Muscle health: a powerful reason-to-believe for active consumers

As sports nutrition evolves, two markets have emerged to better reflect the goals of the wider consumer landscape

At the heart of this market trend is protein, but there is a need to broaden its appeal beyond muscle recovery and growth to realise its full potential.

The principles of sports nutrition continue to attract a wider set of consumers. How this manifests itself in products that are relevant to new and current users remains to be seen. Certainly, it will require an updated approach to the category. Nick Morgan of Sports Integrated, working with whey protein supplier Volac, notes: “Normalisation or mainstreaming, is without doubt the most important market shift in the history of sports nutrition.”

“As sports nutrition suppliers look to adapt their products to more sports and exercise enthusiasts, it’s important to recognise that there has been a boom in high protein products in health and wellness that has created a huge blur between markets and is really challenging the traditional concept of sports nutrition,” he adds.

Nick points to a rigid dichotomy between two ends of a performance-health spectrum, which is not an easy balance to strike. Product development has become a lot more challenging, with clear differences between the role of nutrients versus foods, science versus emotion, technology versus natural and ritual versus impulse.

“The most important insight during the next 12 months will be to better understand the extent to which sports nutrition can evolve into a mainstream category wherein consumers are no longer defined by performance-related outcomes, but those that are more aligned with health optimisation,” says Nick.

Rethink and redefine

The link between exercise and nutrition is inseparable. Increased participation in sports and exercise is a primary driver that will continue to substantiate the logic of targeting exercise enthusiasts. However, whilst traditional sports nutrition brands adapt to the wants and needs of the exercise enthusiast, a wave of innovation is occurring within the food and drink-orientated health and wellness category, as regular brands eye up the opportunity to target the active consumer.

There is no doubt that many of the underpinning principles of sports nutrition are relevant to a wider exercise audience

“Sports nutrition, performance nutrition, active nutrition, weight management, healthy ageing and healthy snacking are all terms used interchangeably, with little differentiation between products and formulations. This is driven largely by the availability of high protein products that conform to a number of health filters, such as natural, free-from and no-added sugar, in convenient formats, and in wider retail channels."

"Simple … or so it seems. If the industry isn’t quite sure, imagine how the consumer feels! “Although opportunities for sports nutrition appear to be hitting us between the eyes, there is still some work to do to ensure the category evolves to the extent that it applies to the broader spectrum of consumers,” adds Nick.

Sports nutrition 2.0

“The term sports nutrition has increasingly become a capture-all term that is no longer fit for purpose, or reflective of the evolving landscape. There is a need to better reflect the differences between health, performance and active nutrition consumers,” says Nick.

Suzane Leser, Head of Nutrition for Volac, adds: “There is no doubt that many of the underpinning principles of sports nutrition are relevant to a wider exercise audience. Just think about muscle, protein and ageing, particularly with the generational shift of current sports nutrition consumers. To unlock the opportunities available, there is a need to redefine the landscape providing clarity on what products are positioned for which consumers, according to relevant benefits.”

Under the remit of “Sports Nutrition 2.0,” Volac and Sports Integrated embarked on a journey to investigate further, redefine the sports nutrition category and set it on its next growth curve. Conclusions from their study suggest that there are two different markets, performance nutrition and active nutrition, with fundamentally different drivers. Despite strong growth, sports nutrition has become a non-descript expression that has led to a confusing co-existence of products and a failure to focus on the retention of consumers as they age and their goals evolve.

The emergence of active nutrition provides a platform to resonate with this wider consumer group. Building on the strength of performance nutrition, active nutrition represents the growing number of people interested in the social, physical and health benefits of exercise and nutrition. They are characterised by a desire to be ageless, and often represent the generational shift of the current sports nutrition consumer to whom training has moved from a focus on muscle performance and size, to maintaining weight-wellness and enjoying activity.

There is a need to better reflect the differences between performance and active nutrition consumers, as Nick explains: “Whilst exercise is the common denominator, consumers are less defined by what they do and more by why they do it. At the heart of this insight, is that protein and muscle must appeal to both the performance- and health-orientated consumer, albeit in a different way.”

Why muscle health?

Another conclusion from Sports Nutrition 2.0 is that muscles are now recognised as the top biomarkers for longevity, the largest endocrine organ, and the engine that makes our everyday fitness and stamina easier. Muscle health is all about that daily dose of exercise that boosts metabolism, increases energy levels and keeps the body strong to do more throughout life. The principles of sports nutrition, mainly protein, remain relevant in active nutrition because protein potentiates the effects of exercise on muscles.

Suzane believes the food industry has seen the opportunity for muscle health, but has not yet realised its full potential. “There is a wave of mass-market products now associating high protein with muscle maintenance, simply because this is the approved health claim,” she says. “At best, what active consumers are gaining is a vague awareness of the relationship between protein and muscle recovery, but they don’t quite yet understand what the real benefits of building and maintaining muscles really mean to why they exercise.”

The real benefit is the role muscles play in improving whole-body metabolism and resilience, explains Leser: “Only when active, muscles release a bundle of hormone-like substances, what we call the exercise factors. They travel the body co-ordinating the function of vital organs, regulating the immune system and returning to enhance the function of the muscle’s own cells. With time, it results in a better balance of muscle build-up and breakdown in a positive feedback loop, in better energy metabolism and in increased strength, so that we can continue to be active and protected from injury and illness.”

Muscle health is powerful because it brings together three of the most resonating consumer needs – weight management, healthy ageing and sustained energy. It is also a well-established scientific concept, to which protein nutrition has been proven to be key.

A practical way forward

When it comes to nutrition, the active consumer is driven mainly by real foods that are tasty and as natural as possible. On-the-go, they want it delivered in a format that is practical and widely available. They get their protein according to the latest advice to consume optimal amounts of protein, regularly, with every meal.

The real benefit is the role muscles play in improving whole-body metabolism and resilience

Whey protein has been long established as the best protein source in performance nutrition because of its high nutritional quality and optimal leucine content. Leser maintains that these qualities remain relevant for the active nutrition consumer because it delivers more nutrition in fewer calories: “We know that around 20g of high quality protein is the optimal amount per meal for most people, whereas larger amounts of lower quality proteins, at least more than 30g and 40 calories, would be required for a similar muscle response."

“The practical implications of this are that maximising protein dose, or protein efficiency, is what enables greater flexibility in product development, because it reduces the impact of taste, costs and calories. This is what drives behaviour in consumers, determines product success and elicits the health benefits the industry is expected to deliver,” concludes Leser.

As the perception of muscle is about to completely shift, so is the perception of whey protein, suggests Morgan: “Whilst consumers have been desensitised to the benefits of whey protein because of its association with muscle building, all information points to a successful repositioning. As knowledge of its wide health properties and proven benefits to ageing muscles is fast expanding, the important message of protein efficacy will start to resonate on both a functional and emotional level with all consumers wanting to get more for their health.”