Dairy’s role in the evolution of active nutrition

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

ADM said blended dairy beverages are good options that tick both nutritional and sensory boxes for consumers.  Pic: Getty Images/RossHelen
ADM said blended dairy beverages are good options that tick both nutritional and sensory boxes for consumers. Pic: Getty Images/RossHelen

Related tags Sports nutrition Dairy Ingredients Adm

Active nutrition is a fast-moving category, so where is it now, and where can it go with respect to the dairy industry?

Dairy Reporter had the opportunity to get the details from Mike Medina, category marketing director, specialized nutrition, dairy & private label at ADM.

How has the active nutrition space evolved and where is it today?

While sports nutrition for athletes and those who partake in strenuous workouts is not new, the active nutrition space takes a broader approach, welcoming consumers from varying life stages and lifestyles. The active nutrition category has blossomed over the past several years, particularly as more people are looking to improve their holistic well-being, from short-term goals of weight management and mental wellness to long-term proactive steps to healthy aging. In fact, over the last two years, nearly 82% of global consumers looked to improve their overall health, and 52% said they adopted a more long-term approach to health1​.

Further fueled by lifestyle shifts around the pandemic, the everyday consumer is turning to some form of physical activity as a means to bolster how they feel and support their overall well-being. Globally, 41% of consumers state they will engage in more physical activity, and 48% are conscious of their mental well-being due to Covid-192​.

Moreover, 61% of global consumers say they have exercised more in the last two years1​. This opens up the market for new active nutrition consumers seeking convenient, functional foods and beverages to add to their daily routines and help support their current and future wellness goals.

Historically, sports and performance products were driven by consumer aspirations and demands related to physical appearance, strength, performance, recovery or focus. While many of these aspects are still important, the active nutrition space is allowing more inclusive solutions to come forward. For instance, as the general shopper connects the dots between a healthy gut and overall well-being3​, so does the average active nutrition consumer. This category is ripe for new products that move beyond traditional offerings and have ingredients that deliver on appealing functional benefits like digestive and immune function support.

Additionally, consumers are increasingly looking for familiar ingredients on product labels, and clean labeling is making its way into virtually every category as a mainstream trend. This is permeating into the active nutrition market because the everyday consumer is typically not as aware of the specialized ingredients that may go into a sports drink or bar.

As such, they want to see ingredients they recognize and understand. Plus, research shows that over half of sports nutrition shoppers say that most nutrition and performance drinks contain too many artificial ingredients3​, signifying athletes and average consumers alike are drawn to products that boast clean and clear labels, making way for further new development opportunities in this space.

What are consumers looking for from their active nutrition offerings, from ingredients to formats?

Offerings that are high in protein are of particular interest to active nutrition shoppers. In fact, of the consumers who state they have exercised more in the last two years, their top product purchases in the last six months to help with exercise include protein, sport and energy bars and ready-to-drink (RTD) high-protein drinks1​.

Notably, more dairy-focused options are emerging in this space, with formats like high-protein yogurts, protein ice cream and milk protein drinks beginning to grab consumer attention1​.

Interestingly, active nutrition consumers find a wide array of protein sources appealing, with milk protein coming in just below whey and plant as most popular1​. This provides a clear opportunity for dairy brands to make a mark in the active nutrition space, whether that’s leaning into the more traditional whey protein or developing offerings that champion the inclusion of milk protein, plant protein or a combination of both.

Ingredients like probiotics, fiber and botanicals are also catching shoppers’ eyes across categories for their associated health attributes, particularly as people seek personalized options. Research shows that prebiotic fiber is the number one ingredient consumers want to add to their diets for reasons like digestion, weight management and satiety3​. Plus, consumers are linking probiotics to a wide range of potential benefits, such as support for overall well-being, weight management and gut health4​.

Along with their associations to various wellness attributes, botanicals are attractive to consumers across the globe, as they’re familiar, closer-to-nature and can offer distinct taste experiences. Purposefully pairing botanicals like carob ingredients, which are naturally sweet and contain fiber, with biotics and proteins can differentiate active nutrition offerings like shakes, bars and yogurts, enticing consumers with intriguing sensory profiles and tailored attributes.

Additionally, today’s holistic-minded, active nutrition consumers are seeking applications that are not only tied to exercise recovery, but also support a healthy lifestyle, and they want these formats to conveniently fit into their everyday lives. Spoonable yogurts, “real foods” and on-the-go formats – including fruits, vegetables and snacks – as well as RTD drinks, are among the top applications consumers would like to see positioned to support a healthy lifestyle1​.

Going hand-in-hand with the allure of new and emerging ingredients and formats, consumers are also no longer accepting active nutrition products that are chalky or gritty. On top of that, an enjoyable sensory experience can have a profound impact on how people feel, helping support the mental and emotional aspects of overall well-being.

Moreover, the sensory experience is key in buyer retention as well as consumer adherence to nutritional programs and eating habits. By using high-quality plant-based ingredients, such as ADM’s plant protein blends, as well as beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, formulators can achieve tasty, protein-forward offerings. Additionally, fiber is a key piece for many active nutrition products, and our dietary soluble fiber solution allows for positive nutrition while also smoothing out flavor and mouthfeel across formulations.

Blended dairy beverages, in particular, are fantastic options that tick both nutritional and sensory boxes for consumers. For example, emerging blended dairy beverages on the market are including wholesome ingredients, such as grains and beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, with dairy and functional offerings like fiber for delicious and nutritious dairy-based active nutrition offerings.

What are the growth opportunities for dairy offerings in active nutrition? What’s new and what’s on the horizon?

The active nutrition space is continually becoming more personal, with consumers seeking tailored options that fit their specific goals and needs. The emergence of protein blends, whether dairy with a plant protein like pea or a combination of several plant proteins, such as pea and chickpeas or navy beans, is paving the way forward for new product development in this category.

Blends are particularly appealing to both formulators and consumers, as they help achieve desired taste and texture and may also positively impact a product's protein content as well as protein diversity. We’ll see these blends become more prominent in RTD protein shakes, powders and even frozen treats.

Also on the horizon are more targeted personalized nutrition offerings for children. New products hitting the market are focusing more on the formats, flavors and colors that appeal to young athletes and help support the everyday lifestyles of active children. However, there is room and demand for innovation. Specifically, as parents become more aware of the importance of food to support their own microbiomes, they will look for products that do the same for their kids.

For example, yummy chocolate, vanilla and berry flavored yogurt drinks and shakes packed with dairy and plant protein blends along with functional ingredients like probiotics and prebiotic fiber are winning with parents and kids alike. Above all else, these products must be fun and tasty, satisfying both kids' expectations for fun and flavor and parents' desires to ensure their children are getting the nutrients they need.


1FMCG Gurus, “Overview of the Sports Nutrition Market and the Growth of the Active Nutrition Consumer”, October 2021

2FMCG Gurus, “How Has COVID-19 Changed Consumer Behavior”, March 2021

3​ADM Outside Voice

4ADM/Buzzback report, Microbiome Consumer Exploratory, 2021

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