In “stark contrast” to the wider food and drink market, which faced huge inflationary pressures in 2022, the sports nutrition market experienced rapid growth, said Rick Miller, associate director for specialised nutrition at Mintel.
“[Last year] was completely free, pretty much, from Covid-19 disruptions, and so the retail channels regained their footfall in terms of impulse sales,” he said. “This is something that really drives the sports nutrition market in a huge way because those impulse sales – those one-off purchases of drinks, or sports-specific supplements – are something that are the lifeblood of the industry.”
So how can brands differentiate their products in this booming category?
Hybrid working offers manufacturers new opportunities
One thing that has “massively changed” for consumers is hybrid working, Miller explained. Mintel estimates that around 40% of UK consumers now operate on a hybrid schedule, opening up an opportunity for sports nutrition manufacturers to address a major trend: fatigue.
“Consumers are feeling extremely burnt out from this kind of hybrid schedule – there’s no off switch,” he said, highlighting statistics that showed a third of UK consumers say working from home productive – but 30% also find it “very tiring”.
He added: “Sports nutrition brands can help solve this performance issue through some of the traditional things that we've done so well as an industry for so many years … and help to support and bring consumers into that traditional demographic.”
‘Explosiveness’ of plant-based products cannot be ignored
Nutritional meal replacements are a standout category, with plant-based products in particular “really taking off”, said Miller. Mintel’s Global New Product Database shows that performance nutrition launches with plant-based claims rose from 0% in 2013 to 21% of new launches in April 2023.
“The explosiveness of plant-based is something that really can't be ignored any more,” he added.
Innovators could look towards using claims such as “chilled”, “fresh”, “convenient”, and “easy”, which appeal to this hybrid-working generation, he said – “those individuals who want a quick meal, but want it to be something that works for both their workout and … replace a meal at a desk”.
Meanwhile, ketogenic diets are “trending very, very strongly”, offering an opportunity for companies to take weight loss branding in a “much more holistic” direction. About 28% of US ketogenic nutrition bar buyers would purchase them again, according to Mintel, while 44% of UK consumers feel a low-carbohydrate diet is effective for losing weight.
All eyes on ocular health
Brands are starting to traverse the space between gym performance and work/lifestyle performance; ingredients such as citrulline malate and beta-alanine, which historically have been used for sports performance, muscle-building, and recovery, are now being positioned in terms of energy production and eye health.
“With all this time that we're spending at home and using our devices, we can't ignore the fact that places a strain on the eyes,” Miller said, adding: “This is going to be a trend that continues to be in the forefront of consumers’ minds, particularly our younger consumers, for the foreseeable future.”
Another area that offers “very strong potential” for eye health products is electronic sports.
This is due to participation of both genders as well as its “enormous growth” during the pandemic years, particularly in areas of Asia Pacific, where it “outstrips some traditional sports by quite a long way”.
However, there is a deficit of wellness-orientated products in this area, which tends to be dominated by energy products – despite 44% of German consumers saying that they would drink sports or energy drinks if they contained more natural ingredients, Miller explained.
“The visual that you might have of an e-sports gamer – of somebody who's just drinking soft drinks and doesn't care about their diet – I think that's not the case at all,” he said.
“These kind of novel areas like e-sports … are hugely, hugely popular and have massive volume potential.”
Athleisure and the blurring of work/life boundaries
Miller also highlighted athleisure as an “incredibly powerful” emergent trend, adding: “This combination of being able to work and also be comfortable and to move between different areas of life, I think, is very important.”
The blurring of boundaries between people’s working wardrobes and at-home wardrobes also contributed to “huge volume growth” in that category, he said.
Meanwhile, the line between intense exercise and more restful activities is also less clear; post-pandemic, many consumers express a preference for lower-impact workouts.
As many as 65% of UK consumers say they would be interested in products specifically developed for lower levels of activity, Mintel research shows, opening up opportunities for formulators to develop low-intensity sports nutrition products, for example.
“It's changed the way that we interact with exercise – and it gives us an opportunity to engage with consumers in different ways,” said Miller.