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Meeting the needs of active women with functional sports nutrition beverages

Meeting the needs of active women with functional sports nutrition beverages.jpg
From bone and muscle health to hydration, sports beverages featuring milk may check many boxes for female athletes.

Performance nutrition is one of the fastest-growing segments globally, and according to a recent report between FrieslandCampina Ingredients—a global innovator in healthy and functional ingredients—and consumer insight market research firm FMCG Gurus, women account for an increasing proportion of this market. Despite women’s rising interest, products to support their unique needs are still lacking.

Also referred to as functional foods, performance nutrition products provide beneficial effects to the body or body function beyond basic nutrition, such as aiding heart health, improving digestion, increasing energy or maintaining strong bones.

Consumers are looking for foods with functional claims that include energy, probiotics, digestion, immunity and bone health, to name a few. According to proprietary Mintel data, of most interest to consumers when selecting healthy food and beverages is that they are fresh, low in sugar, low in salt and have adequate protein. Additionally, close to half of consumers believe that foods and drinks that are naturally functional—meaning naturally rich in specific nutrients—are better than those that are enhanced artificially.

While developing products that will meet this demand is important, it is also crucial to understand the unique nutritional needs of women compared to men. Two potential nutrition issues that active females and female athletes may face include inadequate intakes of both macro- and micronutrients. Macronutrients, which include carbohydrates, protein and essential fats, are needed to meet the physical demands of training by supporting bone mass, muscle repair, and the maintenance of immune and brain health. When looking at micronutrient intake, each has a unique role to play. For example, calcium and vitamin D support bone health; zinc, iron, folate and vitamin B-12 are integral for red cell production; and B vitamins are needed for energy production.

For companies looking to develop functional sports performance beverages for women, taking these nutritional needs into account is vital. One way to help meet this need and the demand of consumers is to consider beverages containing cow’s milk. In fact, according to Mintel data, milk is the second most-consumed drink overall, between water and carbonated beverages, and naturally provides functional ingredients, making it a prime choice for a sports performance beverage.

As part of a sports nutrition beverage, milk can help meet consumer demands, as well as the unique nutritional needs of active females:

Calcium and vitamin D: The role of milk and the nutrients it provides in bone health have been well researched. Calcium and vitamin D found in milk are essential nutrients in building and maintaining peak bone mass. Research indicates consumption of milk improves bone mineral density and decreases bone loss.1 The American College of sports medicine reports that stress fractures make up 15% of athletic injuries, and women are twice as likely as men to break a bone due to osteoporosis in their lifetime,  according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, making milk an important role in the diet of active women. Milk is the No. 1 food source of both calcium and vitamin D in the diets of children and adults. Additionally, a study published in Nutrition Today found that cow’s milk is the most reliable source of calcium, superior to calcium-fortified soy and rice beverages.2

Some concern exists that iron absorption can be hindered by calcium intake. Iron is an important mineral in red blood cell production and helping to reduce fatigue3—and active women can often be deficient in it. However, research shows when dairy foods are a consistent part of the diet, calcium does not interfere with iron absorption over the long term, and the consumption of milk and dairy foods is not detrimental to iron absorption and bioavailability.4

It is well-known that vitamin D plays an important role in calcium absorption and thus, the development and maintenance of bone mass and prevention of osteoporosis. In addition, ongoing research indicates a causal relationship between adequate vitamin D intake and health benefits, including reduced risk factors for chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease.5 For those looking to enhance their immunity, a sought-after claim on functional foods, vitamin D has been associated not only with reducing the risk of respiratory infections, but also the duration.6

Calcium and vitamin D were both listed in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) as nutrients of concern, which are nutrients whose underconsumption has been linked to adverse health outcomes, thus solidifying the recommendation of three servings of dairy foods daily. Perhaps for the active woman, getting milk through a sport beverage is a solution in helping meet these guidelines.

Protein: Protein is an essential nutrient for active women, as it is integral in rebuilding and repairing muscle tissue. According to proprietary Mintel data, consumer studies show that protein is also an important factor to consumers when choosing healthy foods and drinks. This same data shows brands are paying attention: Whether in animal or plant-based forms, protein claims are among the top-growing claims with new product introductions since 2014, and growth does not seem to be slowing. Beverages are an easy way for consumers to help meet their protein needs, particularly those that may have trouble eating enough. One cup of milk contains 8 grams of high-quality protein, meaning it provides all essential amino acids (EAAs), including leucine, which triggers growth and repair of muscle and bone.

B Vitamins: Foods fortified with B vitamins are often sought out by active individuals, as they provide energy by converting carbohydrates, fats and proteins into fuel for the body. An 8-ounce glass of milk naturally provides four of the eight B vitamins: riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5) and cobalamin (B12).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) noted vitamin B12 is important in keeping the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and can prevent megaloblastic anemia. NIH also indicated a deficiency of B12 can lead to depression and dementia. B12 is only found in animal products and is best absorbed in the body from milk and other dairy products, with an absorption rate of 51 to 79%, compared to an absorption rate of 42 to 61% from meat, fish and poultry.7

All these nutrients combined help meet the unique needs of the active female consumer, but food and beverages are more than just the sum of their parts. The nutrients in dairy work together to provide unique health benefits. Including an ingredient like milk in a formulation may provide the consumer beyond what a supplement could, due to the nutrient matrix inherent in milk. The nutritional and physical matrix of dairy foods and their interactions may play a role in the health outcomes associated with eating dairy foods. For example, a functional benefit of milk’s many nutrients working together is improved hydration. In fact, research has shown that the carbohydrate, protein and electrolytes provided by milk work together to promote hydration superior to even that of a sports drink.8

While food companies want to pay attention to consumer desire in functional products, as well as the nutrition the product offers, taste and cost are also driving factors. In a study using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2011-2014, milk and dairy were the least expensive dietary sources of calcium and vitamin D in the American diet.9 Additionally, Mintel consumer research indicated over half of adult consumers reported “taste” is the main decision-making factor when choosing food and drink. Likewise, in a separate consumer survey by Information Resources Inc. (IRI) on purchasing habits of dairy versus plant-based alternatives, 70% of respondents said they choose dairy because of the taste; whereas taste was a driving factor for only 40% of those who choose plant-based alternatives. The takeaway for food and drink marketers is that although health is important to consumers, it is not to be compromised by taste.

For food companies interested in meeting the demand in the sports nutrition market, looking toward the development of functional sports nutrition beverages with milk as the primary ingredient may be the way to go.

Geri Berdak is CEO for The Dairy Alliance, a nonprofit funded by dairy farm families of the Southeast that brings together dairy farmers, retailers, schools, sports teams, health professionals, state leaders, the media and the public to promote nutrition and wellness. Berdak has dedicated her career to the broader health and wellness category, leading marketing and product innovation efforts for Fortune 500 companies like PepsiCo, Monsanto, Solae/DuPont, as well as the Innovation Center for US Dairy, Kerry and Isagenix.

Laura Buxenbaum, RD, LDN, is the assistant director of food and nutrition outreach for The Dairy Alliance. She received her master of public health at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and has been working in nutrition and dietetics for over 20 years. She can be reached at [email protected].


1 Mangano KM et al. “Higher Dairy Intakes Are Associated with Higher Bone Mineral Density among Adults with Sufficient Vitamin D Status: Results from the Boston Puerto Rican Osteoporosis Study.” J Nutr. 2019;149(1):139-148.

2 Heaney RP, Rafferty K, Bierman J. “Not All Calcium-fortified Beverages Are Equal.” Nutr Today. 2005;40(1):39-44.

3 Houston BL et al. “Efficacy of iron supplementation on fatigue and physical capacity in non-anaemic iron-deficient adults: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials.” BMJ Open. 2018;8(4):e019240.

4 Grinder-Pedersen L et al. “Calcium from milk or calcium-fortified foods does not inhibit nonheme-iron absorption from a whole diet consumed over a 4-d period.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;80(2):404-409.

5 Kaur J et al. “Association of Vitamin D Status with Chronic Disease Risk Factors and Cognitive Dysfunction in 50–70 Year Old Adults.” Nutrients. 2019;11(1):141.

6 Sabetta JR et al. “Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D and the incidence of acute viral respiratory tract infections in healthy adults.” PLoS ONE. 2010;5(6):e11088.

7 Tucker KL et al. “Plasma vitamin B-12 concentrations relate to intake source in the Framingham Offspring Study.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;71(2):514-522.

8 Sayer L et al. “Effect of Drinking Rate on the Retention of Water or Milk Following Exercise-Induced Dehydration.” Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2020;30(2):128-138.

9 Hess JM et al. “Comparing the cost of essential nutrients from different food sources in the American diet using NHANES 2011-2014.” Nutr J. 2019;18:68.

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