Consumer demand for alternative protein sources has penetrated most market segments, including sports nutrition. This is in large part due to an ethical or environmental desire to reduce animal-derived food intake. For Benjamin Wall, professor of nutritional physiology at the University of Exeter in the UK, this represents an interesting evolution in how dietary protein in the context of sports is viewed.
“Dietary protein is widely seen as key to recovery, repair and rebuilding,” he says. “The focus though has tended to be on how much we should take and when we should take it; it is only in the last few years that consumers have started to ask where this protein should come from.”
Shift to sustainable dietary protein sources
As a result, the sports nutrition market has seen a shift towards the production and sale of alternative, sustainable dietary protein sources, from plants, fungi, insects, algae, and more. This is a market segment where consumers tend to be highly knowledgeable, and where clinical evidence can be critical to market success.
A key challenge for formulators in this respect is the fact that a great deal of scientific literature on dietary protein sources is predicated on studies using animal-derived proteins. “Up until the last few years, these studies would have typically focused on dairy proteins,” says Wall.
“This established the idea that dairy and meat proteins are good for sports nutrition. The reality is that all the recommendations we give on dietary protein and sports nutrition rely on data primarily obtained from experiments with animal proteins.”
This presents challenges when it comes to alternative sources of protein. Extrapolating data from one protein source to another, for example, might not be appropriate.
“We don’t have much data on this at the moment,” says Wall. “So, the next question would be: do we think that the dietary recommendations we’d give someone looking to reduce their animal-derived intake, or go vegan, would be different? I think there are reasons to believe that there would be differences under certain circumstances.”
Turning science into viable products
In his presentation at Vitafoods 2023, Wall plans to address these differences. He will cover the range of alternative protein sources that are currently hitting the market, from pea and soy-derived protein with advanced extraction processes and a range of applications, to more diverse categories such as fungal, algal, and insect-derived.
“There is a consensus that animal-derived protein is good in a sports nutrition arena,” he continues. “What I intend to do is show the science behind this, and then use this as a paradigm of what is required for any other protein source. In this way, we can see that for some protein sources, there is a great deal of evidence, while for others, very little.”
Translating clinical findings into viable products is still a challenge. Even if the science supports the functionality of a particular alterative protein source for example, getting this into a consumer-friendly product can be tricky. Perhaps a huge amount needs to be consumed in order for it to be as functional as animal-derived protein, or perhaps the ingredient comes with high fibre content or flavour issues.
With careful planning and thought though, Wall believes that these obstacles can be overcome. “With the data that is now emerging, we can say that by selecting the appropriate protein source, and applying this appropriately, optimal sports nutrition can be achieved,” he says. “The caveat here is that this might be practically more difficult. This means however that there is a huge innovation space for companies.”
Prof Wall is professor of nutritional physiology at the University of Exeter in the UK. He will be speaking at the Vitafoods Conference 2023.