Botanical-fueled sports performance

Acai, beetroot, blackcurrant, chameleon plant, grape juice and pomegranate have demonstrated efficacy in various parameters of athletic performance. Consuming pomegranate or ashwagandha can also offer athletes benefits in strength and power.

Krista Coventry

March 23, 2017

11 Min Read
Botanical-fueled sports performance

The age-old saying “You are what you eat" continues to hold true for today’s health-conscious consumers. Media headlines regularly feature innovations in health product research, and describe how to incorporate beneficial foods and ingredients into the overall diet. Many consumers are finding new appeal in a vegetarian lifestyle, and a growing body of scientific evidence supports the numerous health benefits of a plant-based diet.

Consumers can seek out a vegetarian lifestyle for a variety of reasons:

  1. Consuming a diet rich in plant-based foods has been associated with many established health benefits, such as improved weight management and reduced risk of mortality from chronic disease, particularly heart disease.1 The most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines (2015-2020) recommended that consumers incorporate nutrient-dense foods, including a variety of vegetables and fruits, into their diets.2

  2. Vegetarianism allows consumers to avoid consuming certain allergens (i.e., dairy and eggs) sourced from foods of animal origin.3

  3. There is growing consumer interest in pursuing “clean label" ingredients, and supporting sustainability efforts.3

Regardless of intent, consumer interest continues to drive the popularity of plant-based health foods.

Vegetarian diets can include a combination of traditional foods, dietary supplements and/or fortified foods containing botanically sourced ingredients. If considering vegetarianism, consumers can follow one of many popular dietary models, including vegan, pesco-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian and lacto-ovo-vegetarian. These diets are rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, seeds, nuts, herbs and spices, while excluding some or all animal-based foods. Abstaining from consuming animal protein results in lower dietary intakes of cholesterol, saturated fats and total fats, another health benefit to vegetarianism.1,4

As interest in a vegetarian lifestyle continues gain momentum, the natural products industry continues to develop products that will support this dietary paradigm. Plant-based ingredients are appearing more frequently in many categories of health foods, with product indications for overall wellness, weight management, and athletic performance rising in popularity. This has led to a surge in research and development in botanical ingredients in numerous fields, including performance nutrition.

Sports nutrition remains a growing product category

Performance nutrition remains one of the most popular product categories in health food and supplement markets around the world. According to a recently published industry report,5 the global sports nutrition market accounted for approximately USD$28.4 billion in 2016, and is anticipated to reach $45.2 billion by 2022. While this category was originally focused on products tailored for elite athletes and bodybuilders, it has expanded into mainstream markets. Consumers of varied athletic ability are now seeking out health products to support and enhance athletic training; to improve body composition; to support weight management; and to help maintain an active lifestyle.

The sports nutrition category has a strong base of well-established ingredients, such as protein, amino acids, creatine and caffeine. Euromonitor International (2015) reported that protein products represent the major percentage of global retail sales in this category, accounting for $10.6 billion annually. While overall protein sales have traditionally been attributed to animal-sourced ingredients (i.e., dairy proteins such as whey and casein), recent data indicated that plant-based proteins (i.e., rice, pea, soy, flax, hemp, lentil and chickpea proteins) are gaining traction.6 Suppliers looking beyond protein to formulate health products with trending botanical bioactive ingredients also have a wealth of options to choose from.

Enhancing athletic performance with a plant-based boost

Vegetarian diets provide high levels of several beneficial nutrients, including phytochemicals (i.e., carotenoids, glucosinolates and flavonoids), antioxidants, fiber, carbohydrates, and oligo- and polysaccharides. As these nutrients have well-established health benefits, many industry suppliers continue to seek out ingredients that will act as a supplemental source to the diet. Researchers have also expressed interest in determining if vegetarianism will offer competitive advantage(s) to an omnivore diet, when considering parameters of athletic performance. When considering sports nutrition, various ergogenic benefits are desirable, including speed, power, strength and endurance.1,4

When linking plant-based nutrition to athletic performance, several factors must be considered. Research indicates that athletes who consume a vegetarian diet have success not only with weight management, but can also reap additional rewards associated with various aspects of athletic performance. Many plant-based bioactive compounds have been linked to reductions in oxidative stress associated with endurance and/or high-intensity exercise.7 High dietary intake of carbohydrates leads to higher muscle glycogen stores, providing additional energy to athletes during exercise.8 Botanically sourced phytochemicals can promote general immunity, a factor in not only maintaining overall health and wellness, but also in supporting the physical demands of an athlete’s elite training program.1,4

A handful of scientific studies have directly examined the potential benefits of vegetarianism on athletic-based parameters of performance and strength. A published scientific review of several exercise physiology studies did not report any advantage to athletes consuming a plant-based diet, when compared athletes consuming an omnivorous one.4 However, a more recent study reported an improvement in markers of cardiorespiratory fitness, but not in athletic strength, in elite endurance athletes consuming a vegetarian diet.9

Rising stars in the botanical ingredient market

Suppliers considering plant-based ingredients for sports nutrition formulations have a wealth of options to consider. Several ingredients have demonstrated the potential to support various aspects of performance nutrition:

  • Açai (Euterpe oleracea Mart) demonstrated ergogenic activity in a small series of athletic challenges in aerobically trained athletes (runners).10 Participants in an acute research study consumed an anthocyanin-rich functional beverage containing açai prior to multiple exercise challenges. Researchers reported improvements in time-to-exhaustion in study athletes consuming the acai beverage, along with attenuated cardiorespiratory responses and reductions in perceived exertion.

  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), an herb commonly used in Ayurveda, benefitted various parameters of physical performance (strength).11 Athletes receiving a preparation of Ashwagandha root extract demonstrated improved muscle mass and strength in both bench-press and leg-extension exercises, as well as a reduction in exercise-induced muscle damage associated with strength training. Ashwaganda’s bioactive constituents include steroidal lactones (such as saponins, withanolides, and withaferins) and alkaloids (such as isopelletierine and anaferine).

  • Beetroot (Beta vulgaris), has proven to be a promising ingredient in the sports nutrition category. Beetroot is rich in phytochemicals (such as betalain) and nitrates, both plant-based bioactives, which have demonstrated a wealth of ergogenic activity. Consuming whole baked beetroot 60 minutes prior to a treadmill challenge resulted in improved mean running velocity in a small study of recreationally fit adults.12 Competitive triathletes consuming betalain-rich beetroot supplements for a week prior to exercise challenge demonstrated improved results in time-trial performances, as well as improved recovery.13 Beetroot juice appears to be the most researched form of the ingredient, with multiple recent studies reporting positive effects on various parameters of exercise physiology. Consuming nitrate-rich beetroot juice prior to exercise can stimulate circulation to muscles, improve oxygenation, lower blood pressure and decrease maximal oxygen uptake (Vo2).14,15,16,17,18

  • Blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum) is a rich source of polyphenols (i.e., anthocyanins) and has been recently studied for its ergogenic capacity in athletes. In one study, athletes consuming blackcurrant extract for a week reported improved timed trials, increased fat oxidation, and higher plasma lactate levels during moderate intensity cycling.19 In a second study, cyclists consuming blackcurrant powder recorded increased cycling intensity, higher aerobic capacity, and improved lactate production and clearance. This study demonstrated the benefits of blackcurrant powder on measures of both athletic performance and recovery.20 A third study reported that high-intensity runners consuming blackcurrant extract recorded greater distances and measured higher lactate values prior to exhaustion. Researchers in this study also reported improvements in post-exercise recovery following consumption of the blackcurrant extract.21

  • Chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata) extract improved nitric oxide production, leading to enhanced circulation (and as a result, athletic endurance) in a preliminary clinical study.22 Consuming a standardized extract of Houttuynia cordata improved lactate production and clearance, resulting in lower plasma lactate levels. Heart rate decreased in the treatment group, while oxygen uptake increased. This plant-based ingredient is a source of several well-known flavonoids such as quercitrin, rutin and chlorogenic acid.

  • Grape juice (Vitis labrusca) increased ergogenic activity in recreational runners completing exercise challenge testing.23 Benefits to athletes consuming the grape juice included improved time-to-exhaustion, increased antioxidant capacity and decreased inflammatory markers. Grape juice is rich in phenolics, including as resveratrol and quercetin, as well as various anthocyanidins and catechins.

  • Pomegranate (Punica granatum) extract, when consumed immediately prior to exercise provided resistance-trained athletes significant improvements in peak and average power, as well as improved circulation.24 In a separate clinical study, consuming pomegranate juice reduced oxidative stress in endurance-trained athletes, helping to minimize exercise-induced oxidative damage. Pomegranate is rich in polyphenols (such as ellagitannins) and nitrates, and has been shown to exert powerful antioxidant abilities in vivo.25

Power up with plant-based ingredients

Today’s global health food marketplace is brimming with ingredients that can help to support several aspects of athletic performance. Consumers are seeking out bioactive constituents naturally found in various vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, seeds, nuts, herbs and spices, all key components of a vegetarian diet. Athletes looking to power up their performance can seek out these plant-based ingredients to support various aspects of their athletic training. Trending vegetarian proteins continue to gain market share against their animal-sourced counterparts. Non-protein ingredients also continue to demonstrate ergogenic activity in clinical research studies. Acai, beetroot, blackcurrant, chameleon plant, grape juice, and pomegranate have demonstrated efficacy in various parameters of athletic performance. Consuming pomegranate or ashwagandha can also offer athletes benefits in strength and power. Plant-based ingredients, naturally rich in antioxidants, polyphenols, and anthocyanins, increase antioxidant activity and support general immunity. Overall, vegetarian ingredients and health products are promising to fuel the sports performance category, looking forward to 2020 and beyond.

Krista Coventry is the director of regulatory services for Eastern Canada at Source Nutraceutical Inc., a Canadian contract research organization specializing in the North American health food, dietary supplement and cosmetic sectors. Coventry maintains several professional volunteer affiliations in industry, and is a member of Health Canada’s Food Expert Advisory Committee; vice president of the NHPRS (Natural Health Product Research Society) of Canada; a member of the board of directors for the Canadian Association for Professionals in Regulatory Affairs (CAPRA); and chair of the Food Regulatory Advisory Council at the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA).  She can be reached via email at [email protected].


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25 Fuster-Muñoz, E. “Effects of Pomegranate Juice in Circulating Parameters, Cytokines, and Oxidative Stress Markers in Endurance-based Athletes: A Randomized Controlled Trial." Nutrition 2016; 32(5): 539-545.

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