Nicholas Morgan, director of Nutrition Integrated, a specialist market, category, and product insights company, and Dr Susan M Kleiner, founder and owner of the High Performance Nutrition consultancy, discussed the latest sports nutrition science and consumer trends during an online panel discussion.
They identified several areas where formulators could steer product development.
Post-exercise nutrition: Gut health, inflammation, and recovery
Kleiner emphasised the importance of the gut microbiome to post-exercise recovery.
“The recovery piece of post-workout is also very dependent on total gut health,” she said. “So much of the immune function, as well as chronic systemic inflammation, can begin in the gut – and so keeping the microbiome healthy, making sure that … you are getting a plant-rich diet that is full of healthy fibres, the prebiotic compounds that feed the microbiome – that helps in recovery because we have anti-inflammatory compounds that don't just stay in the gut, but travel throughout the body.”
This presents an opportunity for R&D, she explained.
“Getting in your carbohydrate, and hopefully, rapidly emptying, getting to the source, to the muscle cell, and that not causing stomach upset, is a whole area of research and development,” she said.
But she warned that there was a balance to be struck.
“Post-workout you don't want … an overabundance of anti-inflammatory or antioxidant compounds; they can limit recovery and growth, because inflammation is actually the start of recovery,” she said.
“There's a balance, there really is a science, and just throwing everything including the kitchen sink into a recovery product is not necessarily the best strategy.”
Collagen and creatine in the spotlight
Which ingredients are trending in the active nutrition space?
Morgan said “more accessible” formats were abundant, adding: “Protein has gone into everything possible for the purposes of delivering something more accessible.”
He said collagen was interesting “because it's almost like the white tissue as opposed to the red tissue”.
“I think it's quite intuitive, isn't it?” he asked. “You don't have strong muscles if you don't have strong connective tissue… certainly in terms of product availability and new product launches, I think that's a particularly interesting one.”
Kleiner highlighted an expanded role for creatine, which helps “to deliver the energy for the exercise – but it also is a very potent anti-inflammatory”. Morgan agreed that creatine was “having a renaissance”.
He added: “It's not really gone away, but I guess became boring to people but interestingly … people are realising just where it can play within the brain, as [an] anti-inflammatory, and so on.
“I’ve been involved in some projects around things like concussion and stuff like that, which I think is super interesting and needs more nutritional interventions as well – so … there's a lovely blueprint of different opportunities.”
Plant proteins offer opportunities for innovation
Morgan described protein and protein powders as the “primary pillar” of sports nutrition from a commercial revenue point of view, particularly for delivering strength or muscle gains.
“That's where a lot of innovation happens, because people are looking to build on those core platforms,” he said. “But interestingly, around the habituation of continual consumption, people are still working on things like packaging, taste, and so on, and that in particular leads me to one of the biggest areas, which is plant protein… A lot more people are thinking about being more inclusive to more consumers.”
He said plant protein was “typically seen as a more accessible product”.
Kleiner said another benefit of plant protein was “the variety that it offers”.
“Working with strength athletes in particular, people who may supplement protein more than one time during the day, we're getting a lot of dairy protein in – and the plant proteins, the watchword of good nutrition is variety, right? It just builds in all these multi-nutrient options and possibilities,” she said.
“Getting a plant protein that is fairly soluble, that tastes good, that has a good distribution of amino acids – all the things that are being worked on right now – and improving it to be equivalent functionally, as much as possible, with a whey protein, allows [you] to build in the variety even into your protein supplementation. And so it is a really exciting time.”
Morgan added: “The barriers are lower and lower in terms of the price comparable to dairy protein as well. Taste is much better than it has been – in fact, the curve of improvements been significant, so I think that is quite important as well.”
The future of plant-based: Consumer perspectives
Looking at the marketing of plant-based products to consumers, Morgan said: “We've spent quite a lot of time looking at how those products are described to consumers. We took a dairy-based product, whey protein in a powder format; that will almost certainly talk about muscle, strength, recovery, and [the brand will] really drive those words.
“Now [for] the same product but plant-based, maybe the same dose, [brands will] typically add in more additional actives that … intuitively more sit on a plant base, like microbiome, pre and pro, and vitamins and minerals, and maybe some DHA, EPA and so on in terms of the fats.
“Interestingly, the descriptions of those products have seen a subtlety and shift towards terms like ‘protein throughout the day’ and ‘health’ and ‘daily recovery’. And so it's quite interesting in that even some of the same products and the same areas are democratising, or seen as adding certain ingredients in, and so there's quite a bit of a shift there.”
While he admitted dairy would continue to drive a bigger share of the market, he added: “The reality is, though, there's more space for plant-based and it will continue to evolve and get bigger.”