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."