencing a resurgence not only among core sports nutrition consumers. Its use is expanding in formats beyond powders for other needs. Studies indicate that it may contribute more than supporting high-intensity exercise,” Kennedy tells Dairy Foods.

A recent study by Glanbia Nutritionals found that consumers highly focused on athletic performance are the most likely to use creatine supplements, she adds. “Nearly 70% of creatine users exercise seven or more hours per week, and they’re much more likely to do bodybuilding or competitive weightlifting than the general population (28% vs. 14%). They’re also more likely to participate in team sports such as football, basketball, hockey and soccer (36% vs. 21%) and combat sports like martial arts, boxing and wrestling (25% vs. 15%). While improving performance is the main goal, some also use creatine for recovery benefits.”

Pumping ingredient iron

Ingredient suppliers are introducing new products to meet changing consumer demands. Global Organics offers Organic Agave Inulin, which can be mixed directly into dairy sports nutrition products such as protein shakes, smoothies, and yogurt; organic rice/tapioca Maltodextrin: and Organic Fava bean protein powder, which has a slightly nutty flavor that blends well with other ingredients. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company also offers Organic Coconut Dietary Fiber that can be added to dairy-based smoothies and shakes, increasing the fiber and protein content while promoting satiety; and Organic Turmeric & Ginger juice that can also be added to smoothies, yogurt bowls, and milkshakes, according to Ravi Arora, sales and marketing director.

Icon Foods offers its ThauSweet DRM sweetener blend, introduced last year. “It contains thaumatin, which is derived from the katemfe berry; RebM stevia; and soluble tapioca fiber, from cassava root,” King explains. “Sports nutrition beverages often contain bitter and astringent compounds, including caffeine and taurine. Additionally, packing a high amount of whey-based protein in a single serving can result in overpowering dairy bovine offnotes. Thaumatin is a positive allosteric modulator 200 times sweeter than sugar that acts as a sweetness and flavor modulator.” 

Healthy Food Ingredients launched milled chia, as an expansion of its current ingredient portfolio, which also includes whole chia, whole and milled flax, sorghum flour, quinoa flour and millet flour, notes Tesch.

Cargill manufacturers EverSweet stevia sweetener. “The zero-calorie sweetener’s clean, sugar-like sweet taste shines in dairy beverage applications, enabling steep sugar reductions, all the way to no-sugar-added formulations,” maintains Barhoover. “EverSweet represents a huge step forward with improved sweetness quality and higher sweetness intensity as compared to previous stevia sweeteners. It offers faster sweetness onset and a more rounded and robust sweetness profile, making it possible to create great-tasting beverages, even with no added sugar.”

For brands targeting the plant-based segment, Cargill and joint venture partner PURIS offer PURIS 2.0 pea protein. 

Nelson-Jameson has a whole range of vitamins and Omega-3s for fortification in dairy-based sports nutrition. “Several carotenoids that we offer can function as natural and clean label colors to replace artificial coloring,” notes Hettlinger.

Good Sport Nutrition’s Good Sport is a natural hydration beverage purported to have three times the electrolytes and 33% less sugar than traditional sports drinks.
Good Sport Nutrition’s Good Sport is a natural hydration beverage purported to have three times the electrolytes and 33% less sugar than traditional sports drinks. Photo courtesy of Good Sport.

According to Glanbia Nutritionals, until now, formulating beverages containing energy-boosting ATP has been a challenge. Standard sources of ATP degrade rapidly under typical high-heat beverage processing conditions and over the shelf life of the finished beverage.

Hence, the company offers CreaBev. “This innovation provides superior solubility and stability in water compared to traditional creatine monohydrate. In a long-term stability study over a 12-month period, 70% of the creatine monohydrate in CreaBev remained stable versus the standard creatine monohydrate material that degraded completely,” Kennedy maintains. “It can be used in neutral pH or acidic RTD beverages, as well as in RTM beverages, where its improved dispersion is a key benefit for the consumer.”

Powering up

There’s no question that as consumers continue to focus on their health and exercise, dairy-based sports nutrition beverages will remain incredibly important. Healthy Food Ingredients’ Tesch expects to see a “continued focus on functionality and innovation for better-for-you, on-the-go nutrition options.”

“The popularity of protein and energy ingredients along with plant based, clean label, and functional ingredients will continue to impact sports nutrition products,” adds Global Organics’ Arora.

Look for innovation on the protein front, adds Barhoover. “For years, whey protein was the foundation for many of these beverages. More recently, we’ve seen products made with plant proteins have success in the market, too. Up next, watch for dairy proteins made through precision fermentation. This technology offers new possibilities, including lactose-free dairy proteins and the potential for more soluble proteins that enable even higher protein fortification levels.”

Dairy-based sports nutrition beverages should also meet additional consumer needs as time goes on. “Products that are more individualized have potential for growth, supporting more niche needs,” predicts IFPC’s Adams. “Gut health, emotional well-being, brain function/health all have potential to gain market share within the sports nutrition industry.”

Alternative styles of energy supplement besides caffeine will become more popular, adds Nelson-Jameson’s Hettlinger with “continued fortification of sports nutrition with ingredients for focus and mental acuity.”

Icon Foods’ King reveals there has been a broader shift toward proactive health management that will continue to influence sports nutrition. “Consumers are deciphering ingredient labels and pushing back. They want nutrient dense food and beverages to support their lifestyles. That means more protein and more fiber, and less sugar and carbs,” he says.

Personalized Performance could drive the market moving forward, prognosticates Glanbia Nutritionals’ Kennedy. “The approach to major areas of sports nutrition like energy and hydration are bifurcating based on niche needs. Athletes and active consumers are optimizing their energy, which for some means a boost to achieve peak performance, but for others may mean sustained energy throughout their day. Hydration is also a multi-dimensional benefit that consumers are approaching both reactively and proactively,” Kennedy says.

In the longer term, “measurement and analysis of personal activity by wearable devices and recommendation of nutrition is already widespread among elite athletes,” Kennedy continues. “It’s only a matter of time before that technology is available to the everyday athlete and active consumer.”

Looking at broader consumer trends can also predict where the sports nutrition market may go in the future. “The global rollout of new weight-loss drugs will not only change how people eat but also how they hydrate, prompting demand for isotonic drinks. Weight-loss medication can cause changes in electrolyte balance, a possibility users need to know,” FlavorSum’s a’Becket states.

Sports drink brands can take an authoritative position, he continues. “Medical experts are already recommending isotonic drinks for people taking weight-loss drugs, and alkaline waters could appeal to them to manage acid reflux,” a’Becket concludes.