As athletes from around the world filter in to Sochi this month, they may well hear the Olympic motto citius, altius, fortius -- Latin for faster, higher, stronger. It's a nice, three-word summary of the Olympian pursuit … it also makes a nice mission statement for makers of sports and performance foods and beverages.
It’s not easy to figure out when the fitness revolution -- and thereby the fitness foods revolution -- began, but both appear to be here to stay. Food and beverage processors are creating more products that use “sport” or “fitness” as their major branding elements. And consumers are discovering more and more reasons to ingest these foods, whether they are actual athletes or “weekend warriors” or just looking for a snack or a pick-me-up at the desk. For many, the finish line may actually be a deadline for that report that has been sitting at the back corner of the desk.
A clear connection of sports with foods may have begun in 1958 when Bob Richards – gold medal Olympian in pole vaulting and also a decathlete – became the first athlete to jump at consumers from the front of a box of Wheaties cereal. Richards became a spokesman for health and fitness, partly through his association with the product. Over the next several decades, making the cover of the Wheaties box became one of the most honored sports accomplishments.
The sports-food connection may have reached its zenith – and begun to focus on performance – in 1991 when Gatorade encouraged us to “be like Mike.” There was “His Airness” Michael Jordan dunking and shooting for championships as NBA clips were interspersed with fun shots of Jordan playing with kids on the playground. A choir of children’s voices sung the catchy tune “I Wanna Be Like Mike,” and the final onscreen statement made the association clear: “Be like Mike. Drink Gatorade.”
Even though the commercial was created before the boom of the viral world, it has more than 1.5 million views on YouTube today. Thus sports and performance food products took off and keep climbing.
Growing at 6.5 percent
There are 77 million users of sports drinks, according to a report by Packaged Facts released in June 2013. Men account for 64 percent of high-volume users of sports drinks, and young men are most likely to use them.
Sports drinks increased in sales by 6.5 percent in 2012 over the previous year, hitting $6.94 billion, and have hit a five-year cumulative growth of 25 percent. The report says sales may slow to around 6 percent but still will reach $9.3 billion by 2017.
The report also shows how consumers pursuing individual sports and fitness activities, rather than team sport players, are the key to success in the retail sports nutritional market.
When it comes to targeting consumers of large quantities of sports nutritional products, 6.3 million fitness walkers comprise the single largest and most attractive market segment. Those taking yoga classes (1.3 million) as well as those pursuing outdoor activities such as mountain biking (1.5 million) and camping and backpacking (1.2 million each) are more numerous than soccer, football, softball, baseball or volleyball players.
There's no single formula for what makes a beverage a sport or performance drink. Common threads are protein, carbohydrates and electrolytes; functional ingredients such as taurine or carnitine; B vitamins; and often a stimulant (although there's serious debate about the advisability of that).
The fitness foods revolution, when compared to toting a box of wheat flakes or carrying around a quart of hydration, is moving to new, smaller and more convenient applications for athletic desires. Bites, chews and make-your-own drinks are in vogue.
Gatorade was ahead of the curve when the PepsiCo unit introduced the G Series in 2010. Its original concept was to provide sports nutrition before, during and after a workout (selling quasi-athletes three times as many products). But it also carried some unique forms, including chews and gels, in addition to an amped-up Gatorade drink. Subsequent G Series products include powders, bars and protein shakes.
Vega sees continued climbs in the sport nutrition category and has a full line of drinks, foods and supplements to help athletes throughout training and competition.
"Since launching Vega Sport’s all natural, plant-based sport nutrition system in 2011, we’ve seen the line grow to be over 40 percent of our business," says Emma Cutfield, innovation manager at Vega. "Retailers have readily embraced merchandizing sport nutrition products as a category independent of other health products, nutritional shakes and supplements. Increased consumer demand has placed a heavy emphasis on innovation and product development as part of Vega’s core business development strategy."
Probar, which has a line of bars and now chews, agrees with the growth in the market. "Bars and chews have been trending upward recently," says Jason Lambert, director of business development at Probar. "Probar has enjoyed steady growth over the years."
Although he admits the product tastes more like a product from the snack aisle, "Energems are a dietary supplement, not a food," says Joe Fairleigh, sales vice president at Energems. "They are bite-sized gems made with real milk chocolate, caffeine, B-vitamins and our proprietary energy blend. Caffeine has been shown to be a direct benefit to athletes to help them train and perform at their peak."
Even Jelly Belly Candy Co. made the transition from the confections to the sports and fitness aisle years ago with its Sport Beans. They are formulated to help fuel the body during exercise. The product works to aid sports performance as each bean contains carbs for fuel and electrolytes in sodium and potassium to help maintain fluid balance. They also boast vitamins B1, B2, and B3 along with vitamin C. Now Jelly Belly has also moved into a more crunchy area.
"Sport Beans Protein Recovery Crisps combines two sources of protein – whey and pea – in a bite-sized crisp," said Rob Swaigen, Jelly Belly's vice president of marketing. "The crispy center is made of pea protein, known for ease of digestion, lack of allergens and essential amino acids for muscle restoration. The texture of the post-performance crisp mimics a malt ball, and because the flavors are from Jelly Belly, athletes know they are in for a great taste.
"Protein Recovery Crisps are ideal for amateur and professional athletes to add to their sports nutrition strategy. Studies have shown the combination of protein and simple carbohydrates is highly effective in rebuilding and restoring muscles, preparing them for the next workout.
"When both carbohydrate and protein are eaten soon after exercise, glycogen stores rebuild, muscle protein production is promoted and immune system strength may be boosted," Swaigen continues. “While Sport Beans Protein Recovery Crisps have not yet been tested directly, research studies using similar protein and carbohydrate sources show these recovery benefits."
Putting good things into the body always is important. It may be more functionally relevant when a high-level competitor is preparing for or rejuvenating after a workout session. But the market probably holds more golfers grabbing a fitness drink at the turn than Ironman participants sprinting from the waves to the bike. Replenishing fluids is necessary whether it is after mowing the lawn or completing a race.
“Most beverages, including water, are hydrating, as long as they are non-alcoholic. Being well hydrated is key to optimal performance," says Gabi Arrillaga, brand manager for Kraft's Mio brand. "Mio FIT is designed to be consumed during moderate physical activity, lasting an hour or less, to replenish fluids lost through sweat. Electrolytes sodium and potassium have been added to Mio FIT to help stimulate thirst and encourage drinking during a workout.
“Mio FIT is not intended for the serious athlete engaging in prolonged, high intensity activity, who may be looking for a carbohydrate-containing drink," says Arrillaga. "Mio FIT contains zero calories and zero grams total carbohydrate per serving."
Kraft is another big company that has crossed the supermarket aisles. Like original Mio, Mio Fit and Mio Energy are portable, liquid water enhancers, a few drops of which can transforms any bottle or glass of water into a tasty, zero-calorie sports drink. Each serving of Mio Fit (8 oz. after mixing with water) contains zero calories, is sugar free, has B-vitamins, and electrolytes sodium and potassium to aid hydration during moderate exercise. Mio Energy has touches of caffeine, taurine, guarana extract and ginseng extract, as well as niacin and vitamins B6 and B12.
"We have always had a strong following from elite and professional athletes, but our core audience is the 'home' athlete [who] is looking to better their performance," says Probar's Lambert. "Additionally, we have a strong following of people that are simply looking for ways to fuel their everyday activities whether sport-related or not."
There is, however, some small danger in non-athletes consuming large amounts of sports fuel.
"Non-athletes may still consume sport nutrition products, but as a nutritionist, I would advise consumers to always consider their nutrition in relation to their goals," says Vega's Cutfield. "For example, if you are diabetic and/or trying to lose weight [without also being active], a sport nutrition product with functional sugars, which provides energy that can supply and replenish muscle glycogen, may actually be too much added sugar in the context of a less active lifestyle for someone trying to achieve or maintain optimal weight.
"Because not all calories are created equally," Cutfield continues, "consider evaluating macronutrient quantity (protein, carbohydrates and fat) versus calorie content. Working with a personalized nutritionist or enquiring at your local supplement or health food store can help you understand the right quantity and ratio of macronutrients to consume depending on your goals."