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Sports nutrition for active consumers

Brands targeting the growing active consumer and weekend warrior segment of sports nutrition may find different needs and desires compared to the elite athlete population.

The weekend warrior, the person cramming most of their exercise into two days off from work, is not new. Yoga is not new, but its huge bloom of devotees in western countries like the United States is newish. CrossFitters and Tough Mudderers also are newer. Add to these high-profile exercisers a cornucopia of active consumers at gyms, parks, beaches, trails and all manner of courts, tracks and fields, and you get a big mass of amateur athletes ripe for sports nutrition product use.

We are talking many millions of active people. CrossFit has more than 15,000 official affiliates, with around 4 million participants, according to CrossFit. More than 3 million people have competed in one of the many races annually, and the organization said participation is growing thanks to shorter race options. According to the Outdoor Association, almost half of Americans (49 percent, or 146 million people) engaged in outdoor recreation in 2017, and running, including jogging and trail running, was the most popular activity in terms of both participants and total annual outings.

Anthony Almada, a co-founder and fellow of the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN) and consultant to and spokesperson for Indena, highlighted “some inspiring findings from the ongoing USA National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), published in February,” such as: about 8 percent of Americans are performing 2.5 to <5 hours of vigorous, or 5 to <10 hours of moderate exercise per week, and  about 41 percent are engaged in ≥ 5 hours of vigorous, or ≥ 10 hours of moderate exercise, per week.

The big questions for the sports nutrition industry regarding this consumer pool are:

  • How do the needs of these active consumers differ from elite professional and amateur athletes?
  • How could brands formulate and market to this growing population?

Different Strokes for Different Folks?

At the retail level, nutrition giant GNC is aware of these differences and addresses this shift by offering something for every level of athlete.

“Serious athletes are a larger segment of GNC’s customer base,” confirmed Guru Ramanathan, Ph.D., chief innovation officer at GNC. “However, as customers start to seek alternative ways of staying active and healthy, we expect to see an increase in the weekend warrior segment.”

For example, he noted serious athletes may look for products like mass gainers, whey protein isolates, protein blends, pre-workouts, creatine, etc., which are available in a variety of delivery forms, doses and flavors.

“These products help with building lean mass and improving post-workout muscle recovery to help athletes stay strong and healthy,” he explained. “These outcomes are critical to serious athletes who are looking for defined results from their workout. Products in our Beyond Raw or GNC AMP categories are suitable for these serious and elite athletes.”

One consideration for elite athletes, especially those facing anti-doping tests, may be products certified free of banned substances.

“For an Olympic athlete, we would likely recommend our GNC AMP line of products, which have been tested for banned substances and, like many of our products, have been backed by clinical research and have been shown to work.

On the other hand, he suggested weekend warriors and active consumers may benefit most from the GNC Pro Performance line, as it provides simple formulas that deliver results.

“In addition, these consumers may be interested in GNC’s protein bars, plant proteins and other formulas that are suitable for use before or after weekend activities,” he advised. “We also recently launched our Earth Genius Pure Edge products, which contain plant-based ingredients to help with performance.”

Regardless of the differences between the groups of consumers, Ramanathan recommended multivitamins, fish oil and probiotics for all levels of athletes.

As for how they want to consume sports nutrition, GNC has found its elite athlete consumers focus on both supplements and food/beverage. Ramanathan explained these consumers want to be sure their diet helps prime the body, but also understand that supplements can give them an additional edge.

However, GNC has noticed active consumers may prefer supplements over food to receive nutritional benefits their diet may be lacking.

“However, both elite athletes and active consumers prefer portable and on-the-go delivery forms that are convenient and easy to use,” he confirmed.

Equalizers? Protein and Energy

As the star in lean body mass development, protein is the main ingredient for all exercisers and may, in fact, be the gateway for active consumers to cross over into sports nutrition. The type and level of protein intake depends upon the body composition and strength goals of the athlete, and this may not be dependent on elite vs. non-elite.

Protein is available in so many delivery forms and from many different sources, both animal and plant. Whey and dairy may reign supreme in the professional and Olympic markets, and plant-based proteins may dominate active consumers, but there is desire for all types within and across both groups.

“The protein market appeals to a broad range of consumers who seek it for a variety of reasons, including sports recovery, weight management and more,” noted Stephanie Lynch, vice president of sales, marketing, and technology for International Dehydrated Foods (IDF). “In fact, according to research by NMI [Natural Marketing Institute], nearly four out of five consumers consider protein content as an important factor in food and beverage purchasing decisions.”

One protein food mainstay in sports is chicken.

“Chicken protein, specifically, is great for a broader consumer audience because it is the most versatile and diet-friendly protein,” Lynch said. “And, since 77 percent of consumers already get protein from chicken, according to the NPD Group, it is a familiar choice that supports a clean label.”

While whey, casein and even soy protein have long been available in various delivery forms, chicken has been mainly consumed in its natural (albeit cooked) form by athletes. Lynch further noted dairy and soy are on the list of major food allergens. Lactose (milk sugar) intolerance is also a growing concern.

However, convenience is a big factor in sports nutrition, especially among active consumers and weekend warriors, so being able to get the benefits of chicken without buying and cooking the meat is a favorable proposition for these consumers.

Recognizing some active consumers and weekend warriors may want something other than the traditional protein shake or bar, IDF developed chicken protein ingredients that can be incorporated into innovative protein-rich snack supplements. In addition, the ingredients are paleo- and keto-friendly, as well as gluten-free.

Allergens and a move away from dairy and animal products are also driving plant proteins, including in sports nutrition. In his presentation for SupplySide East 2019, PlantFusion Co-Founder and CEO Phil Vigeant noted consumers’ perception is at play in the plant-based movement. He said while 26 million Americans have a food allergy, as many as 50 million think they have one. Likewise, there are 22 million vegetarian or vegan Americans, a growth of 18 percent from 2012.

He noted 20 percent of the population regularly consumes protein drinks or shakes, and as much as 60 percent want to increase protein intake. This all leads to a big opportunity for plant proteins.

Plant protein products come with caveats for finished product brands. First, many plant sources of protein (e.g., pea, hemp, rice, etc.) are low or missing key essential amino acids (EAAs), which are not made in the body. Brands have moved to blending different plant protein types to build more complete proteins (all the EAAs in sufficient amounts). Second, some plants have undesirable flavors that must be masked or at least minimized.

Taste is also an issue with energy ingredients. Whereas protein ingredients, with a creamier mouthfeel and base taste, can adopt popular dessert flavorings such as chocolate, vanilla, cookie and cream, etc., the common bitterness of energy and stimulant ingredients usually call for citrus and other “acidic” flavors. There has been an increase in candy flavors for energy products, including famous candy brands.

Ghost Nutrition, a lifestyle sports nutrition brand, is representative of cool, trendy flavors for both protein and energy products, including cereal milk protein powder and Warheads flavored pre-workouts.

David Sandler, chief operating officer at ProSupps, said Blue raspberry and fruit punch still dominate this category of sports nutrition flavoring. “Candy shop flavors had a push, and some do very well,” he said. “But it appears to be more of a 2:1 to 4:1 standard flavor vs. something a little ‘out there’—probably people looking for a change here and there rather than a full scale jump away from the tried and true.”

He said whatever the flavor, energy is still the hot topic across the entire sports nutrition industry. However, “energy” means different things to different consumers.

The body uses mitochondrial processes to “create” energy for use by muscles, but many people swear by caffeine and other stimulants to limit fatigue and provide a central nervous system boost; some have been shown to enhance performance.

“Weekend brigade needs to ‘feel it’ immediately,” said longtime sports nutrition formulator Bruce Kneller, partner at HiQ Financial Holdings Inc. He suggested low to medium level stimulants often work well for products targeting these consumers.   

However, Sandler said ProSupps is starting to see a greater shift to non-stimulant pre-workouts “I think people are still using tons of caffeine, but are looking for alternatives (especially later afternoon/evening exercisers) prior to working out,”he explained.

Still, he noted while over-stimulation is not what people are looking for, they still want energy as per their own definition. Here again, perception is at play.

“To that end, I have formulated testosterone boosters for that population (not with ProSupps) in the past, as the middle-aged male group believes—probably thanks to the infomercial type commercials featuring athletes talking about the “test boosters” they are taking—that will help with energy throughout the day (and in the bedroom).”

One rising trend is the keto diet, which aims to increase fat metabolism for energy via very low carb, moderately low protein and high fat intake. A low carb intake leads to low glucose and glycogen, which are typically used to produce energy in intense and highly intense exercise. In response, the body makes and releases ketones that can be used for energy and also increase fat burning.

Vigeant said keto dieters (very low carb intake, moderately low protein intake and high fat intake) often overcut fruits and vegetables from their plates, which can make them deficient in phytonutrients and fiber. This can often be combined with higher consumption of unhealthy fats.

He suggested a better approach to keto for active consumers and other athletes could be in healthy plant-based fats. The medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) popular in keto dieting mostly come from coconut oil. Other such healthy plant fats include sea buckthorn, avocado, flax oil, mango kernel oil, threobroma oil (cacao) and sunflower oil.

For Vigeant, these types of plant substitutions can help brands “create products that go beyond the ‘early adopter’ and are beneficial for the non-hardcore athlete, while moving these products from fad to foundational nutrition within the category.”

Recovery Untapped

All athletes experience physical stress from exercise and need a period of rest and restoration.

“These physical extremes influence the body composition, blood flow and immune function, but recuperation prior to resumed training may be insufficient to allow a reduction of tissue stress damage,” said Shaheen Majeed, president worldwide for Sabinsa.

“The general consumer is finally starting to get the idea that recovery is necessary and while they sift through the rhetoric, they are slowly grasping concepts that scientists (and formulators) have been trying to educate over the years,” Sandler added.

Sports nutrition expert Sue Hewlings, Ph.D., R.D., director of scientific affairs for Nutrasource and co-founder of Substantiation Sciences, said recovery is an overlooked part of sports nutrition, especially by active consumers and weekend warriors.

In her presentation at SupplySide East 2019, she said one issue is the challenge in defining recovery, which involves limiting damage from exercise and preparing the body for the next workout. However, she noted recovery goes beyond the one- or two-hour post-exercise window and is more of a 24/7 necessity.

She outlined many aspects of recovery brands can target, including peripheral (muscle glycogen) and central (neuromuscular) fatigue; hydration (electrolytes); nutrition (glycogen depletion); muscle soreness/weakness; exercise performance; increased infection risk; gastrointestinal (GI) abnormalities; quality and quantity of sleep; and inflammation—some inflammation is good.

Hewlings highlighted curcumin as a well-researched anti-inflammatory botanical ingredient to inhibit inflammatory signaling and muscle damage. Several other botanicals shown to offer some combination of reducing inflammation, limiting muscle damage, decreasing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and improving muscle function include black currant, cherry, pineapple, pomegranate, watermelon, cucumber extract, beet root, astaxanthin (a carotenoid from algae), omega-3 fatty acids and MSM (methylsulfonylmethane).

Majeed also singled out curcumin and beet root. He noted betalains present in Sabeet® beet root extract (from Sabinsa) were shown to influence inflammatory markers such as c-reactive protein (CRP) to help manage inflammation and improve exercise performance (Int J Innov Res Med Sci. 2016;1(9):376-383). He further noted in addition to anti-inflammatory effects, curcumin (as CurcuminC3 Complex®) may have a prebiotic-like benefit that helps foster proper conditions for beneficial microbiota growth, which may help both GI and immune areas of recovery.

Another digestive approach is with enzymes that improve macronutrient digestion, including amylase (for carbs), lipase (for fats), proteases (for protein) and cellulase (for cellulose). Majeed noted a blend of such enzymes (as DigeZyme®, from Sabinsa) may improve DOMS, which is driven by inflammation. In one study, these non-animal enzymes improved subjective pain and muscle tenderness following eccentric exercise (Sports Nutr Ther. 2016;1-3).

DOMS may also have an immune factor, according to Majeed. “The immune system is not able to function fully during periods of high physical stress, possibly by down-regulating immune and endothelial function, which could result in a reduced capacity to metabolize any damaged muscle cells,” he explained.

One hot nutrition industry ingredient bound to impact sports nutrition and active consumers is CBD (cannabidiol), which plays a role in immune-mediated inflammation.

Hewlings explained the body’s endocannabinoid system has a physiological role in the functions of immune cells involved in inflammation. CBD and other endocannabinoids that target the CB2 receptor offer potential anti-inflammatory benefits that could help in exercise recovery.

Kneller said if he was asked to formulate a product for active consumers, he’d consider CBD supplement for recovery. “A CBD ‘candy’ or edible for post-work out would be a hot item,” he assured. “I'm very confident we will see a large amount of CBD stuff in single-serve pack-outs for this crowd.”

For improved performance, especially indirectly via accelerated recovery, Almada pointed to quercetin, which he called the predominant flavonoid in the diet subject to many human studies for over 15 years. “However, as with virtually all dietary/ingestible interventions, the biological response is largely related to the absorption and bioavailability of what is consumed,” he said, noting quercetin absorption has been shown to vary widely among persons, by up to fifty percent.

Indena applied its Phytosome More Bioavailable® delivery system technology to this very water-insoluble flavonoid to yield Quercefit™. An open label study of amateur sprint triathletes showed two weeks of Quercefit supplementation decreased sprint distance times by around 11 minutes, compared to a 4-minute decrease among the control group. (Minerva Medica 2018;109:285-9.) “Additionally, subjective recovery scores and blood markers of oxidative stress were significantly improved in the Quercefit group,” Almada noted.

Sports Nutrition for All

Despite the many instances of overlap, active consumers and weekend warriors have different needs and desires than do elite amateur and pro athletes. For some brands, the active consumer group represents an opportunity to have a play in sports nutrition. For legacy sports nutrition brands, this is an opportunity to spread the proverbial formulation wings.

“When it comes to ingredients, I can say for sure that we are trying to consider all persons, even though we tend to direct our products to the more hardcore athlete,” Sandler said of ProSupps, which was launched in the sports nutrition market in 2004. “To that end, we are bringing out some old-school botanicals, and NDI [new dietary ingredients]/DSHEA [Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994] ingredients, and using them differently and in combination with other synergistic ingredients to get a more rounded approach to trying to solve a physiological parameter.”

While banned substance certification might be primarily for drug-tested athletes including collegiate, Olympic and professional, the desire to know what is in a nutrition product cuts across the entire sports nutrition market.

“I think all consumers, but mostly the active consumer/weekend warrior/intelligent business person/concerned housewife, wants to know what it is in the product,” Sandler said, emphasizing the importance of transparency and quality control (QC).  “I think even this consumer is beginning to stack products, and while they may not realize they are doing it, I think they are understanding that single products can only do so much; depending on their goals, they need a few things, and transparency helps solve that.”

Brands can consider many ingredient, marketing and labeling messages when targeting active consumers and weekend warriors. Protein and energy-boosting ingredients are obvious staples for this population, but recovery could be a sea of great opportunity. Minding the transparency, free from and plant-based trends from the mainstream natural products market will be advantageous to reaching these hard-working and demanding consumers.

 

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