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How Sports Nutrition is Going Mainstream

That nutrition is key to sports performance no longer needs saying. But now, a wider audience is starting to eat like athletes.

For instance, high-protein meals have gained traction with consumers wishing to incorporate more plants into their diets, specialized consultancy firm ProtéinesXTC found out in its annual study. Highlighted in the SIAL Insights 2024 report, it notes that products with high protein content are on the rise across all categories, including snacking.

In some cases, different consumers might buy the same product for entirely different reasons, such as a vegan diet versus a keto one. But more often than not, their motivations overlap, with the reasoning that what’s good for sporty types can’t be bad for the rest of us, either.

One concern is that eating like an athlete without the other half of the equation — high-calorie consumption — could backfire. There’s also sometimes quite a disconnect between the type of products that high-profile sports players promote and what they would consume; not everything that is branded healthy actually is, especially when taken out of context.

However, jocks too are starting to think beyond calories, or even beyond performance. With an increased focus on recovery, immunity, and cognitive function, sports nutrition is more and more often overlapping with healthy eating — and vice-versa. 

“Sports nutrition has expanded to be a broader category, appealing not just to athletes but to casual exercisers and people looking to stay active as they age,” Gencor’s global innovation manager, Mariko Hill, told Nutrition Insights. “It is also moving toward a more inclusive category by catering to women and their specific needs and body types.”

From adaptogens to vitamins, here are some examples of how athletes and non-athletes, both young and senior, end up with similar products in their shopping carts.

The power of health claims

“No added sugar” is a claim that consumers often pay attention to, no matter how much exercise they get. But there’s a much larger range of health-related label claims that can drive sales, and often take a page from the sports universe when it comes to potential benefits they tout.

Functional ingredients and their purported health benefits are a key part of that trend, and of why sports nutrition is having a wider appeal. Because gut health and quality sleep can appeal to all of us, and because an energy shot can also be seen as an immunity booster, there are now all sorts of consumers who may buy the same products as a gym aficionado.

Ginger is one of these ingredients that are proving popular in foods that clearly belong in the sports nutrition aisle, such as energy bars and powdered drinks, but also in the mainstream beverage aisle. For instance, the latter is where retailers may sell Gimber’s ginger drinks, which have another selling point: They offer an alternative to alcoholic drinks.

Non-alcoholic alternatives

There are many reasons why people decide to stay sober, or simply drink less alcohol. Sports performance is one of them, which creates space for non-alcoholic drinks that can appeal to fitness enthusiasts, but without staying niche.

That’s the positioning French brand Goxoa is pursuing with its alcohol-free beer, Goxoa Sports Beer. The pitch highlights what’s not in there — alcohol, and lots of calories. But it also notes that Gokoa’s beer is isotonic, with minerals and vitamins that can facilitate recovery. 

It’s likely the whole package, and not just the lack of alcohol, that helped the product get endorsed by professional athletes that a broader audience might want to emulate.

Healthy snacks

Whether snacking is bad for your health depends on what you eat and when. And since this habit is increasingly popular, consumers are much more willing to choose their snacks more wisely than giving it up altogether.

When it comes to snacks, there’s quite a lot of overlap between sports nutrition and the “healthy” food category. Fiber-rich edamame, for instance, are often described as superfood.

Their high protein content is also a key selling point, and one they have in common with… insect snacks, a category in which Swiss startup Essento hopes to become a household name.

Form factor

From protein bars to energy drinks, products created with active lifestyles in mind are often meant to be consumed on the go. And since convenience is a quality that is highly valued by all types of consumers, some formats that used to be typical of sports nutrition are now going mainstream.

One example is dried fruit; a same company, Spain-based Born Fruits, sells dried fruit snack packages with mainstream appeal, as well as one product labeled for “Sport” and another one for “Balance.” Both of these come with dried nuts (almonds and walnuts), another food category that can be marketed to fitness-minded individuals and to a more mainstream audience as well. 

Role models

There’s no doubt that many of us are keen to eat like athletes because we wouldn’t mind being like them. This makes athletes great brand ambassadors for food companies hoping to market themselves to the wider public; because they are role models, they can also be influencers to consumers more broadly interested in health and fitness. 

Investors are seeing the opportunity as well. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. sports nutrition company Momentous had raised $32 million in funding “to bring to the masses the kind of products used by professional athletes and the military.” 

The convergence goes both ways, with “healthy indulgence” as a rising trend in sports nutrition, according to a 2021 report from the Atlantic Area Healthy Food Eco-System (AHFES). Tasty and healthy, not unsurprisingly, are once again the recipe for success on any supermarket shelf.

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Cover photo by Shamblen Studios on Unsplash

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