Formulating for energy and recovery meets two of the important needs for sports enthusiasts as well as for the casual exerciser. But the foods and beverages marketed for this niche also have proven to be highly attractive to the average Jane or Joe burning the candle at both ends without working up a sweat in the gym.

Post-workout recovery involves the three Rs: Rehydrate, Refuel and Rebuild. Rehydration has typically involved sports drinks, though research has opened the door to positioning other beverages as optimal choices during this period. Refueling means carbohydrates— a vital part of a post-workout plan for anyone exercising hard every day or more than once per day. Rebuilding is done with high-quality proteins. Although whey took the lead here for years, plant proteins are growing in popularity and presenting a greater opportunity for product differentiation.

Rehydration is arguably one of the most important aspects of recovery, as approximately 50% of athletes and active gym-goers start exercise in a hypohydrated state. Starting underhydrated means blood volume can drop, and therefore delivery of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to muscles is curtailed. As a result, strength, speed, power, and mental functioning all take a hit. No one can drink enough to make up for lack of hydration during exercise, making the post-exercise period vital.

According to a study examining how different beverages stacked up post-exercise, milk and an oral rehydration solution typically used for sick children stood out in front of 100% orange juice and a typical sports drink, helping participants hold onto more of the fluid they consumed. Milk-based post-workout drinks containing ample amounts of protein and carbohydrate can also be formulated for their ability to rehydrate better than other drinks.

Likewise, an electrolyte carbohydrate solution containing at least 50% more sodium than a typical sports drink is ideal for many athletes in practice and post training. Sodium solutions that bypass the taste buds via encapsulation will deliver the sodium without an unpleasant taste.

Refueling with carbohydrate can be simple. For consumers desiring low sugar, maltodextrin has been a common solution. However, it still spikes blood glucose, making its “zero sugar” claim somewhat misleading. Despite this, it is a fast source of carbohydrate and therefore beneficial for the consumer looking to rapidly replace muscle glycogen.

Cluster dextrin, also known as “highly branched cyclic dextrin” (HBCD) isn’t very sweet either, and it also qualifies for “no added sugar” claims. These dextrin forms are rapidly absorbed and have the added benefit of helping mask undesirable tastes. Fruit, as purées, bits, and 100% juices, also make an excellent carbohydrate source.

Plant proteins are gaining steam quickly thanks to a movement supporting plant foods for both health and sustainability. They are likely as effective as animal-based proteins, such as whey, for stimulating acute muscle protein synthesis when equated based on total leucine content.

Leucine is the key amino acid turning on the machinery behind muscle protein synthesis. As whey is quite high in leucine, this suggests higher amounts of plant proteins are best. Additionally, combining plant proteins can improve both flavor and amino acid profile by pairing proteins that fall short on one or more amino acids with those that have higher amounts of the low-dose amino acids. Separating proteins from the plant, and therefore anti-nutrients, means the amino acids found in pea, sacha inchi, rice, and hemp proteins are likely more bioavailable.

Given the demand for greater transparency, it isn’t desirable to add high-nitrogen amino acids such as glutamine, taurine, or creatine to protein powders or drinks, as this creates an amino-spiking condition where the tested protein content (based on total nitrogen) appears higher than it actually is.