As Gen-Xers join Baby Boomers in the fight to stave off aging, they are turning to activity. Talk to most people in their 40s and 50s, and they might tell you they are members of a soccer or rowing club, or some other sport group. A recent MetLife Inc. survey, “The MetLife Study of Gen X: The MTV Generation Moves into Mid-Life,” did just that and found 60% of those asked noted that, “exercise or sports are incorporated into their day-to-day lives.”

According to Infiniti Research Ltd.’s market research firm, TechNavio, the global sports nutrition product market is expected to grow by more than 8% until 2020. Continued growth will require investing in new ingredients, innovative products, and novel packaging to excite existing consumers, while sparking interest from new ones—including the occasional gym-goer and older adult market. These are the two segments with substantially fewer foods and beverages geared toward them.

Consumer demand for excitement typically outpaces novel research on new ingredients. The good news: The sports nutrition industry has a number of existing ingredients that are multifunctional and perfectly suited to developing new sports performance products.

Along with this comes some newly developed package-delivery mechanisms for commonly consumed—and therefore familiar to the consumer—items, such as fruits and juices. Fruits and juices generate particular interest, because until recently, sports-oriented products focused predominantly on protein, stimulants, and various forms of sugar.

Fruit and vegetable concentrates lend brilliant color and a creative, natural solution to getting more powerful plant compounds in an athlete’s diet. Such compounds can protect sore muscles (and their muscle cells) from extensive damage.

Many fruit and vegetable concentrates also are high in polyphenols. Though research is slow to report the bountiful benefits traced to specific polyphenols and polyphenol-rich foods, this exciting area of innovation has led to more ingredients that support greater blood flow and decrease inflammation and muscle soreness. This opens sports nutrition to another class of ingredients previously getting short shrift.

Although well-established as a near panacea for health, omega fatty acids have had less play on the sports nutrition court. But, while omega-3 fatty acids lead such ingredients, a possible strong future has opened up in multifunctional ingredients and foods developed from deeply pigmented algae and microalgal proteins, flours, and oils.

Off the Tree

Fruits and vegetables supply vitamins, minerals, and other plant-based compounds important for good health. In the active individual, low intake of plant-derived nutrients, such as antioxidants, could lead to a “free-for-all,” with reactive oxygen and nitrogen species running amok. The result is subsequent tissue damage; excess or chronic inflammation; decreased immunity; prolonged recovery time; and increased susceptibility to injury. This is the primary assault that ages the body.

Despite the importance of fruits and vegetables, coordinating eating around training presents an added challenge that can lead to sub-optimal produce intake. Fruit and vegetable concentrates are a potential solution to the food timing and training issue. Specifically, this marks polyphenol-rich ingredients as a potential new frontrunner in the fruit and vegetable category.

There are hundreds of polyphenols in edible foods and tremendous variations in their metabolic or cellular-adaptive effects. These powerful antioxidant phytochemicals, known for protecting against cardiovascular disease and cancer, also decrease inflammation, reduce pain, and could counteract free radical-induced muscle damage.

Among the latest in produce-for-health stars is the once-humble beet. Always accepted as a source of near-magical health properties in Europe, science has been working overtime in establishing a strong body of evidence behind the folklore.

Beetroot juice does not require the oxygen-dependent pathway for nitric oxide production, making  it ideal for fast-paced activity. It does have a strong taste and powerful, staining color—after all, it’s often used as a natural food colorant. This presents a formulation challenge, especially for beverage scientists. Nevertheless, beets have become a highly popular food ingredient, in general: Mixed into berry juices, beetroot juice is appearing on shelves more than ever.

Polyphenols appear to work through two important metabolic pathways. They help prevent free radical destruction of nitric oxide and interrupt the conversion of nitrite to potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines. They also stimulate endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS), while enhancing the reduction of nitrite to nitric oxide.

For the physically active consumer, stimulating nitric oxide production relaxes blood vessels, helping them expand to accommodate greater blood flow and, therefore, nutrient and oxygen delivery to working muscles. For athletes, the effect of nitric oxide production can result in a noticeable muscle “pump” or even delayed fatigue.

Grape News

Concord grape juice delivers significantly more polyphenols than other juices in its category, including blueberry juice, açai juice, and cranberry juice. A recent in vitro study tested 51 commercial juices, including cranberry, blueberry, and pomegranate. Concord grape juice ranked highest in its ability to promote blood vessel relaxation. The relaxation effect was associated with the specific type of polyphenols (such as anthocyanins) in the juice and their ability to induce nitric oxide release in the endothelial lining of arteries.

Further evidence is provided from a second in vitro study using endothelial cells treated with Concord grape juice. Concord grape juice turned on proteins that signal the cells to make more eNOS, boosting levels of the compound for up to a full day. The eNOS enzyme is one of the enzymes responsible for the majority of nitric oxide produced, helping the body to convert nitric oxide from arginine.

In the study, the endothelial cells treated with Concord grape juice increased nitric oxide levels by 50%. Several other studies spanning more than 15 years show Concord grape juice relaxes arteries, so they can dilate to accommodate blood flow. Such healthy blood flow is vital for increased oxygenation and energy turnover during strenuous activity.

Manufacturers can rely on juice concentrates or develop innovative foods with Concord grape flakes, bites, and pieces created from Concord grape juice and purée. Such real fruit bites combine bold flavor and natural sweetness from fruit sugars (with no added sugar). They can be made using a single type of fruit (like the Concord grape) or a combination of multiple fruits, or fruit blended with other ingredients – including nutraceuticals, arginine, or nitrate-rich ingredients—and formulated into bars, bakery products, trail mixes, cereals, and more.

Infused bites of real fruit provide a portable and convenient solution in a 100% fruit delivery system. Made through ultra-rapid concentration processing technology, the pieces deliver exceptional taste and texture; have a long shelflife; do not clump; have no foreign material; and no FD&C colors, artificial flavors, or preservatives. They do have controllable water-activity levels and provide a consistent taste from batch to batch.

Cherries are another powerful sports fruit. Cherries, especially tart cherries, have more anthocyanins type 1 and 2 than other fruits. (Other deeply colored berries, such as raspberries and blueberries, aren’t far behind.) Tart cherry juice is well-known for its ability to decrease inflammation, ease exercise-induced muscle pain, and mitigate other symptoms of muscle damage.

Anthocyanins 1 and 2 are polyphenols that inhibit Cox-1 and Cox-2 enzymes; Cox-1 enzymes are responsible for maintaining the gut lining and important for the health of other tissues. Cox-1-derived products drive acute inflammation, whereas Cox-2 enzymes increase inflammation and pain several hours later.

Old Made New

Arginine and citrulline, as well as the aforementioned beetroot juice, are the leaders in the nitric oxide category. Arginine and citrulline increase nitric oxide production through an oxygen-dependent pathway, making this method less effective for high-intensity workouts when oxygen isn’t as readily available.

Ingredients for general heath, such as carotenoids, vitamins, minerals and the omega-3 fatty acids, also have sports performance benefits.

NSAIDs, including ibuprofen and several other drugs, inhibit Cox-1 and Cox-2 enzymes. In vitro work found anthocyanins from raspberries and sweet cherries led to similar inhibition of Cox-1 and Cox-2 enzymes. Polyphenol-rich ingredients and foods also might benefit those with joint pain.

Although sugar traditionally has been used as a basic energy source, it typically clashes with the sports ideal of healthful ingredients. But the past decade or so has seen increasing use of ribose sugar in formulations. Ribose is a 5-carbon sugar that forms the base of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary energy molecule of the metabolic cycle and muscle function. Ribose is the source of energy for every cell in the body. Ribose is needed to regulate the chemical process that rebuilds ATP.

Ribose currently is classed by the FDA as any other sugar, providing 4 kcals/g, however studies show that it’s metabolized differently and could provide as little as half or fewer calories—about 1.5-2.5kcals/g. Until ribose is re-evaluated, it does have to count as a sugar on package labels. But its versatility in processing—stability in heat and cold—making it easy to include in formulations. It’s almost as sweet as sucrose, so it can be used in about the same amounts in products.

One study involving participants with limited range of motion and pain, including some with age-related osteoarthritis, found an açaì pulp-fortified, polyphenol-rich, fruit-and-berry juice blend consumed daily for 12 weeks led to a significant reduction in pain, improved range of motion, and improvement in activities of daily living.

There is a treasure trove of ingredients that are beneficial to heath, including carotenoids, EPA, DHA, vitamins, and minerals. The omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are well-known for their role in heart health, where they are tied to a dose-dependent decrease in triglycerides and a small, but significant, decrease in blood pressure.

EPA and DHA also improve joint functioning (particularly in those with rheumatoid arthritis) and decrease the damaging effects from concussions. This is evidenced when taken in high doses immediately and over the course of several days after a concussion occurs. Emerging evidence suggests they also might attenuate inflammation after muscle-damaging exercise and improve muscle strength.

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in healthy, older adults found six months of supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids (1.86g of EPA plus 1.50g of DHA; an amount equivalent to 200-400g of fatty fish) increased muscle mass (thigh muscle volume). It also increased muscle functioning, including handgrip strength, with a 1 RM strength composite score for leg press, chest press, knee extension, and knee flexion.

Compared to the control group, the group supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids had a 3.5% improvement in muscle volume and 6% improvement in muscle strength. EPA and DHA might augment muscle protein synthesis and improve mitochondrial functioning in muscle.

Research suggests that theacrine improves feelings of energy, focus, and mood, while reducing fatigue.

Two recent studies show EPA and DHA decrease muscle soreness after exercise. In the first, 24 men were given 600mg of EPA and 260mg DHA per day for eight weeks, prior to exercise and five days after. Compared to placebo, the supplemented group showed greater muscle functioning and range of motion for several days after a bout of exercise designed to induce muscle damage: five sets of six maximal eccentric elbow flexion exercises.

Three days after the exercise, muscle soreness also was greater in the placebo group compared to the supplemented group. These results suggest, when consumed regularly, omega-3s might decrease muscle damage and soreness—thereby allowing for greater range of motion and better muscle functioning after a damaging bout of exercise.

In another study, healthy male athletes, who competed in summer Olympic sports for two years or more, training over 12 hours a week and not regularly consuming fish, were given omega-3 plus vitamin D supplements (375mg EPA, 230mg DPA, 510 DHA, 1,000 IU vitamin D3) or 5mL of olive oil for 21 days. During this time, they continued their regular training program and were asked to refrain from eating more than three servings of fish per week and not take any additional omega-3 supplements.

After 21 days, plasma EPA was higher in the supplementing group, although DPA and DHA were not significantly different, suggesting a higher dose might be necessary. The omega-3 supplement group experienced some improvement in neuromuscular functioning.

Sustained Energy

Although part of the old guard of ingredients for energy, alkaloids—such as caffeine—still are important. Research is disclosing more about the mechanism of caffeine and its relatives in providing usable energy. Decades of research supports caffeine for stimulating central nervous system functioning and enhancing vigilance, particularly during bouts of sustained sleep-deprivation and in those performing long bouts of exhaustive exercise—all situations that present a challenge for staying focused.

Caffeine is a fantastic ergogenic (performance-enhancing) aid for maximal endurance exercise as well as high-intensity exercise. Earlier research suggests a dosage of 3.0-6.0mg of caffeine per kg body weight enhances sports performance, and caffeine has a greater ergogenic effect when consumed in an anhydrous (crystalline) state vs. drinking coffee. However, a more recent review of the literature is paving the path for coffee-based, pre-workout shots, sports drinks, dairy beverages, and others.

Researchers found moderate evidence suggesting coffee providing 3-8.1mg/kg bodyweight (1.36-3.68mg/lb) of caffeine can reduce feelings of perceived exertion and improve endurance performance during time-to-exhaustion trials. In addition, more recent research found low doses of caffeine (<3mg/kg body weight, or about 200mg) can also improve vigilance, alertness, mood, and cognitive processes during and after exercise, with few if any side-effects.

Caffeine isn’t the only ingredient on the market that can increase feelings of alertness. A purine alkaloid gaining interest is 1,3,7,9-tetramethyluric acid (theacrine). Theacrine is found in certain coffee plants, fruits, and tea, as well as the up-trending chocolate analog, cupuaçu. It has a structure similar to caffeine and other methylxanthines, plus it inhibits adenosine, preventing dopamine from binding (just like caffeine). In addition, it directly stimulates the dopamine pathway.

Preliminary data demonstrate that theacrine, in doses of about 2.8-3.2 mg/kg (~200mg), improves feelings of energy, focus, and mood, while reducing fatigue. Unlike caffeine, theacrine isn’t habit-forming and technically is not classed as a stimulant. When combined with caffeine, the optimal dose is closer to ~0.75-2.0mg/kg (~50mg-125mg).

A two-month study in humans determined that theacrine does not alter heart rate, blood pressure, or any blood measures associated with clinical safety, yet it lowers LDL and total cholesterol. This latter “extra” is possibly due to its high-polyphenol content. Safe in both low and high doses, theacrine showed no effect on body composition in this study.

Another, randomized double-blind crossover study in healthy individuals found 200mg of theacrine led to significant improvements in subjective measures of energy, reduced fatigue, and improvement across some indices of mental performance. Additionally, in a subset of six subjects, a 200mg dose, open-label, repeated-dose study over a seven-day period improved subjective measures of energy, fatigue, concentration, anxiety, motivation to exercise, and libido.

Theacrine appears to be a novel innovation for improving central nervous system functioning and energy, without the negative side effects associated with caffeine. It could be a viable substitute in formulation for caffeine, a compound that some consumers avoid due to side effects that include energy crash, the jitters, increases in heart rate and blood pressure, and habituation.

The market has been craving lower or non-caffeinated solutions for enhancing energy. Ingredients such as theacrine, fruit concentrates, arginine, citrulline, ribose, and others allow makers of foods and beverages for sports enthusiasts to take their game to the next level.   


Originally appeared in the September, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Sports Nutrition Gets a 10.