Prepared Foods talks sports nutrition trends with Joshua Schall, founder of J. Schall Consulting, a boutique strategy consulting firm in Austin, Texas, focused on the functional consumer packaged goods category. Schall held executive posts at Beast Sports Nutrition and MusclePharm Corporation before starting his own business in 2012. 

Prepared Foods: Coming into this year, what would you have identified as top trends in sports fitness and nutrition products?

Joshua Schall: When I write yearly prediction articles about sports nutrition trends, I attempt to make each year increasingly harder by eliminating the ability to duplicate last year’s “correct” predictions—even though the definition of a trend is rooted in its multi-year staying power. That being said, many “layups” that you’ve likely seen on other prediction lists from industry publications were off limits. 

In no particular order, my top five predictions for sports nutrition trends in 2020 involved Sustainability, Personalization/Customization, Ready-to-Drink (RTD) Beverages (Mostly Energy Drinks) Get Smarter, Bifurcation of Brand Positioning, and Convenient Nutrition 2.0. 

Sustainability was mainly included because the sports nutrition CPG sub-category has continually lagged the broader market. Personalized (or Customized) Nutrition was on my list in 2019, but I deemed the prediction “too early” despite its advancement in feature sets and marketability. RTD Beverages (Mostly Energy Drinks) have become the coolest kid in school, but I saw the market shifting towards utilizing more adaptogens, botanicals, and nootropic ingredients that could help improve brain function. 

Bifurcation of Brand Positioning is something that is becoming more obvious in every consumer sector, but especially with an increase of commodification throughout sports nutrition. Convenient Nutrition 2.0 was really an evolution of brands needing to align themselves with this value proposition, but diversify away from the extremely competitive established RTE/RTD categories. 

PF: No one could have predicted COVID-19 and its impact on the economy, business and consumers. In light of the pandemic, how might you revise those predictions? 

Schall: Within the context of sports nutrition, I don’t believe many new trends happened because of COVID-19, but it did amplify those that had existing traction in the market. The biggest benefactor of my existing trend predictions would probably be the Bifurcation of Brand Positioning. Even during these uncertain times, the sports nutrition brands that held a strong place in consumers’ lives continued to perform well. 

That said, the economic uncertainty also caused a lot of consumers to trade down and look for sports nutrition brands that satisfied their needs—but also prioritize price as the purchase consideration. 

Alternatively, I think the sports nutrition industry has been stagnant in its evolution towards becoming more sustainable. While various surveys during COVID-19 have supported increased consumer interest in sustainability with the CPG products they purchase, sports nutrition brands have instead focused on simplifying and diversifying their existing global supply chains. 

PF: Are functional benefits trending up in new products?

Schall: I think there’s a normal reaction when humans are in the midst of an extreme period of change, such as COVID-19. We tend to believe something will be a lot more pronounced or sticky than it actually turns out. That being said, I think there are a few benefits that improved their profile of importance with consumers in the first half of 2020 and will have staying power in the market. 

The most visible [on-trend functional benefit] would be around consumers interested in boosting immune health. Also, I believe elevated stress and anxiety levels from COVID-19 will continue to draw attention towards products that target relaxation. Similarly, I think sports nutrition products that focus on helping consumers improve their quality of sleep will become increasingly important as many work-from-home Americans are struggling with adapting to implications from a blended environment.

PF: What functional ingredients do you see trending up?

Schall: Because popular ingredients are usually tied to increased levels of interest in particular benefits, I think you’ll see a surge of relevant adaptogens, botanicals, and nootropic ingredients showing up in functional CPG products. 

A few of the ingredients I would be playing close attention to would be ashwagandha to reduce stress and anxiety; chaga mushroom for boosting immunity, lion’s mane mushroom for improving brain function; and valerian root, to aid in sleep. 


PF: How has sports nutrition changed most since your MusclePharm days? 

Schall: From a product perspective, categorical silos have eroded and it has become increasingly harder to decipher what exactly constitutes a sports nutrition or “active nutrition” product today. 

The primary causation of that transformation could be directed towards the rise of “health and wellness” convenient nutrition functional foods and beverages. Because of that, a huge influx of mainstream consumers were introduced to the sports nutrition category in a different way than a previous generation. 

With this rise in popularity of ready-to-eat and RTD sports nutrition products, there was a massive shift in the accompanying retail landscape. No longer were specialty retailers like GNC the only place you could purchase sports nutrition products—as the category disseminated across every large retail channel. Finally, disruption from digital migration cannot be understated.