Sports nutrition is the science of formulating products for athletes, body builders and active fitness enthusiasts. Traditionally, these products have been targeted to strength sports, such as weightlifting and bodybuilding; as well as endurance sports, such as cycling, running or swimming. The goal, of course, is to help professionals and non-professionals alike improve nutritional intake and various aspects of health, well-being, performance, muscle growth and/or recovery from exercise.

Today finds sports nutrition flexing its market muscle. That’s because mainstream consumers are expressing more interest for all forms of performance foods and beverages that aid their active lifestyles. In tandem, manufacturers and retailers are responding and extending product distribution. More mainstream outlets are carrying products previously available only in specialty health stores, health clubs and gyms.

It also follows that—as more sports nutrition brands move mainstream—they’re reaching more casual consumers who are not as familiar with sports product composition, use and efficacy. In turn, this drives more marketing. Likewise, there’s a groundswell of interest in more independent testing and certification around product efficacy and safety.

Sports nutrition market estimates vary, often as a result of differences in definition. The principal distinction revolves around the inclusion of more mainstream sports and energy products, such as drinks and bars. Various estimates put the global sports nutrition market at between $5 billion and $20 billion in annual sales. It’s generally agreed that the US leads the market, probably with between half and two-thirds of total annual sales.

The US has a highly developed sports nutrition market, accounting for 28% of global launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in 2015, which is a very large share for just one country. Traditional sports powders dominate US launch activity with over 60% of the 2015 total, and the range of product formats, ingredient compositions and flavors available has risen markedly in recent years. Sports bars and supplements (mainly in the form of capsules and tablets) both accounted for about 12% of launches each; while ready-to-drink (RTD) sports drinks and RTD protein-based sports drinks took about 5% each and other products (mainly gels and chews) accounted for just over 3% of launches.

Liquid Performance

Sports and performance drinks probably reflected the first mainstream market shift. The RTD sports drinks market is long established in the US and was worth nearly $6 billion through multiple retailers alone in 2015. It is dominated by the major soft drinks companies, with PepsiCo’s Gatorade and Coca-Cola’s Powerade. They have continued to compete and drive the market forward with ongoing new product activity, focusing on developing more targeted products, as well as offering a range of flavors and formats.

Gatorade leads the market and groups its products under the G series heading, with lines for energy, hydration and recovery; including protein shakes, bars and chews, as well as drinks. It also has its G Endurance range for endurance athletes’ needs. Meanwhile, Powerade has its ION 4 Advanced Electrolyte System for its standard Powerade and Powerade Zero (calorie) lines.

Energy drink interest and activity took some focus away from the more mature sports drinks market in the mid-2000s. However, the sports drink sector moved ahead with more targeted products and the launch of light varieties. More recently, greater emphasis on “performance” and booming in interest in protein drinks (for a healthy lifestyle) has regenerated larger widespread sports drink demand among more casual users.

The high-profile 2012 launch Coca-Cola’s Core Power dairy-based sports recovery beverage (in partnership with select milk producers) indicated the market potential for milk-based protein beverages.  The Core Power line since has grown with several extensions, including a Core Power Elite range with 42g of protein. Elite joins Core Power’s standard (26g protein) and light (20g protein) varieties.

Another strong ready-to-drink protein competitor is Muscle Milk, from Hormel Foods’ CytoSport Inc. business. This April saw the brand redesign its core line packaging and reformulate several core items to reduce sugar, fat and eliminate soy. It also launched two entirely new lines: Muscle Milk Protein Smoothie yogurt shakes and Muscle Milk Coffee House protein shakes. These new offerings focus on key dairycase trends—Greek Yogurt and coffee flavors—and CytoSport markets them to everyday consumers with on-the-go needs for protein (in and outside the gym).

Protein indeed is a platform for beverages to step out of the specialist sports nutrition category and into the broader mainstream market. There are numerous new product examples from retailers, such as Sprout Foods (Morning Protein Smoothies) and Safeway (LucernePlus Protein) as well as a growing list of manufacturers’ items. These include Dean Foods’ TruMoo Protein Milks, Pure Protein’s canned, flavored protein shakes and Live Real Farms’ Energy Drinks in Berry Berry, Strawberry Banana and Peach Mango flavors.

Meanwhile, coconut water is increasingly marketed as the natural isotonic of choice and a new option to traditional sports drinks. It features the juice of young, green coconuts and already is popular in many Asian and Latin American countries. It can be promoted on an all-natural platform and offers many of the isotonic benefits of mainstream sports drinks, featuring calcium, magnesium and potassium in a hypo-allergenic format with no need for additives—and not even sweeteners.

Coconut featured in 14% of RTD sports drink launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in 2015 and this was mainly in the form of coconut water, although it does also include the use of any coconut flavors and ingredients. This was twice the level achieved in the soft drinks market (excluding sports drinks), where coconut featured in just more than 7% of new products, rising to 12% in juices and juice drinks.

Food as Fuel

The market for sports foods continues to lag far behind that for performance drinks. And although many food sectors boast new sports-focused products, the overwhelming majority of activity involves sports and performance bars. As with sports drinks, the nutrition and performance category once was confined to specialist products for athletes and other highly active sports enthusiasts. Today, these bars are consumed on a much wider, more casual basis as active consumers seek healthier, and more portable snacks.

At the same time, sub-categories within the cereal bars market have become increasingly blurred. On one end, there are health and performance ingredients added to more mainstream cereal and granola bars to give a healthier image. Meanwhile, the former specialty sports lines are adding trendy flavors and moving toward a more general health positioning to appeal to a wider audience.

Sports bars accounted for 12% of US sports nutrition launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in 2015, up from just over 7% in 2010, reflecting the rising popularity of this type of product. Key health claims used for launches, as in drinks, reflected the rising interest in protein, with over 90% of introductions featuring added-protein, high-in-protein or source-of-protein claims, up from just under 80% in 2014.

Interestingly, Innova Market Insights also finds that 37% of US mainstream cereal and energy bar launches also carried protein claims. This illustrates the move of protein bars from a specialist product (for endurance and performance athletes) to a more mainstream positioning. Now, there’s a wide base of consumers seemingly craving protein for benefits such as satiety, weight management, improved muscle mass and increased energy. Launches in the category in recent months have included whey bars, nutrition bars and paleo bars, as well as protein bars.

It’s a crowded competitive marketplace. This spring saw Campbell Soup decide to discontinue a line of V8 Protein bars and shakes. Launched in late 2014, the bars featured soy protein and came in three varieties: Chocolate Peanut Butter, Oatmeal Raisin and Chocolate Pomegranate with Cranberries. Meanwhile, other players are forging ahead. More recently, Manitoba Harvest extended its range of hemp-based protein products with three Hemp Heart Bar nutrition bars. Likewise, Mediterra introduced two high-protein snack bars in two more savory flavors: Bell Peppers & Green Olives and Kale & Pumpkin Seed.

This spring also brought an entire brand relaunch for PowerBar, one of the industry pioneers in sports and energy bars. Now owned by Post Holdings, the Emeryville, Calif., business has recast its products to address demand for what it says are right macronutrients,  reduced sugar, whole food ingredients, clear labeling and superior taste.

The range incorporates various products—including drinks, energy food purees and bars—for different consumer needs. These items support specialist endurance athletics, such as triathlon; through running and cycling; to general fitness. Bars include Energize, Ride and Protein Plus sub-groups, as well as Natural Protein and Natural Energy options. Recent additions include the Reduced Sugar ProteinPlus 20g bar, marketed as after-workout recovery boost use or an anytime snack.

In addition to protein content, other health claims featuring strongly in sports bar launches are similar to those for mainstream cereal and energy bars.  Claims such as natural/no additives/preservatives were used on 39% of sports bar introductions in 2015; while and no added sugar/low sugar and/or sugar-free claims were used on 28% of new products.

In general, the sports nutrition sector continues to develop and diversify, particularly in terms of target market. Manufacturers are reaching out to an increasingly wider range of consumers including those interested in different sports (such as Advanced Golf Nutrition LLC’s Par Bar), exercise regimes and activity levels. New and coming products could sub-divided by gender and age (Clif Kid Z Bar). Behind the scenes, look for companies to showcase more natural ingredients and promote ingredient purity (while reducing opportunities for adulteration).


Originally appeared in the July, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Sports Market Muscle.