On-trend nutrition

1 October 2020

The sports nutrition sector is no longer targeted exclusively towards sportspeople. Ordinary consumers are purchasing these products to boost their health and well-being, and improve their physical and mental performance. Luca Bucchini, vice-chair of the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), talks Abi Millar through some key trends.

The sports nutrition sector is growing rapidly. Once considered highly niche – the preserve of bodybuilders with specific nutritional requirements – it now covers a wide array of products for the everyday consumer.

Whether they’re a marathon runner stocking up on carbohydrate gels, or a gym-goer measuring out protein powder, these aren’t just professional athletes, but ordinary people living active lives.

As a result, the sector has hit the mainstream. These days, you can find sports nutrition products in the supermarket or corner shop, rather than needing to go via specialist retailers. Major players, like Mars and Coca-Cola, are making inroads into sports nutrition, and we’re seeing a proliferation of new products and brands.

According to a recent report by 360 Market Updates, the global market for these products will reach $4.3 billion by 2023, up from $2.8 billion in 2017.

For the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), these are interesting times. Founded in 2003, the organisation gives a voice to the European sports nutrition sector and aims to ensure that all products sold in the EU do exactly what they claim.

Its latest manifesto, ‘Towards a healthier, fitter future’ provides a road map for the years up to 2024. Among other goals, it aims to acknowledge the dietary needs of sportspeople in food law, promote innovation and move towards a more sustainable sports industry.

“ESSNA seeks to help improve the regulation of our sector, so as soon as a trend in sports nutrition emerges, we help define that regulation,” explains Luca Bucchini, vice-chair of ESSNA. “For example, we’re engaged with the European Commission’s sustainability agenda, and we’re making recommendations to ensure sports nutrition products are a part of this process. We’ll also engage with Brexit and we hope the new regulatory environment in the UK will be supportive of the types of innovation we’re aiming for.”

The organisation has over 50 members, ranging from major international companies to small specialist brands and ingredients suppliers. As a result, it’s well positioned to comment on emerging trends within sports nutrition.

New and improved

Perhaps, given the surge in consumer interest, the past few years haven’t really been characterised by an uptick in new ingredients.

“We do see a lot of innovation when it comes to new product formulations and combinations of ingredients,” says Bucchini. “But at the moment, we’re not seeing many new ingredients that would change the game.”

Arguably, this has to do with tightened regulations around food safety, which are hampering brands’ appetite for new and exotic ingredients. The trend is more towards improving their existing formulations – making them more efficient and effective – as opposed to inventing new products from scratch.

That said, there are a few areas that are emerging quickly. One is the focus on joint care, particularly among endurance athletes.

“I think we’re seeing more concern about joint health and though we’ve always had an emphasis on recovery, that’s becoming more relevant now – reducing recovery time,” says Bucchini.

There is also a growing interest in nootropics – in other words, ingredients that target mental performance. This might mean sharpening the person’s concentration, focus, creativity or reaction time. According to 2019 research by Lumina Intelligence, which analysed the top-ranking sports nutrition products online, 24% of offerings claimed to improve energy, 6% claimed to improve focus and 0.7% explicitly mentioned mental health.

While the most obvious ingredient used for this purpose is caffeine, the market is becoming more diverse and brands are beginning to tout the cognitive benefits of their products.

For instance, the popular bodybuilding supplement creatine, renowned for building muscle, has also been linked to improved short-term memory and reasoning skills. Choline, which is present in many pre-workout blends, is essential for brain health, while vitamins B6, B9 and B12 can boost cognitive performance.

Some brands are also turning towards botanicals. Ginkgo biloba is thought to be a cognitive enhancer, while the Ayurvedic ingredient Bacopa monnieri may reduce anxiety. (More research is needed in both cases.) Then there’s EnXtra, by Enovate, which is billed as the first caffeine-free, patent-pending Alpinia Galanga extract, clinically proved to improve alertness and focus for up to five hours.

“There’s a lot of interest in nootropics from consumers and brands – it’s very exciting to help sportspeople with their minds,” says Bucchini. “However, we have not seen the growth you may expect – there aren’t many ingredients that really work, and there’s a lot of caution around making claims for these products.”

One notable exception might be CBD, which has registered strong growth over the past few years, which is thanks, in part, to its purported ability to reduce stress and anxiety. However, the regulatory environment surrounding CBD remains confusing and, therefore, all manufacturers should be wary about making any unsubstantiated claims about their products.


Percentage of global food and beverage launches in 2018 that were marketed as vegan-friendly.

Innova Market Insights

Another major growth area is vegan sports nutrition. In 2018, 6% of global food and beverage launches were marketed as vegan-friendly, according to Innova Market Insights. However, among sports nutrition products and sports drinks, the respective figures were 14% and 18%.

“Vegan is a key term for marketing now; the first examples we can see clearly is across Europe, where companies are branding naturally vegan products as vegan,” says Bucchini. “They’re just changing the label, not the product.”

The market is also seeing a rise in dedicated formulations for vegan athletes. Since traditional protein powder is whey-based, brands that want to tap the vegan market will need to find alternatives. So far, this has included hemp protein, pea protein and various hydrolysed products.

“What we’re seeing now is better flavourings and better formulations to improve the taste of the product,” says Bucchini. “Brands are developing new ideas around the use of plant proteins and I think that’s going to continue because the interest is there, and we haven’t really seen solutions that fulfil the entire range of needs of vegan athletes yet. We might also see more mycoproteins, which is an untapped trend that could help the vegan side.”

$4.3 billion

Amount the global market for sports nutrition will be worth by 2023, up from $2.8 billion in 2017.

360 Market Updates

Just a label

In terms of other specialist diets, there is a sustained demand for products that are ‘paleo’ or ‘keto’ friendly. However, these products are challenging to formulate from a taste perspective, which curbs the overall market somewhat. More common, says Bucchini, are products marketed as lactose-free or gluten-free.

“Companies are interested in using those terms as much as possible – we see requests from companies that want to claim their product is free from certain additives,” he says. “This goes along with the trend towards clean label. We see interest in reducing the number of ingredients, which is achieved by reducing food additives as much as possible, but also by utilising single, active ingredients rather than formulations with 10 ingredients.”

Moving forward, Bucchini thinks that one important growth area will be healthy ageing. Populations are getting older, and rather than viewing old age as a time to slow down, many people are seeking the ability to stay active for longer. There will be a demand for products that can meet their specific needs, be that correcting micronutrient deficiencies or helping them meet their protein requirements.

“I think we’ll need to see innovation towards older people, including effective solutions geared around the loss of muscle mass,” says Bucchini. “We don’t have very good solutions yet, so we need more ingredients and more research.”

The educated consumer

Beyond that, there is likely to be a greater push towards sustainability throughout the sector. ESSNA aims to champion precisely that, raising awareness around food waste and creating educational initiatives for consumers.

“Our consumers tend to be young and they care about the environment, so I think we’ll see more discussion about recycling and sustainability come up,” says Bucchini.

There may also be a rise in genetic testing for personalised sports nutrition. Still in its early stages, this branch of research could uncover genetic variations that lead different athletes to process certain nutrients differently. Perhaps more applicable to professional athletes than weekend warriors, this could form the basis for effective, individualised nutrition plans.

More broadly, the sector is moving away from a laser focus on performance, and towards health and well-being more generally. Many brands are targeting their products towards ordinary fitness enthusiasts, positioning them as a core part of an active lifestyle rather than as tools for the elites.

There is also a push for greater transparency throughout sports nutrition. This means accurate, evidence-based labelling, and easily accessible information both online and in stores.

“What I hear is that athletes are looking for solutions, not only for performance, but to be healthier and I think we need to work in a more holistic way to address the needs of competitive sportspeople,” says Bucchini. “We need to engage with consumers more about the types of ingredients they are using, so I think we’ll move towards more education for consumers and sportspeople in particular.”

Rise of sports nutrition: market size

The global sports nutrition market is expected to reach $31.0 billion by 2027, registering a CAGR of 8.9% over the forecasted period, according to a report by Grand View Research. Increasing importance of an active lifestyle, owing to a rise in sedentary jobs and a shift in demographic base from core athletes to recreational athletes and lifestyle users are the key factors expected to drive the market. The report stated several key findings:

• Sports supplements emerged as the largest product segment in 2019, with a share of over 80% of the global sports nutrition market owing to increasing commercialisation of these supplements and a wide product range, including creatine and whey protein supplements.

• On the basis of distribution channel, bricks and mortar dominated the market in 2019 owing to a high consumer base for retail stores.

• E-commerce is projected to be the fastest-growing segment over the forecasted period, owing to increasing popularity of platforms and the associated benefits, such as discounts and convenience.

• North America dominated the global market in 2019, due to growing awareness about nutritional supplements and the rise in government initiatives promoting sports-related activities

• Key players operating in the market include Glanbia, Hormel Foods Corporation, General Nutrition Centers, Abbott; the Coca-Cola Company, and Clif Bar and Company.

• Widespread product availability, due to the presence of large companies, is expected to drive the demand for these products. For instance, in 2018, Amazon launched its private label sports supplement brand OWN PWR for US consumers. Moreover, favourable government initiatives to promote health, a growing health-conscious population and rising awareness about sedentary health risks drive the market.

Source: Grand View Research

The sports nutrition market is catering to a rise in specialist diets, such as vegan-based, as they increase in popularity across the sector.

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.