CHICAGO — Once upon a time someone decided to drink the liquid released from milk when curds formed during cheese making. Early doctors such as Hippocrates began prescribing the “serum” to treat illness and improve health.

About 50 years ago, advancements in manufacturing allowed for the concentration of the proteins in liquid whey, which were then dried into a powder that bodybuilders embraced for energy and muscle-building functions. Jump ahead to 1965 when an isotonic beverage known as Gatorade was developed by University of Florida College of Medicine scientists to help the Florida Gators football team with replacement of body fluids lost during physical exertion.

Refuel, replenish and rehydrate are the basis of the two sports nutrition concepts. The functions remain the focus of new ingredients and consumer products entering the sports nutrition sector; however, the category continues to evolve as science advances.

“Inflation’s grip may be causing cutbacks in some areas, but consumers are still engaging with sports and performance products,” said Doug Resh, director of commercial marketing, T. Hasegawa USA, Cerritos, Calif. “Even among the most at-risk consumers who report they are financially struggling or in trouble, most report sustained consumption habits compared to last year. And more are increasing consumption than not.”

The global sports nutrition market was valued at $34.8 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach $67.9 billion by 2030, reflecting a compound annual growth rate of 5.4% during this period, according to Allied Market Research, Portland, Ore. The protein powder segment led in share in 2020, with whey protein dominating the sector. Ready-to-drink beverages and bars followed. The three formats are expected to retain dominance through the forecast period, with formats such as chips, crackers and cookies becoming more prevalent.

Beyond US borders, sports nutrition snack products are gaining momentum, as are cheese, yogurt, meat snacks and even fully cooked chicken products. All the items are promoted for their ability to boost performance and increase recovery speeds during and after sports and exercise.

The sports nutrition market is divided into athletes, bodybuilders and lifestyle users, according to Allied Market Research, with the lifestyle segment being the largest. The group exercises to stay fit and tries to fuel on better-for-you foods and beverages to get the most from their physical efforts. It’s also the demographic new players in the sports nutrition space often play to with trendy flavors, convenient formats, indulgence and celebrity/athlete endorsements.

Stephen Charles Lincoln, creator of New York City’s The Protein Bakery, has long believed that everyone deserves a cookie, just one that’s a little healthier for them than most. That’s why he makes whey protein concentrate the star of his products, which include blondies, brownies and cookies.

“I chose the name Protein Bakery for a good and healthy reason,” Lincoln said of his bakery, founded in 1999. “It’s to emphasize our unique muscle-building whey protein concentrate that is richer, better-tasting and a huge component in all our baked goods.”


Technology fuels innovation

St. Louis-based EverGrain, AB InBev’s ingredient business, has partnered with James Wilks, “The Ultimate Fighter” season nine champion and vegan activist, to launch FȲTA (pronounced as “fight-ah”), a portfolio of high-performance sports nutrition powders formulated with upcycled barley protein. EverGrain’s team of scientists spent nearly a decade developing proprietary technologies, production processes and techniques to transform spent barley grain, a nutritious byproduct of the brewing process, into a protein ingredient that is soluble and viscous without being gritty or bitter. Research shows its bioavailability, digestibility and speed of absorption makes it appropriate for sports and nutrition beverages, according to the company.

“There is a growing interest — and often, unmet need — for plant-based options in the sports nutrition space, a category traditionally dominated by dairy proteins due to their sensorial and nutritional advantages,” said Bart Child, chief commercial officer, Nellson LLC, Anaheim, Calif. “When formulating such products, it’s important to combine plant protein ingredients to achieve the desired nutritional profile and enable peak performance.”

Wilks said upcycled barley protein enabled him to realize his vision for creating a line of plant-based performance products. A serving contains 30 grams of protein, along with 3 grams of fiber and 1 gram of added sugar. It was designed to contain all the essential amino acid amounts needed for optimal muscle build, growth and recovery and has one of the highest, fastest protein absorption levels.

“The sports nutrition category is huge, yet there is a major void in plant-based proteins that can effectively meet an elite athlete’s needs to build muscle and fuel recovery,” Wilks said. “We had very high standards for FȲTA to deliver clean, superior nutrition and an exceptional user experience.”

Greg Belt, chief executive officer of EverGrain, said upcycled barley slowly has been gaining attention within the industry and hopes the introduction of FȲTA will signal to the marketplace there is a sustainable, abundant source of protein that can help companies meet environmental, social and corporate governance goals.

“As an ingredient business within the world’s leading brewing company, we have the unique capability to scale production of upcycled barley protein. In fact, we estimate we can upcycle and commercialize upwards of 6,000 metric tons a year,” Belt said. “Considering our upcycled barley protein is highly compatible with other proteins, it can accelerate the innovation needed in the sports nutrition category and beyond.”

Another recent sports nutrition innovation comes from Nuritas, Dublin, a company using artificial intelligence to evaluate and patent peptides. Nuritas’ process turns peptides into precise ingredients that elevate the natural efficacy of proteins, according to the company. The company partnered with GNC to launch Beyond Raw Dynamic Whey High-Tech Protein enhanced with PeptiStrong.

PeptiStrong is Nuritas’ plant-based solution for muscle recovery. The patented plant peptides augment the functions of whey proteins. They have three proven actions: promote muscle protein synthesis, reduce markers associated with muscle breakdown and decrease exercise-induced inflammation. As a result, users experience more effective workout benefits, shorter recovery times and reduced muscle fatigue, said Nora Khaldi, founder and CEO of Nuritas.

“Consumers can expect to experience a reduction in fatigue in the days after training,” Khaldi said. “This enables gym-goers to train better and to train more often, helping them to reach their personal best. Whey provides the building blocks while peptides provide the cell-signal to help the body make the best use of nutrition and superpower the results.”

The dietary supplement is available in three dessert flavors: chocolate lava cake, tiramisu and vanilla ice cream. Such flavor innovation attracts new users to the space and keeps current customers engaged, according to the company.

“Self-identified athletes are especially primed to be receptive toward new flavors based on their consumption patterns and admitted boredom with available options, making them a ready audience for flavor innovation,” Resh said. “The top flavors in creamy-type protein drinks are coffee, cookie, dark chocolate, ice cream and salted caramel. In isotonics, the top flavors are coconut, cucumber, kiwi, peach and raspberry.”

The active nutrition sector presents an opportunity for brands to offer convenience products that are easy for consumers to incorporate into their daily routine. While the formulations continue to focus on refuel, replenish and rehydrate, many now include functional ingredients to improve overall well-being while assisting with weight management and mental health. And with some, healthy aging is part of the proposition. A caveat is they also must be enjoyable. Flavor variety is paramount.

“Our consumers actively seek healthy snacks that support their active lifestyles and satisfy cravings for sweet, savory and familiar treats,” said Amie Testerman, vice president of marketing at Pure Protein, a subsidiary of sports and active nutrition company 1440 Foods, New York.

The brand has added galactic brownie and caramel churro to its line of high-protein, gluten-free bars. They are nostalgic and globally inspired twists on Pure Protein’s existing flavors, Testerman said. Both products contain 20 grams of protein, less than 200 calories and between 1 to 3 grams of sugar per 1.75-oz bar. Whey protein isolate is the primary source of protein.

While plant proteins have made strides in the sports nutrition space through combining complementary proteins to formulate a complete, readily digestible product, dairy proteins remain the leader in the category because of their unique amino acid profile. For starters, all proteins from milk are complete proteins, meaning they deliver just the right ratio of the nine amino acids considered essential for vital bodily functions, such as nutrient absorption, tissue repair and protein synthesis.

While all proteins from milk are great for maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle, whey protein has been shown to uniquely increase strength performance and muscle mass, while also aiding in recovery for reduced muscle fatigue and soreness. Because whey is considered a “fast-acting” protein, as it is quickly absorbed in the body, one may start to feel these effects soon after consumption.

Further, research suggests dietary intervention in humans with a high-quality protein, such as whey proteins and whey protein hydrolysates, may modulate the biomarkers of maturing muscle and/or delay the onset of sarcopenia. Consuming whey proteins throughout life assists with healthy living and healthy aging.

“Demand for whey and dairy protein products remains strong concurrently as interest in plant-forward diets has risen,” said Kristi Saitama, vice president of global ingredients marketing, US Dairy Export Council, Arlington, Va. “Among the reasons are the nutritional and taste advantages dairy proteins deliver. Because when it comes to consumers, nutrition is important, but taste is king. Whey and dairy proteins have a neutral flavor profile and do not require masking in food and beverage applications.”

Saitama said sports nutrition opportunities are robust in the Asian market, namely Japan, South Korea, China and Southeast Asia. Notably, Japan is the second largest sports nutrition market in the world after the United States and is advanced in terms of product types, flavors and packaging options. Ironically, they are importing mostly US whey proteins for these innovations.

“Japan has whey protein powders that are gender specific,” Saitama said. “They also are formulated for different age groups. For example, there are protein blends for aspiring school-aged athletes, as well as for the mom who simply wants to stay strong. It’s also not uncommon to see whey protein-enhanced biscuits or sweet treats formulated for fitness and health.”