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Sports nutrition – 5 key trends for 2017

By Peter Schouw Andersen, Arla Foods Ingredients

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The future is bright for the dairy industry's role in sports nutrition ingredients. Pic: Arla Foods Ingredients
The future is bright for the dairy industry's role in sports nutrition ingredients. Pic: Arla Foods Ingredients

Related tags Sports nutrition Amino acid Nutrition Euromonitor

The sports nutrition category has seen enormous growth – from $6.7bn in 2010 to $10.8bn in 20151.

Ever more people are coming to recognize the benefits of sports nutrition products in terms of how they can help them to reach their performance and wellbeing goals. Against this backdrop, here are five key trends to look out for in the world of sports nutrition in 2017.

Trend 1 – More consumers, new consumers

As well as growing in size, the sports nutrition category has quickly expanded its consumer base over the last 10 years2​. For a long time, it was a niche sector, catering mainly for bodybuilders and elite athletes – what we call the ‘core users’ of sports nutrition products.

These individuals, who still exist today, are typically high-volume users, frequent purchasers and are knowledgeable, discerning consumers.

But with people in general putting greater focus on managing their weight and increasing their fitness levels, the world of sports nutrition has become more appealing to greater numbers of mainstream consumers, or what we might call ‘casual users’.  

We are talking here about mass channel shoppers who tend to prefer convenient product formats and to look out for familiar ingredients they trust, with a leaning towards clean label and formulations free from certain ingredients.

Meanwhile, another group has now emerged. It is seen most notably in developed markets, as well as in urban centers in developing markets.

It is made up of people who see performance in a different way. They are committed sports and fitness enthusiasts. But they are not athletes. Rather, they are highly dedicated people who see fitness as the key to their high-performance lifestyle.

In the sports nutrition market, we call these types of people ‘fitness lifestyle users’. They are usually health and wellness evangelists. They are brand-conscious, but they are also happy to try out new products, formats and ingredients.

Trend 2 – The only whey is up

The growth of sports nutrition and the widening of its consumer appeal have turned out to be positive developments for dairy proteins – and particularly whey proteins.

In 2020, the global whey protein market will be worth $13.5bn, up from $9.2bn in 2015. This represents a CAGR of 6.5% over this timeframe3​.

The success of whey is mainly due to increasing awareness that, in nutritional terms, it is among the best quality sources of protein around.

Furthermore, it delivers a taste with a greater level of acceptance among consumers than that offered by other protein sources. Additionally, whey is versatile and easy to use in product applications, which means it is also popular among manufacturers.

Trend 3 – Athletes value superior proteins

Athletes consume proteins so they can build lean muscle mass and recover more rapidly after exercising – all with the fundamental aim of maximizing their performance. Several options are available to them, but the taste and nutritional quality of these can vary greatly.

Pic: ©iStock/Ivanko_Brnjakovic

On the whole, though, athletes view whey as a superior protein in terms of both flavor and the benefits it delivers.

With their superior nutritional quality, whey proteins are well known for the benefits they offer in sports nutrition. They are rich in essential amino acids and branched-chain amino acids4​, in particular leucine.

This means whey stimulates muscle growth and regeneration more effectively than other protein sources do5 6 7​.

Whey enhances the rate of recovery by refueling the muscles through insulin-mediated glycogen synthesis8​. They are easy for the body to digest and are absorbed quickly, which ensures fast delivery of the building blocks required for rapid recovery4 9​.

Lastly, they deliver a better taste compared with some other commonly consumed proteins of plant origin.

Trend 4 – Hydrolysates are the next big thing

As the sports nutrition category flourishes, we expect to see whey protein hydrolysatesplay a greater role in the evolution of the sector.

Hydrolysates are very high-quality proteins that have, essentially, been finely chopped – or ‘pre-digested’ – in order that they can be absorbed more rapidly by the body than with conventional proteins.  As a result, they can get to work more quickly in helping muscles recover following exercise.

The popularity of CrossFit is a good example highlighting the relevance of whey hydrolysates to today’s sports nutrition users, particularly the new breed of ‘fitness lifestyle users’ mentioned previously in this article.

CrossFit comprises daily workout sessions that are known as ‘WODS’ (workouts of the day). These are a combination of aerobic activity, weightlifting and gymnastics. CrossFit is practised in over 10,000 affiliated gyms globally, with 50% of these in the US.

The philosophy of CrossFit is also used by organizations such as fire departments, law enforcement agencies and the military.

Cross-Fit is becoming increasingly popular as a competitive sport. The CrossFit Games have taken place every summer since 2007, and in that time they have become serious business.

In the 2015 event, there were 273,000 entrants, competing for $2m in prize money. Of that, $275,000 went to each of the winners in the male and female categories.

CrossFit is enjoyable and varied but it also places huge pressure on the athlete’s body. Particularly because of the frequency and intensity of exercise, enormous demands are placed on the muscles.

Ideally, CrossFit should be practiced daily, which means there’s just a small window for recovery between the WODs.

This is where whey protein hydrolysates come into play. They have been shown to help cut muscle recovery times from days to a matter of hours. As a result, they are perfect for people who want to stay in shape to keep up a CrossFit regime.

Because of this, we predict that participants will seek out sports nutrition products that enable them to recover fast enough to maintain their program of WODs every day.  In turn, this will increase demand for high quality sports nutrition ingredients, such as whey protein hydrolysates, which we know can deliver this benefit.

For hydrolysates, therefore, the future is very promising.

Trend 5 – Next-gen hydrolysates are the next, next big thing

Creating sports nutrition products that are tailored for different consumers is vital. In the past, gels and shakes have been the preferred format for sports nutrition users.

But following the growth of the category and the expansion of its appeal, other types of products are becoming popular, such as snack bars and RTD clear beverages. Those who are new to sports nutrition tend to like these formats more because they offer convenience and better taste and texture – as well as excellent nutritional quality.

Until now, it has been difficult to use whey protein hydrolysates in products for these kinds of consumers.

Hydrolystates were usually tricky to formulate with, and suffered with taste issues such as bitterness and astringency. Fortunately, these obstacles have been overcome with a new generation of whey protein hydrolysates.

These have been ‘mildly’ hydrolysed with the latest processing technology. Consequently, they are easier to formulate with over a wider range of temperatures and pH values. This means they offer all of the performance benefits of hydrolysates but with better taste and functionality.

This paves the way to using these next-gen whey hydrolysates in applications such as clear drinks, 100% whey-based milky beverages, protein gels and powder shakes.

Companies can now create sports nutrition products made with hydrolysates that will be attractive to all types of consumers and not just the traditional hardcore users.

Life’s too short for slow proteins. And hydrolysates deliver all the benefits of whey more rapidly than any other protein type. Thanks to advances in processing technology, the benefits of hydrolysates are now available to more people than ever.

Peter Schouw Andersen is head of science & sales development at Arla Foods Ingredients, which recently opened a new factory at Nr. Vium, Denmark, dedicated to manufacturing whey protein hydrolysates. The $43m facility can produce about 4,000 tonnes of hydrolysates annually, for applications in sports nutrition, as well as infant and clinical nutrition.


Global sport nutrition retail value, Euromonitor September 2016
Trends and developments in sports nutrition report, Euromonitor 2015
FAO Expert Consultation Report 2013. ISSN 0254-4725
Atherton P J et al. 2010. Amino Acids, 38:1533-99​_ _
Devries MC & Phillips SM 2015. Journal of Food Science, 80, S1
Witard OC et al. 2016. Nutrients, 23;8(4)
van Loon LJ. 2007. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 17 Suppl:S104-17
Boirie Y. et al. 1997. Proc Nat Acad Sci. 94:14930–5

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