Product developers seeking to meet the needs of more active consumers are adopting new approaches to crafting products for sport and activity. These approaches include looking at the entire spectrum of the consumer’s day and how the diet can be enhanced, both in the time period leading up to activity and the post-activity downtime when body and brain need to recover.

Also, these developers are considering the concerns and trends their target consumers are following outside of exercise and recreation, such as weight balance, energy, and endurance as well as vegetarianism, GMO or gluten avoidance, and promoting sustainability and a more “green” economy.

To meet these demands, suppliers are coming forward with an expanding portfolio of such ingredients as plant proteins, natural stimulants, botanicals, pre- and probiotics, and vegan-friendly vitamins and minerals.

Trending big among sports enthusiasts and active consumers are a renewed focus on macroingredients. For example, as with the general population, sports product consumers have also demonstrated a rapidly expanding appetite for plant-based protein. These consumers also are gobbling up foods and beverages with ingredients that support gut health.

Along with these two overarching trends, new approaches to building strength and improving immune health, recovery, and blood flow are emerging. And plant-foods, botanicals, plus pre- and probiotics are leading the way to help consumers get through jam-packed days.

Other ingredients, such as vitamin-like compounds and amino acids, too, are becoming more important to formulations for sports and energy, as are safe short-term energy boosters in the alkaloid class. Even unique carbohydrates, such as the monosaccharide sugar ribose that is purported to help boost muscle energy and mitigate fatigue is gaining traction in the category of foods and beverages for sports.

One new ingredient developers have been showing interest in is methylliberine, a purine alkaloid derived from leaves of the kucha bush. Its molecular structure is similar to the green tea extract theacrine and is believed to behave in similar ways in the body. Like theacrine, it is believed to boost energy and focus by activating dopamine receptors and other key neurotransmitters and inhibiting adenosine receptors. Unlike its “sister” alkaloid caffeine, it does not increase the heart rate or elevate blood pressure.


Active Analogs

The plant-based dairy alternative category has paved the path for plant protein. Despite many new introductions in the marketplace, consumers still are just getting their palates wet and are hungry for more non-dairy milk-like drinks, yogurts, and cheeses. Interest in meat alternatives is also continuing to surge. Animal protein alternatives comprise a diverging cluster of categories with unchecked opportunity.

With these two areas currently in the forefront, there exist plenty of openings for prepared breakfast items, frozen prepared entrées, and novel snacks aimed at active vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian consumers. Bars and chips continue to be oversaturated categories, although the ability to market them within these channels can help set them apart from similar products.

The ideal plant protein product is packed with essential amino acids, including a good amount of leucine, the amino acid that “switches on” the machinery underlying muscle growth and repair. As the “real food” push continues, whole-food, protein-rich plant foods are in demand.

Whole sources of protein such as nuts, seeds, and legumes ramp up the overall nutritional value of a product and contribute to clean-label claims. And while they provide other valuable nutrients such as minerals and omega fatty acids, they can’t boost the total protein content enough in comparison to the overall calorie amount. 

The amino acids in whole plant foods are less bioavailable compared to processed protein powders thanks to so-called “anti-nutrients,” naturally occurring compounds that interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients.

When protein is isolated from the plant, anti-nutrient content typically decreases. Therefore, the best solution can sometimes be to use as much of a whole food ingredient like nuts or seeds as possible, and then to fortify the final product with high-quality plant protein isolates.


Legumes Loom Large

Soy protein is the only complete plant protein that contains all essential amino acids. Many plant proteins fall short on specific essential amino acids (typically lysine and methionine), but combining plant proteins can create a complete array. Blending plant proteins also can come with added benefits, such as improved sensory appeal, flavor, texture, and appearance.

Pulses, including beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils, are a good source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and plant compounds that support overall good health.

Lupin Bean Isolates
Lupin bean isolates are an emerging protein with high digestibility and an amino acid score higher than many other plant proteins.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: CK Ingredients, Inc.

Pulse ingredients are produced in a variety of textures for different applications, including whole, roasted pulses, grits, flakes, raw flours, air-classified flours, pre-cooked flours, pre-gelled flours, pastes, pulse/cereal blends, protein isolates, and protein concentrates.

Along with this array of forms, pulses perform a variety of functions in sports and other formulations, including structure, strength, texture, mouthfeel, emulsification, gelation, film-forming, foaming, water control, and controlling variations in appearance including opacity or turbidity, particle suspension, adhesion, and agglomeration. Of course, all soy and pulse products are gluten-free.

Lupin bean isolates are an emerging protein with an impressive nutrition profile. Lupin beans delivers 50% of calories from protein — more than any other bean — 30g of fiber per 100g of lupin, and a protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) score of 0.77, which is higher than that of many plant proteins.

The drawback of lupin are the natural bitter flavor notes thanks to its alkaloid content. However, when formulated correctly, it delivers a mild flavor with no bitterness, making it a great fit for a variety of applications. Lupin is available in flour, grits, flakes, and micronized flour for beverages. 

Lupin is well suited to formulation into a wide range of food products including breads, pasta, and bars. In addition, lupin is slowly making its way into other categories, including breakfast cereals, breaded meats and fish, milk alternatives, and more. Lupin can typically be used at up to 20-25% in food formulations.

Although low in lysine and methionine, pea protein is high in leucine, is non-allergenic, and supports clean-label claims. 

Newer versions of pea protein mask its typical earthy flavor and bitter off-notes. Like its cousin, the chickpea, pea protein is often used as an egg substitute due to excellent foam stability and emulsion characteristics, making it a good fit for soft baked goods aimed at active consumers.

Pea protein has many other functional properties developers can take advantage of. These include aeration, foaming, binding, adhesion, emulsification, humectancy, crispness, strength, and thickening, making it suitable for a wide range of sports nutrition products. 

Lentil protein has greater amino acid bioavailability compared to whole lentils. However, it is low in methionine and cysteine, so it is best combined with another protein. Chickpea protein has a relatively bland flavor, making it beneficial for formulation in meal-like dishes where it won’t overpower other flavors. However, chickpea protein can also be used in a variety of sports nutrition products, bars, snacks, and dairy alternatives.

Two up-and-coming plant proteins eyed for today’s sports products are potato and corn protein. Both deliver a relatively bland flavor and are good sources of essential amino acids, thus helping to improve the nutrition profile of final products.


Gelatin Revisited

Gelatin as a food and ingredient has been in use for centuries. Known for helping to build strong bodies and provide cheap and easily digestible protein, gelatin became popular in the 1930s as a health food for strengthening hair and nails. This relatively inexpensive ingredient has become a hot commodity in the sports nutrition world.

Gelatin is being recognized as a therapeutic aid after sustaining an injury, especially of joints and ligaments. Clinical research on gelatin shows it can ease ligament stiffness and improve tendon health when taken one hour before training, alongside a source of vitamin C. Though far less expensive than its source, collagen, gelatin (which is hydrolyzed collagen and sometimes referred to as collagen peptides) has larger particles and quickly “gels” when mixed in solution.


Gelatin and collagen products have proliferated in the marketplace.

Although there are plenty of collagen powders on the market, there are no products that combine gelatin or collagen in efficacious amounts alongside vitamin C as a food or gummy.

Animal studies show that in addition to its role in healthy tendons and joints, type 2 hydrolyzed collagen may also decrease cartilage breakdown, tame inflammation, and stimulate lubrication in cartilage cells. All of these benefits are helpful for athletes who have been subjected to years of wear and tear, as well as older adults who feel aches and pains yet want to stay active. 


Go With the Flow

Whether training or healing from an injury, active adults have an increased demand for blood flow to deliver oxygen and nutrients to hardworking muscles. It’s also important for helping immune cells clean up damaged tissue in muscles and elsewhere in the body. High-nitrate beets and leafy greens often lead the pack for enhancing blood flow via nitric oxide production.

Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, meaning it expands blood vessels to accommodate greater blood flow. However, an ancient ingredient known primarily for its role in taming inflammation, curcumin, is becoming recognized as similarly important for better blood flow.

Known as the primary phytochemical in turmeric, curcumin has overcome previous challenges in formulations due to its lipid base, distinct flavor, and yellow color. Helping its solubility in formulations and mitigating its flavor and color challenges is its ability to form a complex with and inside of cyclodextrins.

Cyclodextrins are unique starch molecules that form into cups. These molecular structures trap the curcumin without molecularly bonding to it, allowing it to be released in the digestive system once the cyclodextrin starch dissolves.

Researchers determined that supplementation with 1,000 mg of highly bioavailable curcumin enhanced flow-mediated dilation — the ability of blood vessels to dilate — by 37%. Curcumin packs a powerful health punch, easing inflammation and countering excess free radicals in addition to improving blood flow.

The Amazonian fruit camu-camu is packed with anthocyanins, polyphenols, and flavonoids, plus one of the highest vitamin C concentrations of any fruit. A mere 100g provides about 3,500% of the daily value for the vitamin. But camu-camu’s vitamin C is unique. It is a newly discovered molecule, named JS0208MD, that actually is a dense form of ascorbic acid bonded with nitric oxide. Although vitamin C from camu-camu pulp starts to degrade over time when frozen, pure, whole-fruit camu-camu powder is a readily available and viable option for formulation into foods and beverages. (See “Just Say N-O.”)


From the Gut

Athletes and regularly active consumers who have had gastrointestinal issues such as IBS or those who have food sensitivities, autoimmune disease, or other ailments may benefit not only symptomatically but in performance from products that address gut health. Gelatin and collagen are excellent choices as they help build a healthy intestinal barrier.

Acai Bowl
By helping boost immunity, probiotics support muscle damage recovery and healing after resistance training and similar activity.
PHOTO COURTESY OF: Next Foods, Inc. (

The villi, fingerlike projections sticking out from the intestinal wall, are damaged in persons with leaky gut, celiac disease, and other autoimmune diseases. These villi are critical to nutrient absorption. Collagen and gelatin help repair this intestinal barrier. However, the benefits of gut health products often extend beyond the gut and have indirect benefits on training and athletic performance. By altering the immune system, gut microbiota can have a regulatory role in bone health, osteoarthritis, and tendon conditions.

Supplementation with prebiotics and probiotics helps keep the immune system functioning. In addition to decreasing risk of illness, the immune system helps clear out muscle damage, facilitate recovery after resistance training, and heal injuries. Until recently, there has been little research done in this area.

A study published last year in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology revealed that coadministration of two probiotic strains — Bifidobacterium breve BR03 and Streptococcus thermophilus FP4 — following strenuous exercise led to improved isometric average peak torque from 24 to 72 hours into the recovery period, and moderate improvements in resting arm angle at 24 and 48 hours post exercise. Although this is the first study of its kind, it highlights the importance of the immune system in many facets of sports training.

When taken daily, several probiotic strains have been shown to be effective in clinical studies for reducing the incidence of upper respiratory symptoms. Double-blind, placebo-controlled studies or crossover studies in athletes have supported this. These studies included the probiotic bacteria strains Lactobacillus fermentum VRI-003, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis Bi-04, Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM, and B. animalis subsp. lactis Bi-07, taken together.

A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the journal Genes found that probiotic use was associated with significant decreases in BMI, fat mass, and weight when used for at least 12 weeks. Among the studies using single strains, Lactobacillus showed significant reductions in BMI and the greatest reductions in body weight and fat mass.


Prebiotic Partners

Without food, these beneficial bacteria won’t last very long. Prebiotics, the non-digestible carbohydrates that are gobbled up by gut bacteria, are gaining attention for their many roles, including weight management, mood support, immune health, and more.

The same systematic review and meta-analysis concluded that prebiotics were associated with a significant reduction in body weight. Prebiotic fiber can absorb fat in the intestines, helping decrease calorie absorption. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the journal Gastroenterology found 8g per day of oligofructose-enriched inulin, taken daily for 16 weeks, led to significant reductions in body weight, percent body fat, and percent trunk fat as compared to a placebo (maltodextrin).

A study of healthy adults revealed that just 6g of partially hydrolyzed guar gum, taken daily for 12 months, helped improve markers of metabolic health and reduce waist circumference. 

Partially hydrolyzed guar gum is soluble, transparent, and flavorless. It is low in viscosity, improves stability of beverages at various pH levels, and is resistant to heat, acid, and digestive enzymes. 

Adding more fiber will help to decrease the amount of digestible carbohydrates or net carbs for those on ketogenic or low-carbohydrate diets.

Look for future research connecting gut health to soft tissue health, resolution of inflammation, and the healing process. In a well-designed, placebo-controlled study, obese rats given a high fat, high-sucrose diet and put on an exercise program were compared to those receiving an addition of the prebiotic fiber oligofructose derived from inulin (via partial enzymatic hydrolysis). The rats given the high fat, high sucrose diet and exercise experienced an increase in fibrotic tissue in place of bone, and collapse of adjacent cartilage.

In the second, added-inulin group, the combination of aerobic exercise and the prebiotic fiber completely prevented knee joint damage typically observed in this rat model of obesity. These results suggest this form of oligofructose helped attenuate some of the damage caused by a high-fat, high-sugar diet.

The sports nutrition world is experiencing a paradigm shift, with greater attention paid to whole foods, functional foods, and the diet in its entirety. While pre-workout supplements, electrolytes, and gels will always have a foothold in the market, consumers are turning their attention to the many benefits of plant proteins.

These consumers also are attuned to the critical role that immune health plays in overall health, recovery, and performance. Moreover they understand the need for, and seek out, new products that deliver greater blood flow and nutrients to support tissue health and heal the body after an injury. This translates to new opportunities for sports product developers.



by Jeffrey Moats, CEO of The Kapok Foundation

Camu-camu Fruit

The vasodilation benefits of the naturally occurring nitric oxide (NO) covalently bonded with a particularly dense form of natural vitamin C (10 times more potent than “regular” vitamin C) that’s found in the Amazonian fruit camu-camu provide an intensely efficacious response to the antioxidant benefits of high-dose natural vitamin C (ascorbic acid).

Camu-camu is one of the most concentrated natural sources of vitamin C known, with 100g of fresh fruit yielding about 2,200 mg or more of the vitamin. Research at the Linus Pauling Institute and Case Western Reserve University found that the vitamin C form natural to camu-camu is a completely novel, covalently bonded molecule of the densest form of ascorbic acid plus naturally occurring nitric oxide. It also is rich in anthocyanins, polyphenols, flavonoids, and other antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytochemical compounds. It has been nicknamed “a pharmacy in a fruit.”

The vasodilation effect also boosts energy and mental focus by surging oxygen-rich blood through every capillary, vein and artery in the body. For athletes and active consumers, it’s a “win/win” nutraceutical, increasing endurance, energy, and focus.

Results of a study with volunteer professional body builders and weight lifters indicated that the camu-camu complex significantly increased their endurance. The subjects were provided a 3g powdered dose made from 100% pure, whole camu-camu fruit, unadulterated with any stimulants or other excipients. The powder was mixed in an 8oz shaker with flavored juice or drink mix. Some subjects reported a burst of energy and noted that they felt they could significantly increase their workout beyond their usual weight levels and time lifting. Most importantly, they reported zero side effects or “crashing.”