Talk about a category on-the-go. The shift from athlete-focused sports nutrition to everybody-focused active nutrition was in progress years before the pandemic, but 2020 accelerated that evolution, and shaped a market that encompasses so much more than sports and fitness.
“Over the last 10 to 15 years, we have seen a shift from a category that was once just for elite athletes and bodybuilders to now being more mainstream and including all types of active individuals from weekend warriors to marathon runners,” says Bryan Morin, NOW Sports Category Manager, adding that 2020 left its mark. “The past year active nutrition sales dropped due to gym closures and stay-at-home mandates, but interest in natural products that support immune health and mental health have seen a significant increase. The typical active nutrition consumer has not been able to participate in their normal activities. It’s more difficult to be in the gym, do group fitness classes, and participate in indoor sports or competitions, and as a result we’re seeing an evolution of sports and performance. This is also the reason active and sports nutrition companies are shifting their focus to gaming, energy, immune health or other aspects of wellness.”
With restrictions easing, opportunities abound. Morin notes that the market continues to gain popularity globally as macro consumer trends continue to move toward health and wellness. And looking at the U.S. market, Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, BS, MS, Sr. Director of Research & Development/National Educator, Bluebonnet Nutrition Corporation, says “As a nation, we all now realize how important it is to maintain our health. As we emerge from the pandemic restrictions, we see how much we have taken for granted: the opportunities we have, like participating in group activities, fitness, sports, going to a gym, eating out, etc.”
What do consumers need now?
As health-conscious people look to get back out there and get active, our goals are high. Our energy? Not so much. “With the events of the last year, many consumers are finding that their energy is in short supply,” says Elyse Lovett, VP Marketing, Nutrition21. “Consumers are looking for solutions that can keep them energized for long periods of time as things return to normal and hectic lifestyles pick up pace again. Many have been out of practice since gyms were closed during the early part of the pandemic, but we have seen many getting back to the gym and their workout routines, especially with summer approaching. These consumers are looking for that extra boost to help them get back on track.”
Fatigue isn’t the only thing holding people back. “As people emerge from the COVID-19 fog, many are faced with issues resulting from being in lockdown,” says Eric Anderson,
Managing Director, NXT-USA. “Many fell prey to sedentary lifestyles, which left them with some extra pounds and achy, stiff joints. As consumers return to normal and resume daily activities, some will need help with becoming more active again.”
This doesn’t only apply to older demographics, Anderson says. “A study published last summer showed that the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound effect on young people, particularly in triggering a more sedentary lifestyle than they are used to. Alongside this, younger—not older—demographics are the fastest growing in terms of experiencing arthritis-related issues. Nearly one in three people aged 18 to 64 either have doctor-diagnosed arthritis and/or report joint discomfort symptoms.” And that, he stresses, is why it’s important for all adults to take a more preventative approach to supporting and maintaining their joint health versus waiting until they are severely limited and have far fewer options for relief.
…and what will they need next?
As gyms start to reopen, sporting events start coming back, and people start feeling comfortable again participating in group fitness and races, Morin notes that the question becomes: Will the trends we have seen in the last year stick around?
Data suggest that the answer is yes. Sugarek MacDonald points to findings from the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), which reported that 62% of U.S. consumers surveyed during COVID-19 said they have become more health-conscious. NMI also reported that the number of new dietary supplement users increased during this time, driven by millennials and women.
Not that the market is limited. Lovett notes, “Active consumers span all types of demographics—younger, competitive consumers, and middle-aged adults trying to stay fit, as well as older consumers who use active nutrition to remain mobile and independent.”
More support on the health of the category comes from the 2020 CRN (Council for Responsible Nutrition) Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements, which reports that 8 in 10 adults think taking supplements is a smart choice for a healthy lifestyle, shares Maria Stanieich, Marketing Manager, Kyowa Hakko U.S.A., Inc. “With a greater focus on general and everyday health, maintaining an active lifestyle and supporting overall wellness remains the top reason for taking supplements. The active nutrition and energy consumer base is interested in products that support and fuel their lifestyle.”
Moving forward from 2020, Morin concludes, “I think we will find that the impact of COVID-19 has opened up the active nutrition category to a larger audience. For instance, the definition of ‘performance’ has changed. One person seeking active nutrition supplementation may want to improve their marathon time or performance in a Tough Mudder. Another person could be looking to improve their mental focus, reaction time, or energy level. The active nutrition category is continuing to evolve and meet the demands of an expanding audience looking for personalized nutrition.”
Powering up naturally
“More than half of consumers are reporting low energy levels, and more than a third are taking supplements to address this issue,” says Sugarek MacDonald. “When it comes to energy supplements, Millennials and Gen Xers are the category’s core audience, and they are looking for natural solutions to help stay productive and active throughout the day. With that said, fatigue and insufficient energy most likely stem from a combination of the following factors: nutritional imbalances, stress, inadequate or lack of sleep, or physical/mental overexertion. Knowing these factors, consumers need to identify the source of their lack of energy.”
With that in mind, Sugarek MacDonald says supplements for energy can fall into one of two categories:
- General vitamins, minerals, and specialty nutrients for common deficiencies
- Products designed specifically to boost energy and enhance mental performance (i.e., nootropics)
For the first category, Sugarek MacDonald points to multivitamins. Bluebonnet offers Men’s ONE & Ladies’ONE Whole Food-Based Multiples, which have an organic whole food vegetable blend, a plant-sourced enzyme blend, and specific men’s and women’s health blends to support energy and vitality levels, along with sustainable herbal extracts and organic vegetable blends for optimal digestive health.
On the performance front, Morin says the top ingredients in this space have not really changed in the last few years. “The most popular ingredients tend to be the ingredients that have been around for a while and have significant clinical studies to support their claims, like BCAAs, beta-alanine, creatine, and protein,” he says. “Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are one of the top ingredients in the active nutrition space because they’re critical for muscle protein synthesis and can be used as fuel during exercise. There are numerous studies that link BCAA supplementation to supporting muscle growth, retention, and recovery (1-5). Creatine is another widely studied supplement. Studies have demonstrated that creatine supplementation can help to maintain existing muscle tissue, support the growth and development of lean mass, and promote optimal performance during short bouts of intense exercise (6-12). Beta-alanine is a popular supplement in the active nutrition space because it can help athletes to work harder and longer during intense exercise. Supplementation can help attain strength and endurance training goals by delayed muscle fatigue and rapid recovery time (13-15).”
That said, Morin notes, popular ingredients are constantly used in innovative formulations to reach a new audience. “The innovation comes from delivery, formulation, and finding new markets to sell into. A good example of innovative delivery is with protein, which is traditionally delivered as a powder in the active nutrition space but now is also delivered as a snackable item, an RTD, or even as a clear refreshing drink.” Indeed, as Franziska Weichmann, Ph.D., Manager of Scientific Communications and Product Development at Horphag Research, reports, energy drinks and supplements were named one of the top supplement increases during the pandemic, with consumption of energy drinks up 13%.
Relative to ingredients that pair well with protein supplements, says Larry Kolb, President, TSI Group Ltd, myHMB (β-hydroxy β-methylbutyrate) “is an excellent protein partner as it helps balance muscle protein turnover for optimal muscle health, both enhancing muscle growth through synthesis, and protecting against muscle loss in times of accelerated protein breakdown. Thus, HMB allows the protein/amino acids consumed to be optimally utilized by this muscle machinery to build muscle.”
Nutrition21 has an option for pairing with protein as well: “Velositol is a patented complex of Amylopectin and Chromium that is designed to work as protein’s perfect partner,” says Lovett. “Velositol, when used with whey protein, plant protein, or branched chain amino acids, significantly amplifies their impact on muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Velositol has been clinically shown to improve strength and enhance jumping power, increase muscle endurance, and double squat reps to failure in a clinical study with 15g of whey protein. A recent study presented as a poster at the 2020 International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) showed that Velositol + 15g of whey protein not only significantly outperformed 15g of whey protein (alone) but also 30g of whey protein (alone) in several athletic performance measurements, including muscle endurance, strength, and power. These improvements were evident in as little as four weeks.”
Another example of innovation: new formulations geared toward the gaming industry. Spotlighting the potential here, Tyler White, Associate Director R&D, Lonza, says, “Sports nutrition continues on its 9%+ CAGR growth trajectory (16). E-sports supplements are quickly gaining momentum and appear to be primed for a major breakout within the sports nutrition world themselves. The true drivers of these trends are millennials. This younger generation is significantly more likely to use dietary supplements for managing various conditions, and this generation has increased their dietary supplement spending by 114% over the past 10 years, giving them unprecedented control over the trajectory of the industry (16).”
For those seeking a mental pick-me-up, Sugarek MacDonald notes the power of neuroprotective ingredients shown to help boost memory (retention/recall) and mental alertness, improve occasional forgetfulness, promote concentration, increase attention span, reduce mental fatigue, and enhance overall cognitive performance. “Bluebonnet’s Targeted Choice BrainPower Vegetable Capsules are formulated with a unique blend of sustainably harvested or wildcrafted herbal extracts like bacopa and lion’s mane, as well as other nootropics like Cognizin and phosphatidylserine to help support the brain’s proper response to stress and communication between nerve cells,” she says, adding that the formula is non-GMO, vegan, kosher-certified, and free of common allergens, “which is important for those looking for a truly wholesome solution to support memory, focus, and attention as well as improve overall cognitive function.”
Another evolution is that consumers are increasingly looking for clean, natural caffeine sources that deliver a boost along with added benefits. As White points out: “While anhydrous caffeine (synthetic) is still the go-to energy ingredient, more natural alternatives such as caffeine from coffee arabica and green tea are gaining traction to stay in line with clean label demands.”
Seconding that, Brian Zapp, Managing Director, Applied Food Sciences (AFS), says, “Over the last decade, we have witnessed a new era of premium high-performance energy. Today’s products promise much more than the energy products of old, which involved lots of refined sugar and synthetic caffeine. Consumers want clean, natural ingredients that they can trust. According to Mintel, a quarter of all energy drink consumers drink fewer energy drinks because they don’t trust the artificial ingredients inside (17). Staggering considering the main ingredient in most energy products is synthetic caffeine.”
Regarding the shifting consumer desires, Zapp notes that while caffeine has therapeutic benefits, it can also cause unwanted side effects, such as nervous, jittery feelings. “So, while the end goal for caffeine may be alertness or improved cognitive function, our nervous system’s response to caffeine can easily contradict the benefits we seek…This ‘caffeine paradox,’ as I like to call it, inspired our innovation team at AFS to conduct further research into a lesser-known botanical called guayusa. This tea-like leaf is native to the Amazon and contains a unique blend of caffeine and polyphenol antioxidants.”
Zapp says the company’s branded AmaTea organic guayusa extract is the heart of AFS’s clinical research, with a double-blind crossover study finding AmaTea stimulated a significantly lower increase in epinephrine when compared to the control and the green coffee extract (18). “With active nutrition, we see AmaTea supporting athletes that desire a more controlled performance while wasting less nervous energy from the adrenal response to caffeine alone. AmaTea has real promise for many modern energy applications today.”
AFS also offers two primary caffeine ingredients: PurCaf (≥95% caffeine from green coffee) and PurTea (≥90% caffeine from green tea). “Similar to guayusa, we also supply Java.G green coffee caffeine, which offers an innovative fingerprint that combines green coffee antioxidants with the naturally occurring caffeine from coffee,” says Zapp, adding that the ingredients are ideal for formulating more efficacious functional beverages.
For a caffeine-free option, Horphag offers Robuvit, a natural extract derived from French oak wood, shown in over 20 clinical studies to support energy, sports performance, and curb feelings of fatigue. Highlighting the research, Dr. Weichmann says subjects in a 2020 peer-reviewed published study who supplemented with Robuvit over a four-week period reported a 55% increase in energy and 75% improvement in activity level. And a review article published in January of 2021 details Robuvit’s mechanisms of action, working to rejuvenate mitochondria and ribosomes, improve energy and muscle protein synthesis and decrease oxidative stress. Additional findings published in Phytotherapy Research showed that general fatigue sufferers who supplemented daily with Robuvit reported feeling more energy and fewer symptoms in as little as four weeks. And a 2015 study published in Minerva Cardioangiologia looking at triathletes over a two-week triathlon training period found that athletes reported heightened endurance and needed less recovery time between training after supplementation with Robuvit.
Also powering up energy: TSI’s ingredient PEAK ATP (clinically validated and patented form of Adenosine 5’-Triphophate [ATP] Disodium) provides the compound that is identical in structure to the ATP produced and used by the human body, says Kolb. “It provides functional energy and potentiates the role of ATP in the body, particularly in combination with exercise—it allows users to do more and achieve more, with less fatigue. PeakATP is a non-stimulant energy source that fuels muscles, powers the body’s movement and drives the biological reactions that allow cells to function and life to exist. This makes it the perfect ingredient for active lifestyle consumers.”
D-Ribose is another popular option, which Marianne McDonagh, VP of Sales, Bioenergy Life Science, Inc. (BLS), calls “the backbone for custom energy blends, in part because it boosts the performance of other energy ingredients, such as CoQ10.” BLS also offers RiaGev, which McDonagh says increases ATP, NAD, and glutathione production simultaneously.
An “old yet emerging ingredient” that has great potential for energy: capsaicin, thanks to its ability to help stimulate non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), says Sevanti Mehta, President, Unibar Corporation. “This is a natural process that occurs when doing basic tasks that don’t include exercise or sleeping and converts existing body fat into fuel for the body. Capsaicin gives consumers the dual benefit of weight management support along with boosts of energy that can be used to improve endurance and performance for both short- and long-term exercise goals. This is accomplished because NEAT increases the metabolic rate and helps to maintain sufficient amounts of lipoprotein lipase, the enzyme response for converting fat into energy.”
When aiming to improve energy during athletic or exercise activities, Mehta adds, an important angle to take is reducing the body’s fatigue rate. “Beetroot provides powerful support against fatigue because it is a rich source of nitrates that helps increase nitric oxide levels for improved mitochondrial efficiency when synthesizing ATP for better energy. But beetroot’s secondary benefit improves blood flow and pressure and oxygen consumption, helping to more quickly supply energy throughout the body for significant decreases in the fatigue rate.”
Beyond energy and focus
There’s demand for ingredients that deliver a specific function, including immune and overall health and wellness, addressing consumers’ multiple needs,” says Stanieich. “Setria Glutathione, Velox Patented Performance Blend, and Immuse are a few of the well-researched branded ingredients from Kyowa Hakko’s extensive portfolio of ultra-pure amino acids, vitamins, nucleic acids and related compounds for use in pharmaceutical, nutritional and food applications.”
Looking at each, Stanieich says Setria Glutathione is a branded glutathione ingredient that supports respiratory and immune health. “Clinically researched to support immune health, detoxification, and overall healthy-aging properties, daily consumption of Setria can help to maintain optimal glutathione levels and overall good health, and is also recommended as a dietary supplement for its antioxidative action.” Velox is a patented blend clinically studied L-Citrulline and L-Arginine, Stanieich adds, that is marketed to support athletic performance and clinically studied during exercise to support blood arginine levels increasing power output and reducing muscle soreness. And Immuse is a heat-treated lactic acid bacteria or better known as a paraprobiotic, for immune health.
Another branded ingredient blend with arginine: “Nitrosigine is a patented complex of Bonded Arginine and Silicon, unique in that it offers powerful synergistic effects,” says Lovett. “Nitrosigine is a non-stimulant ingredient that boosts key factors for increasing blood flow and significantly increases nitric oxide (NO) levels (results compared to baseline). Nitrosigine has been clinically shown to promote nitric oxide (NO) production for improved blood flow, focus, muscle pump, and energy (results compared to baseline; Perceived energy measured by the validated Profile of Mood States [POMS] questionnaire).”
On the comfort front, NXT-USA offers TamaFlex, a plant-based blend of turmeric root and tamarind seed, which have a science-backed synergistic benefit on joint health, Anderson says. “These two ingredients combined form a unique, fast-acting and long-lasting approach to relieving joint discomfort and inflammation, all in an easy, small-dosage format.”
Another option here is Stratum Nutrition’s NEM brand eggshell membrane. The Natural & Non-Prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD) of Health Canada approved the pain claim “NEM helps provide relief from joint pain due to moderate intensity aerobic exercise as quickly as the first day.” Chris Haynes, Senior Director of Global Sales, said in a press release: “Canada’s scientific review process and subsequent strong claim allowances are a bellwether notification to anyone looking for an ingredient in the exercise/athletic supplement arena. NEM’s ability to help with workout recovery, post-workout pain related issues and cartilage preservation and even everyday aspects of joint related health is par excellence. NEM was initially developed for joint related support and has gone far beyond its goal to become the obvious choice for formulations dealing with periodic aches and pains, stiffness, inflexibility, and now sports/exercise formulations, too.”
5 retail success strategies
- Be the gatekeeper: “When it comes to product selection, make sure you’re selecting products that not only use safe ingredients, but that also use doses that match those used in modern clinical trials,” advises Morin. Also: Look for sports nutrition brands that have invested in third-party certification. NOW carries the Informed-Sport seal, which Morin says is an assurance that each and every production run of the product bearing the seal has been tested for banned substances by LGC, a globally recognized assurance program for anti-doping in sports nutrition products. “In addition to production run testing, Informed-Sport-certified products are also blind-sampled at the retail level up to four times annually, and testing results can be found at informed-sport.com. This testing and commitment to transparency gives retailers and consumers additional assurance that the sports products they are buying are safe.”
- Keep it varied: “Variety is the spice of life,” says Mehta.”By stocking the shelves with a variety of sports nutrition products that deliver a more extensive combination of benefits, the category will be more inclusive to consumers that are not athletes or gym-goers.”
- Make it easy & appealing: “Products should be merchandised in a way that it is easy to shop—a simple solution would be to merchandise by workout need: pre, during and post,” says Morin. And Sugarek MacDonald advises: “Renovate the sports nutrition/natural energy department by making it attractive, interactive, and informative for consumers—no matter their age. Cross merchandise ‘Active Nutrition & Energy’ products on an end cap combining dietary supplements and packaged foods for vitality. Related products such as multiples, cognition products, and non-stimulant energy boosters with signage relating to foods for energy, such as the Whole30 diet, are a very eye-catching ensemble that appeals to many consumers. Plus, you can incorporate signage on the benefits of daily exercise, allowing sales in the whole body that are cross-sectional. If you are looking for a more digital approach, send out email blasts or create thumbnails that you can post on your social media front. Additionally, you could provide a basket of fresh fruit and veggies, addressing the requirement that Americans get 5 to 9 servings of fresh produce every day for healthy living.”
- Learn—and educate: “The active nutrition category can be overwhelming and a lot of people do not know where to start when it comes to nutritional support for their active lifestyle,” says Morin. “Having proper education and a knowledgeable staff can allow retailers to become a destination for active nutrition needs.” And, stresses McDonagh, “Trust science over marketing. Become a trusted expert for your customers because that will foster customer loyalty. Educate yourself and your staff on the core ingredients that are pioneering this category. Know the benefits of branded ingredients versus commodity versions. And be assertive! Reach out to brands for marketing advice and support.”
- Spotlight the story: “Consider ingredients that tell a deeper nutrition story,’’ recommends Dr. Weichmann. “Consumers are doing more research at the point of purchase to learn about ingredients, read what is on the product label, and decide on products that provide the best efficacy for their needs. Ingredients supported by research, with more nutrition benefits, will be a stronger draw.” Noting similar, Stanieich says, “Cutting-edge formulations with clinically studied ingredients will resonate with consumers. There will continue to be a demand for scientifically proven and clinically safe ingredients to attract and build trust as consumers are using a range of supplements to ensure they are getting the necessary ingredients to fortify and manage their health.”
Strengthening the category
As the active nutrition category grows and evolves, it must also improve. “Top issues affecting the market are ingredients, sourcing, and science,” maintains Dr. Weichmann. “While consumer appetite continues to grow for energy products, the crowded market is facing more scrutiny on healthier ingredients, sourcing with less environmental impact, and research showing safety and efficacy. Consumers want energy products to fuel their day and they want to feel good about the products they choose.”
Noting similar, McDonagh says, “Safety, efficacy, and innovation are the key issues affecting this space. On the ingredient side, there has been a strong need for clinically tested ingredients that deliver noticeable sustained energy from a cellular level.” She notes that this need factored into the development of the company’s branded ingredient RiaGev.
“There is also a need for innovation on the finished product side of the equation,” McDonagh adds. “This has become a very crowded space. Consumers are actively seeking different and better results. With many finished product manufacturers relying on commodity ingredients and secondary science, those who partner with reputable, science-based suppliers to develop line extensions or products will rise to the top.”
Lonza’s White notes, “The two main challenges with formulating energy products all come back to the same objective: improving consumer experience.”
The first challenge? Taste. “Taste still reigns king as the most valued attribute by consumers,” White says. “It’s the first thing you experience when consuming a product. Taste masking and flavor technologies have progressed significantly in recent years, meaning formulators can now typically make leaps past organoleptic challenges when formulating for a great sensory profile.”
The second challenge, according to White: the consumer’s overall experience in terms of how the product makes them feel. “Do they feel energized, do they feel jittery, or, maybe worst of all, do they feel nothing at all? Time-release technologies, like those used in Lonza’s innovative delivery forms including lipid multi-particulate (LMP) technology, can optimize the consumer experience.”
White outlines some options. “Leveraging specialty dosage forms ensures innovation works hard for the needs of consumers, no matter what ingredients brands work with. If the ingredient needs to be delivered for immediate release, Lonza’s Plantcaps pullulan capsules enable fast disintegration and absorption. Or maybe continual or delayed absorption is needed for longer-term, sustained energy. Lonza’s designed-release DRcaps capsules deliver energy past the stomach for sustained release, especially supporting consumers who suffer from an upset stomach when taking supplements on an empty stomach. Or finally, maybe it’s a combination product of synergistic energy ingredients to deliver multi-faceted benefits, like L-theanine’s smoothing effects on caffeine. Lonza’s DUOCAP capsule-in-capsule technology makes it possible to combine ingredients with customizable release profiles, allowing for never-before-seen combinations to become a reality.”
More specific challenges come from TSI Group’s Kolb: “The active nutrition-energy category is being challenged to deliver products that provide non-stimulant sources of perceivable energy. Additionally, the active nutrition space is looking to differentiate their immensely popular protein products with something different than the ‘more is better’ approach as the consumer becomes more conscientious about total calories and utilization of nutrients consumed.”
Also as important as ever: “Lonza’s proprietary data shows that consumers overwhelmingly want to see transparency when it comes to the dietary supplements they consume,” says White. “In fact, in 2020, Lonza’s proprietary research showed us that 72% of U.S. consumers said knowing the source of the ingredients in their dietary supplements is somewhat or very important in their purchasing decision process (20).” For its part, White says, Lonza demonstrates transparency within its supply chain by providing a full line of sight for the finished ingredients offered to its customers. “From process flow documentation to industry-leading purity and potency testing as well as vendor qualification and certification, our customers can be confident that products they receive from us are designed to meet growing consumer requirements and preference.”
The future of active nutrition
The active nutrition category has a lot of potential on the horizon, says Morin. “It will continue to explore new areas of innovation and look to serve the demands of an expanded group of consumers. The category will continue to use more clean ingredients and see growth in areas such as plant protein, vegan BCAAs, naturally sweetened products, and veg capsules. As the category continues to expand, consumers will continue to demand personalized nutrition products that fit their specific needs. The challenge of the active nutrition category is keeping up with this demand.”
Over the last year, says Mehta, products that combine immune health with sports nutrition have done very well and we should expect that combination of benefits to continue to receive increased demand as consumers aim for improved overall wellness. “Once again, these products show that the category is becoming more inclusive of consumers that have priorities different than athletic performance and weightlifting.”
Another opportunity lies in the blending of energy boosters with weight management, Mehta. “This is valuable to individuals who want to live a more active lifestyle but have trouble committing because of weight problems.” WF
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