A new year finds many US consumers struggling to shed extra pounds and keep them off—while  recognizing the importance of engaging in regular physical activity to promote overall good health. Likewise, adults of all ages are turning to foods and beverages to help them maintain enough energy to support fast-paced lives.

Without a doubt, this is why some of most popular functional foods are sports drinks and nutrition bars. According to market research publisher Packaged Facts, 36% of all U.S. adults consume sports drinks. Meanwhile, dollar sales in the nutrition bar segment grew an impressive 8% in 2014 to reach $2 billion. Despite the popularity of both segments, several factors—including a shift away from sugary sports drinks to more natural formulations, as well as increased consumer demand for nutrition bars featuring savory rather than sweet ingredients—are ushering in a new era of sports nutrition.

These findings were published in a recent Packaged Facts report titled, “Functional Foods: Key Trends by Product Categories and Benefits.”

Researchers say growing consumer interest for more natural food and beverage products—both in general, as well as those made without pesticides, artificial colors, flavors and other additives—now extends to sports drinks. Moreover, it points to a gap in the market that several small start-ups (and, increasingly, not-so-small acquirers and new entrants) are actively attempting to fill. Packaged Facts, notes, meanwhile, that market leaders have been reformulating and/or repositioning their products to address or avoid criticism. This suggests that more market share is available.

Many of these new products highlight the use of natural and organic ingredients, including greater use of natural sweeteners, both caloric, such as cane sugar and agave, and zero-calorie, stevia, monk fruit and erythritol. Focus on added sugars also is resulting in more use of other zero-calorie sweeteners (notably sucralose and acesulfame potassium) to help keep caloric content down.

Meanwhile, label references to vegan, Fair Trade and sustainability are just beginning to emerge as benefits associated with sports drinks. Packaged Facts expects focus on sugar to dominate in the year ahead with continued attention to these other important differentiators as this dynamic market evolves.

Meanwhile, the future of energy and recovery foods—designed for athletes and others who are physically active—appears destined to be dominated by savory flavors and ingredients, including meat. Many athletes have long requested energy products that are less sweet than standard nutrition bars and drinks, and now that national attention has turned to reducing added sugar in the diet, a new wave of savory products, including bars, gels and meat jerky, are being introduced.

Driven primarily by small entrepreneurs and regional companies, the US is experiencing a major new wave of nutrition bar and related product introductions based on savory flavors and ingredients. Ingredients such as sweet potatoes, seeds, meat and fruits are increasingly featured. Most notable is the creation of these products with natural and organic, non-GMO, gluten-free whole foods.  Packaged Facts Research Director David Sprinkle notes that new product labels not only address concerns about taste, performance and nutrition but also finer points related to grass-fed, humanely treated animals and/or sustainability.

Nutrition bars in flavors such as Roasted Jalapeno, Honey Smoked BBQ and Pizza Marinara are becoming increasingly commonplace—as are those based on meat and other non-sweet proteins that rival jerky, in the footprint of a bar. More professional athletes can be found backing meat snack brands. Behind this growing trend is greater awareness among casual sports participants of the importance of consuming protein following exercise to help rebuild muscle.

Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, publishes market intelligence on a wide range of consumer market topics, including consumer demographics and shopper insights, consumer financial products and services, consumer goods and retailing and consumer packaged goods. Packaged Facts also offers a full range of custom research services. Visit www.packagedfacts.com for more details.