Beverages designed to boost sporting performance increasingly appeal to people who are more likely to watch sports on TV than actually play them. Shane Starling investigates how sports nutrition is becoming mainstream
Whether it is cricket in Australia, football in Europe or basketball in the US, there?s no doubt people around the world have an insatiable appetite for spectator sports. But when it comes to actually taking part, this enthusiasm quickly wanes — less than 10 per cent of people in Western countries play a sport on a regular basis. It seems watching the Athens Olympics on the couch is one thing; getting off it to go for a run is another matter altogether.
Yet conversely, interest in healthfulness has never been higher among varying parts of the population. It could be argued that people want to be fit and healthy, without putting in the hard work. In this environment the sports nutrition category has rapidly expanded, particularly in bars, although beverages record the greatest sales volumes. Sports drinks have become the dominant functional beverages category as increasingly health-obsessed consumers comb the market for products they believe will contribute to their greater well being.
Such drinks, along with sports foods and supplements, are perceived as just another branch of the health foods category, the consequence being that many sports nutrition products are not being consumed for their intended purpose, ie, to rehydrate, recoup lost nutrients and assist muscle recovery.
?It is among lifestyle- and appearance-orientated groups that the sports drinks sub-category will grow, rather than among the more serious sportspersons,? observes research company Datamonitor in a recent report. Datamonitor also noted the sports beverages market has been boosted, rather than cannibalised, by the rise of energy drinks in the 1990s.
Persuasive and pervasive marketing by multinationals has propelled sports drinks brands into the mainstream, making them, along with bottled waters, legitimate challengers to the soda hegemony. Powerade (Coca-Cola), Gatorade (PepsiCo) and Lucozade (GlaxoSmithKline) have become household names in many parts of the world, and their consumption is now just as likely to occur in household kitchens as sports clubs or gymnasiums.
?Their health positioning no longer serves to limit them, but instead gives them an edge over drinks such as carbonates, which are seen as having a negative impact on health,? states Euromonitor International in its 2003 global report on functional foods and beverages. Improvements in taste have assisted this shift. It?s a change reflected in the marketing strategies of beverages like Gatorade, launched in the early 1970s and aimed almost exclusively at young sportsmen. It is now positioned as a mainstream unisex lifestyle product. Sub-branding such as Gatorade?s Propel Fitness Water — a low-calorie, enhanced water aimed more squarely at rehydrating exercisers that has notched annual sales of more than $100 million since its 2002 inception in the US — retains a more sports-oriented image with its catch line ?Is it in you?? But this product and others like it are also being embraced by the non-exercising mainstream.
Researcher Frost & Sullivan estimates the US sports beverages market at $2.91 billion with a 10 per cent growth rate until 2010, when predicted revenues will top $5.67 billion. Euromonitor valued the world market at more than $14.5 billion in 2003.
Swimming in the mainstream
?Traditional?sports drinks like Gatorade are mainstream now, with national distribution in all verticals,? says Arizona-based beverages specialist Jim Tonkin of Tonkin Consulting. ?For instance, golfers and office workers are drinking?sports drinks because they are widely available and they?know about sodium, potassium electrolytes and other purported benefits through the advertising platforms. So clearly the market is growing and no longer just for muscle heads and serious athletes.?
In Western Europe, drinks consultancy Zenith International observes that the sport drinks market has grown from 225 million litres in 1998 to 477 million litres in 2003 (valued at almost $1.25 billion) and foresees continued strong growth until at least 2008, when volumes will exceed 750 million litres. ?Greater product choice together with increasing consumer health awareness bode well for the future, but smaller brands risk being marginalised unless they focus on effectively communicating their benefits,? says Zenith?s research director Gary Roethenbaugh.
In the US market, such a challenge is being taken up by brands such as Ajinomoto?s AminoVital, SoBe Sports System, EAS AdvantEdge HP High Performance Recovery Drink, Odwalla Simple Sports Drink, Hydrade Beverage Co?s Hydrade and Pacific Health Labs? Accelerade, which are emerging to fill gaps left by the bigger players. Beverages like AminoVital are heading a Western wave of protein-based sports drinks that have been favoured in Japan for some years.
Kings of convenience
A lack of convenience may be the reason mainstream consumers have yet to embrace pre-mix powders that have been popular among gym-goers and endurance athletes for decades. ?The marketing of lozenges, ready-to-drink (RTD) formulations, nutrition bars, bottles with sports caps and drinks in pouches demonstrates how convenience is driving the market,? says Mintel in a 2003 report on the UK sport drinks and supplements market.
While slugging back an AminoVital at your desk over lunch or while walking the dog might be cool and life affirming (especially among teens and post-teens at whom much of the marketing is directed), mixing up your own brew at home is far too much hassle and way too technical to ?get it in you?. Despite widespread predictions of the powders market continuing to decline, many brands offer both RTD and powdered forms so as not to alienate the very exercising elite who remain a core part of the sports product-buying public.
Solgar UK is one supplements company that would never forsake its powdered supplements. Its ?Whey to go? powder has doubled sales in recent years, according to marketing manager Marie Kendall, although this may have something to do with it not being marketed directly at athletes. ?We wouldn?t want to pigeonhole ?Whey to go? because there are so many other uses for it. Sportspeople and gym-users are probably the main consumers of ?Whey to go? but, for example, it is also very popular with people recovering from hospital stays.?
Although efficacy does not seem to particularly concern consumers or even athletes at present, it is likely to grow in importance. While not all products can prove they boost sports performance or recovery from physical activity, those that can possess an inherently powerful marketing tool to compete with established players in any particular market. Mainstream brands like isotonic drink Lucozade in the UK carry slogans such as ?brain energy in a bottle? and cite clinical studies to back up the claim, even if they only refer to the effect of glucose on brain function.
New US beverages such as Accelerade and AminoVital define themselves by their protein-based efficacy and cite studies to prove it in marketing campaigns and on Web sites. In Accelerade?s case, it flags a patented carbohydrate/protein ratio of 4:1, which aids both muscle recovery and the rate at which carbohydrates are absorbed by muscles during performance, thereby aiding endurance — a potentially compelling claim for proteins. AminoVital makes similar claims. Both are available in RTD and powdered forms.
Much work is being done on the ingredients front to create new opportunities in sports nutrition products. This research effort has led to products such as high-complex carbohydrate and high-protein bars; new variations on isotonic, hypertonic and hypotonic drinks; and supplement forms such as pills, gels, sweets and RTD shakes that deliver easily digestible nutrition.
Some of the buzz ingredients finding their way into contemporary sports products include: caffeine (often from botanical sources such as green tea and guarana); taurine; branched chain amino acids (including serine, leucine, isoleucine, arginine, lycine, L-glutamine and L-carnitine); creatine; alpha-lipoic acid; conjugated linoleic acid; alpha glycerylphophorycholine; co-Q10; rhodiola; echinacea; soy peptides (forming the basis of drinks such as Calpis? Peptide Power in Japan); and vitamins K and P.
The whey ahead
Typically, what is breaking in the West has already broken in Japan. Leatherhead Food International put the Japanese amino acid market at $1.15 billion in 2003, up by 38 per cent from 2002. Kirin?s Amino Supli was one strong performer, in part due to efficient distribution and clear targeting of women. It also spawned a large number of copycat products, such as Asahi?s Amino Sai, according to Euromonitor.
Interest in protein is being buoyed by the rise of low-carb diets, and other protein forms are being used in a wider range of products and being consumed by new segments of the population, most innovatively in drinks. Infusing beverages with protein has traditionally been problematic as viscosity, cloudiness and pH instability issues often arose. This is changing.
Carbery Food Ingredients in Ireland has developed a patented clear whey ingredient it says overcomes these problems. ?It?s primarily going into RTD nutritional beverages at the moment, but we are working closely with some of our key customers to perfect other applications,? says Noel Corcoran, sales and marketing director. ?We are constantly tracking and anticipating consumer trends. Some of our key sport foods customers have visited our R&D applications facilities to work with our protein and flavour technologists.?
Such service can come with premiums attached. ?It depends on the mineral content; the degree of flavour masking required. There can be modifications that are quite costly,? Corcoran says.
Avril Twomey, marketing executive at Irish dairy ingredients firm Glanbia, says ?Proteins will be the next generation of sports drinks. Athletes eat a lot of protein anyway, and there is a lot of science out there to say that protein helps muscles recover.?
Ohio-based proteins specialist Europroteins is moving rapidly into this area with refined casein ingredients that have potential in drinks, baked goods and bars. ?We keep our casein in a natural state so that it has much better functional properties,? says Benoit Turpin, US national sales manager. ?We are negotiating some major launches with these products.?
Dutch ingredients giant DSM recently showcased a fragmented casein ingredient-based recovery drink among Dutch footballers and Olympians to good results. Previous trials indicated ?a five per cent better average performance level in athletes who had drunk the DSM recovery drink compared with those who had taken an ordinary, sugar-based sport drink.?
?It needs a carbohydrate in the same product in order to work. It doesn?t provide the energy — it merely accelerates the process of turning carbohydrates into energy,? notes Juriaan Tas, DSM?s Dutch-based communications manager. DSM developed an enzyme that can cleave casein proteins in such a way that protein?s bitter taste is almost totally neutralised.